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By Louis René Beres


The Montréal Review, February 2018


Image: David Parkins (www.davidparkins.com), The Economist


"Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind....Usually, they have wreaked havoc."

                                                                          Sigmund Freud 1


          "Normally," an irrational US presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be assessed exclusively from an American national security standpoint. Today, however, whenever consequential nuclear decisions are made in Washington, they are bound to resonate meaningfully around the world, including Jerusalem. Plainly, the plausible expectation of intersecting strategic outcomes between the United States and Israel would become especially serious if it were to involve any irrational firing of American nuclear weapons.2

          As a matter of definition, such firing must be distinguished from any unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. In essence, an irrational event would involve a willful presidential order to fire despite the US leader's anticipation of grievously catastrophic reprisals. To be sure, there are identifiable circumstances in which even such a "crazy" order might still be rational -  more specifically, circumstances wherein the expected costs of not firing would exceed those costs of firing - but simply allowing such dire circumstances in the first place would be difficult to imagine.

          Apropos of these concerns, what could actually happen? For any such complex calculations, pertinent details are immediately required. In one conceivable scenario, an irrational U.S. presidential attack against a still-nuclearizing Iran -  one that would likely be defended by President Donald Trump as "anticipatory self-defense"3 - could  produce highly destructive prompt retaliations against Israel. In addition, or perhaps even instead of any such immediate responses, Iran could (1) generate assorted long-term and incremental reprisals, and/or (2) incentivize both state and sub-state allies (e.g., Hezbollah) to join collaboratively in the reprisals.

          In the end, these are not primarily legal or jurisprudential matters. This is not meant to suggest that any characterizations of a preemptive American attack as anticipatory self-defense would necessarily be inappropriate, but only that Jerusalem should be primarily focused here upon genuinely core matters of Israel's national survival. Moreover, the cascading harms that any instance of US decisional irrationality could sometime bring upon Israel might also be "synergistic."

          By definition, this means that the cumulative "whole" of any such harms to Israel would exceed the simple sum of its separate "parts."

          Now, back to relevant detail. In the exercise of US nuclear command authority, as is already generally known,4 the so-called "two man rule" of redundant nuclear safeguards does not apply at the highest or presidential level. And while it is increasingly under active discussion by certain concerned persons in the uniquely problematic Trump Era, fears of presidential irrationality have thus far been expressed only in surreptitious whispers, sometimes almost inaudibly, or sotto voce.

          This generally tacit refusal to confront head-on an issue of stunningly overriding importance is perilous, to say the least, but all the more so during the next several months or years, when President Trump can expect to be tested repeatedly by Pyongyang. At some point, the US commander-in-chief  could have to make various time-urgent decisions concerning North Korea's steadily expanding military nuclearization. In this regard, Jerusalem will need to "stay tuned."

           There is more. There are certain expected and irremediable methodological hindrances at work. Above all, Israeli military planners will need to understand that attaching any scientifically meaningful assessments of probability to useful predictions of US presidential irrationality is just not "technically" possible. Always, principal forecasting thinkers should then be reminded: Scientific affirmations of probability must be based upon a conspicuously determinable frequency of pertinent past events.

          Significantly, however, there have been no pertinent past events.

          It is, of course, cumulatively good news that there have as yet been no clear examples of an American president making irrational decisions about U.S. nuclear weapons. But even this alleged "good news" may not be entirely straightforward. During the Cuban missile crisis, then President John F. Kennedy ordered his "quarantine" of Cuba (a euphemism or diplomatically sanitized alternative to "blockade," which is traditionally a casus bellum) with an apparently full awareness of corresponding risks. More precisely, according to Theodore Sorensen, his biographer, JFK seemingly believed that even his intentionally softened escalatory response would carry portentous odds of an ensuing nuclear war with the USSR - odds, he noted, that were "between one out of three, and even."

          Although we now know that any such estimate was necessarily without any authentically scientific foundation, what matters most is that JFK himself believed in these ominously high odds.

          Thus, a curious but indispensable question arises. Was JFK actually acting irrationally about unprecedented nuclear matters in October 1962? Was his declared "quarantine" perhaps a genuine instance of nuclear decisional irrationality, one that turned out to have been well-crafted and successful only by sheer happenstance or dint of circumstance, including Nikita Khrushchev's abundant and commendable caution?  

