Israel to watch North Korea crisis closely for spillover effects
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In serious strategic calculations, the "Samson Option" refers not to any visceral, last-resort spasm of vengeance against an existential enemy, but rather to a very specific set of coherent threats and operational processes. These carefully fashioned threats and processes are designed to enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence. Accordingly, now that the United States is in the midst of a more-or-less protracted nuclear crisis with North Korea, Jerusalem should begin to "think Samson."

Why should Israel concern itself with events in Northeast Asia? Although seemingly counterintuitive, there could be substantial nuclear "spillovers" from that distant region to the Middle East. More precisely, because a nuclear exchange in any one part of the world could influence nuclear war calculations elsewhere, this means, for Israel, conceptualizing or reconceptualizing the prospective role of any Israeli Samson Option.

Whatever this option's selected nuances, its key objective must be to help keep Israel alive, not merely to keep the Jewish State from dying alone.

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"Samson" is all about better strategic dissuasion. The primary point of Israel's nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post. Israel's presumed nuclear strategy, while not yet articulated in any precise or public fashion, is correctly oriented toward nuclear war avoidance, not toward nuclear war fighting.

 

At its core, the Samson Option references a deterrence doctrine based upon an implicit threat of overwhelming nuclear retaliation for certain expected enemy aggressions. Such correlating doctrine would reasonably enter into force only where relevant aggressions had credibly threatened Israel's physical existence.

As a potentially useful element of strategic communication, the basic message of any Samson Option must be uniform and consistent. Always, it should signal the stated or unstated promise of a counter-city ("counter value") nuclear reprisal. It should deliberately not signal an adversary regarding the availability of any intentionally graduated Israeli nuclear deterrent. In this connection, the Samson Option is not likely to deter any aggressions short of nuclear and/or large-scale biological first strikes.

“Samson’s” overriding rationale must be to bring the following clear message to all pertinent potential attackers: "Israel may sometime have to accept mega-destructive attacks, but it surely won't allow itself to 'die with the Philistines,' or become the one to suffer utterly dire consequences." By emphasizing this distinctly symmetrical magnitude of harms, the Samson Option could serve Israel as a specific adjunct to nuclear deterrence, and also to certain corresponding preemption options.

The Samson Option, however, could never expectedly protect Israel as a fully comprehensive nuclear strategy unto itself.

The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel's more generalized or "broad spectrum" nuclear strategy, one which systematically seeks to maximize deterrence at recognizably less apocalyptic levels of military engagement.

Some further derivative questions arise. How can the Samson Option best serve Israel's overall strategic requirements? Although the primary mission of Israel's still undisclosed nuclear weapons must be to preserve the Jewish State — not to wreak havoc upon bitter foes when all else is lost — conspicuous preparations for a Samson Option could improve both Israel's nuclear deterrence and preemption capabilities.

Concerning Israeli nuclear deterrence, visible preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince involved enemy states that aggression would not be gainful. This is especially plausible if Israeli Samson weapons were coupled with some level of nuclear disclosure (i.e., ending Israel's longstanding posture of nuclear ambiguity); were to appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first strikes and were plainly "counter-city" in declared mission function.

In view of what nuclear strategists sometimes refer to as the "rationality of pretended irrationality," Samson could also assist Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a more tangible Israeli willingness to take critical existential risks.

To a manifestly variable and possibly bewildering extent, the nuclear deterrence benefits of "pretended irrationality" could depend upon prior enemy state awareness of Israel's counter-city targeting posture. Such a posture had been expressly recommended more than 13 years ago by the private "Project Daniel Group” in its confidential report to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In reference to needed strategies of preemption, Israeli preparations for a Samson Option, explicitly recognizable and not just sotto voce, could convince Israel's own leadership that certain defensive first strikes would be net gainful. These Israeli leaders would expect that such conventional preemptive strikes, known as "anticipatory self-defense" under binding international law, could be undertaken with reassuringly reduced expectations of unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations.

Among other things, this expectation would depend upon assorted prior Israeli decisions on nuclear disclosure; Israeli perceptions of the effects of such disclosure on enemy retaliatory intentions; Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability and presumed enemy awareness of Samson's counter-city force posture.

As in the case above concerning Samson and Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable last-resort nuclear preparations could sometime enhance Israel's preemption options by underscoring a singularly bold national willingness to take existential risks.

But pretended irrationality, as U.S. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE might himself discover in any upcoming nuclear dealings with North Korea, could become a double-edged sword. Always, Israeli leaders must remain mindful of this "rebound effect." After all, brandished too "irrationally," Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could unwittingly encourage enemy preemptions.

Left to themselves, neither deterred nor preempted, certain Arab/Islamic enemies of Israel (especially after any U.S.-North Korean nuclear exchange) could convincingly threaten to bring the Jewish State face-to-face with the dreadfully familiar torments of Dante's Inferno: "Into the eternal darkness, into fire, into ice."

Such a portentous scenario has been made even more probable by the latest geostrategic strengthening of Iran. As revealed in mid-August 2017 by Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, Iran is incrementally replacing a steadily-diminishing ISIS in parts of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

One enemy's loss is another enemy's gain. Based on presumed zero-sum power distributions between a Sunni terror group and a Shiite terror state — the latter increasingly augmented by its principal Shiite terror group proxy, Hezbollah — Jerusalem will need to plan its evolving nuclear strategy with a markedly wider analytic view.

At some point, moreover, prospectively ominous intersections between a U.S.-North Korean war and an expanding Iran-Hezbollah offensive could create unprecedented perils for Israel.

In extremis atomicum, these synergistic hazards would likely become so unique and formidable that employing a Samson Option could represent the best available strategic option for Israel.   

Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University. Beres' lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism and international law. He is the author of several books, including, "Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy," which was published in 2016  by Rowman & Littlefield.


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