International Anarchy

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2003

Has Israel’s security been enhanced by the recent coalition victory in the war against Iraq? In one sense, the answer is clearly no. The reason is to be found in the nature of the international political system, a system often described as "international anarchy."

Since there is no common superior to the states that make up the international system, each state is necessarily the arbiter of its own security needs. In the jargon of international relations theory, the international arena is said to be a "self-help" system. Self-help may include anything from building up military forces and preemptive war to forming alliances and/or relying on collective/cooperative institutions such as the United Nations. Since the coalition victory in Iraq did not displace international anarchy, Israel and Israel alone must determine what constitutes security for the Jewish state.

But in another sense, Israel’s security has improved as a result of what transpired recently in Iraq. The reasons have to do with both the military balance and changes in the geopolitics of the region. While both are of great consequence, the latter is particularly critical.

Israel’s conventional military dilemma traditionally has arisen from a combination of two factors: first, the existence of numerous enemies in the region whose potential cooperation always meant that the Jewish state would usually face a multi-front threat during a war; second, a lack of "strategic depth."

Before 1967, Israel’s enemies could start a war with their forces standing within nine miles of the sea along much of the length of the Jewish state. Before 1967, Syrian artillerymen at the start of a war could look down from the Golan on Israeli towns in the Galilee.

Israel marginally improved its strategic depth by seizing the Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan, and the Sinai in 1967, which subsequently has reverted to Egypt. Now, the so-called "road map" for Middle East peace will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and a return of the Golan Heights to Syria. These steps will remove what little strategic depth Israel currently has.

But from the standpoint of conventional military power, Israel’s problem of strategic depth is offset by its relative military power, which has been enhanced by the coalition’s removal of Iraq from the military balance picture in the Middle East. While Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, backed by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, may still possess a numerical advantage over Israel, both in terms of raw population and military formations, Israel remains the dominant conventional military power in the region. By some counts, the IDF can field 19 army divisions with some 4000 main battle tanks to defend itself against attack. Because of its large pool of seasoned pilots, who fly modified versions of the US-built F-15 and F-16 fighters, the Jewish state can generate more air sorties per day than other countries with an air force of comparable size.

Yet Israel’s conventional military edge is not merely the sum of tanks and aircraft at its disposal. As four previous wars have proven, Arab armies are no match for the IDF in a conventional war. The reason for this is what the 19th century Prussian "philosopher of war" Carl von Clausewitz called non-quantifiable "moral" factors, e.g. morale, lan, leadership and the like. The IDF has far surpassed its adversaries in such important determinants of success in war.

But as the terrorist attacks that have wracked Israel in recent years illustrate, Israel’s main security problem does not arise from the conventional threat, but from the intifada, which is an example of "asymmetric warfare" designed to avoid an adversary’s strength.

The IDF has been able to disrupt terrorist operations by striking terrorist sanctuaries in Gaza and the West Bank, but has not been able to prevent them altogether. It is this state of affairs that the coalition victory in Iraq may well rectify, by changing the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.

By destroying the Taliban in Afghanistan, thereby beginning the process of extirpating the al Qaeda terrorist network, the US sent a powerful message to the world—that an enemy of the US cannot find sanctuary in a failed state. This message was enhanced when America projected devastating power half way around the globe to topple Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist dictatorship.

Many opponents of the use of force against the Taliban and Iraq predicted that these steps by the US would lead to an increase in the number of terror attacks and an "explosion" of the "Arab street." Neither prediction has come to pass. On the contrary, al Qaeda is struggling and the "Arab street" is quiescent.

This outcome seems to vindicate the view of those who believe that it is not the exercise of power that leads to terrorism but the perception of weakness. As Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once observed, political solutions to terrorism lead to more terrorism because they create the incentive to demand more concessions. Conversely, the overthrow of Saddam might change the psychology of Arabs who believe that terrorism is a practical way of achieving political goals by convincing them that Saddam’s way is the path to destruction.

The proper response to terror is the destruction of the terrorists and their sanctuaries. By demonstrating that it will take action against terrorists, the states that harbor them, and potential supporters of terrorist networks, the US has changed the geopolitical landscape in the Greater Middle East in a way that can only benefit Israel. No longer can Palestinian terrorists look to Saddam’s Iraq for support. Their influence will decline relative to those among the Palestinian Arabs who wish to live in peace, and this will make it more likely that Jews and Arabs may achieve a lasting peace in the region.

Three points should be noted.

First, the situation in Iraq is still fluid. If the US does not take the steps necessary to convert military victory into political success, any hope for benefits will remain illusory. This is the lesson of the first Gulf War in 1991.

Secondly, although the security of Israel may be enhanced by the coalition victory in Iraq, the war was not undertaken to benefit Israel, a charge that has become a staple of the Arab press as well as political journalism emanating from both the Right and the Left in the US and Europe.

The idea that Saddam had to be disarmed, by force if necessary, has a bipartisan pedigree that long antedates the Bush administration. For obvious reasons, it gained impetus as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks against the US.

Finally, all this having been said, Israel remains the arbiter of its security needs.

Although I happen to believe that the security of the Jewish state has been improved by the coalition victory in Iraq, and that Israel therefore probably can afford to make short-term concessions in the interest of long-term security, any such concessions must be based on prudential considerations of power. As Israelis understand, a small state does not have much room for error.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.