          Or was it rather an example of what I call, in my own most recent book, the "rationality of pretended irrationality?"5 And isn't this exactly the thinking that Israeli COGS and Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan had in mind when he allegedly once urged: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother."

          If actually a deliberate "rationality of pretended irrationality" move, President Kennedy was playing a carefully calculated game of strategy in 1962, much like the game of  "Chicken" once played with automobiles by assorted teen-aged delinquents. In Chicken, where the contestants drive toward each other at high speed, the objective of each player is plainly twofold: (1) not to be chicken, but also (2) not to be dead.

          In offering an informed answer here, permit this writer two personal anecdotes.

          First, regarding McNamara's widely-reported post-crisis apprehensions of an "Armageddon scenario" over Cuba, I once had a face-to-face occasion to ask the former US Defense Chief about these reports. That was back in the Fall of 1967, during a small academic conference at Princeton. Sitting next to me at dinner, in the Nassau Inn, McNamara had responded to my unambiguously direct query with a repetitive nod of his head, and the aptly simple remark, "I wouldn't want to experience that again. Ever."

          Those were his exact words.

          Second, regarding President Kennedy's alleged assignment of very high odds to his 1962 quarantine announcement, Sorensen reported that JFK had made this seat-of-the-pants assessment only after telephoning Admiral Arleigh Burke, a former Chairman of the US JCS. When, in 1977, I became Admiral Burke's roommate for several days in Annapolis, at the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, or NAFAC (where Burke and I were serving co-chairs of  panels on "The Use of Force"), I explicitly asked him about Sorensen's recorded probability numbers. Without any hesitation, the Admiral replied that the Kennedy biographer had reported Burke's telephone response to Kennedy accurately.

          In other words, the young, cool and seemingly unflappable American president may have really accepted up to even odds of global thermonuclear war as the expected result of his enforced "quarantine."

          Still, for Jerusalem, there is yet another reason why forecasting President Trump's upcoming nuclear policy decisions can never be based upon any scientifically-garnered probabilities. The reason is not just a question of being logically unable to assess the odds of any future presidential irrationality involving US nuclear command authority. It is also a matter of Mr. Trump himself being unable to calculate the probable outcomes of any particular nuclear decision that he should sometime make.

          Worth mentioning, too, is that this forecasting constraint has nothing to do with any specifically personal intellectual deficit on this president's part, but only with the obvious absence of pertinent past events. This particular problem is not an ad hominem issue for Israel, but "merely" a daunting methodological artifact.

          If, for example, the American president should sometime seek an "expert" probability assessment or prediction concerning north Korean escalation to nuclear weapons (in the near term, such an escalation could more or less realistically relate to Japan, US forces in the region, and/or to certain already-reachable targets in Alaska or Hawaii), there would be no suitably relevant history for him to draw upon. The same conclusion can now be reached regarding the expected results of any American defensive attack launched against Iran, one where enemy escalatory responses could include not only direct Iranian air attacks on Saudi and Gulf oilfields, but also assorted "indirect" Hezbollah aggressions against Israel.

          Once again, in any such scenario, there would be no opportunity to render a scientifically meaningful estimation of applicable probabilities.

          Returning to the core issue of any prospective U.S. presidential irrationality regarding nuclear weapons, it is conceivable that such consequential missteps could become less likely over time, on the more-or-less logical assumption that experience in office would correlate favorably with increased caution, but that conclusion could offer only a "common sense" reprieve. At best, in fact, it would represent a "tricky" or contrived extrapolation from some earlier historical eras, one wherein the main argument would still have made some sense in a pre-nuclear past. In any event, during any still-upcoming nuclear crisis involving the United States, President Trump would have to strike an optimal balance between the always-unavoidable search for "escalation dominance," and the closely matching need to avoid being locked into any more-or-less desperate sequence of move and countermove.

           Expressed as an appropriately dynamic process, one driven by its own unstoppable inner momentum, this escalatory sequence could create a self-limiting pattern of extrication that would then lead inexorably to either a controlled nuclear exchange or to a full-blown nuclear war. Either immediately or over time, the disparate costs of any such war could severely impact Israel, and perhaps assorted other regional states, as well as the United States itself.

          To be sure, strategic risk-taking can be significantly advantageous up to a point, but figuring out exactly where that critical point should be established is by no means a handily calculable task. Indeed, well-documented histories of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis all seem to agree that the superpowers had then come very close to a very different and authentically calamitous sort of conclusion. Once again, back at Princeton in 1967, I had heard this cautionary conclusion directly from then US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

          Nuclear strategy is a game that various sane national leaders must sometimes learn to play, but never with any reassuringly plausible assurances of probable outcomes. The only way this "probabilistic unpredictability" can change is if, in the years ahead, some actual examples should accumulate of specific nuclear escalations and outcomes. Of course, this sort of accumulation is not something we ever ought to wish for. Instead, it would be far better for us to continue to have to reluctantly concede an incapacity to more reliably "figure the odds" of any nuclear crisis engagement, or any resultant nuclear war.

           It follows from this exceedingly complex dialectic that we can't yet usefully determine just how likely it is that America's unpredictable sitting president would ever give an irrational order to use American nuclear weapons. But scholars can still reasonably advise Mr. Trump and his counselors that unprecedented nuclear dangers lurk not only in sudden "bolt from the blue" enemy attacks, but also in certain unanticipated and uncontrolled forms of nuclear escalation. As far as any pretending irrationality is concerned - a tactic that may or may not have figured importantly in the Cuban Missile Crisis, depending upon one's own particular interpretation of JFK's 1962 strategic calculations - it could rapidly become a double-edged sword for Mr. Trump.

          In those circumstances centered on the Middle East, the self-destructive sword's "edge" could inflict nearly measureless harms, not only upon the United States, but also upon Israel.

          Most purposeless of all would be a President Trump who naively confuses copious bluster and bravado with a genuinely convincing rendition of irrationality. From the start, Donald Trump has persistently hinted at the alleged benefits of his pretending irrationality in foreign relations, but there is yet no compelling evidence that he also understands the corollary requirement of any policy "follow through." No doubt, Moshe Dayan once had a promising point in his own strategic argument that Israel should  be seen as a "mad dog," but it is also credible that he would have strongly favored certain attendant preparations to ensure Jerusalem's "escalation dominance."

          These vital preparations would have been based upon a carefully-prepared and incrementally nuanced "ladder" of sequenced retaliations and counter-retaliations.

          Under certain circumstances, the "rationality of pretended irrationality" tactic could represent a manifestly sane move in the bewilderingly complex game of nuclear strategy, but it must always be undertaken together with various inherent and immutable limitations. Above all, for the foreseeable future, this means fashioning national strategic policies without any substantially precise or scientific estimations of probable outcome. Looking ahead, for Israel, it follows that there can be absolutely no adequate substitute for maximum caution and prudence in every instance of strategic risk-taking. This includes those fearful circumstances triggered by recognizable instances of US presidential irrationality on nuclear decisions.

          Never to be taken lightly, in this regard, is Sigmund Freud's trenchant observation that history remains littered with the corpses of millions spawned by some form or other of national leadership irrationality. And that was before nuclear weapons.


Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books, monographs and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. Recently, a co-authored monograph with General (USA/ret.) Barry McCaffrey (Israel's Nuclear Strategy and America's National Security) was published at Tel Aviv University, Israel. Professor Beres contributes to Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School), The Atlantic; Jurist; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; US News & World Report; The Jerusalem Post; BESA Perspectives (Israel); Yale Global Online; Oxford University Press Blog; The Hill; Daily Princetonian; and The New York Times.


1 From the Introduction to Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study, by Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1967;  p. XVI.

2 Also worrisome, of course, for the United States and many of its allies, especially Israel, would be the firing of American nuclear weapons due to Russian cyber-attacks/cyber-intrusions. In the final analysis, this cyber-war threat is of far greater existential import than any threats of continued meddling in America's elections.

3 For the lawyers, anticipatory self-defense represents a permissible use of force before an enemy attack has already been experienced or absorbed. While the usual national obligation to wait until one's country has actually been struck first is formally codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter, the corollary right of anticipatory self-defense derives entirely from customary international law. All authoritative sources of international law are sequentially identified at Article 38 of the UN's Statute of the International Court of Justice.

4 I first wrote of such U.S. nuclear authority matters in an earlier book,  Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics, The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

5 See especially Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy.


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