Conflict Avoidance

President Obama's National Security Strategy aims to prevent the emergence of wars. So why won't the White House get behind its own strategy?

On Friday, Nov. 29, President Barack Obama released a letter to congressional leaders which he wrote to "inform you of my intent to release a new National Security Strategy in early 2014." The National Security Strategy (NSS) was first required as part of the Goldwater-Nichols defense reorganization legislation of 1986. The law mandated that the president submit an annual report to Congress outlining U.S. national security interests, goals, and objectives, as well as the adequacy of capabilities to achieve them. (Since 2002, presidents have submitted them every four years.) The NSS is intended to provide strategic yet prioritized guidance from which national security agencies base their own guidance documents, budgets, directives, and policies. For the Pentagon, this includes the National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy, Guidance for the Employment of the Forces, and others. But this theoretical flow of guidance documents is rarely indicative of how things work in practice. One very senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration told me that he never saw the infamous "preemptive war" NSS of 2002 before it appeared on the White House's website.

To be fair, there's a lot to read. Because each NSS is frankly too long -- the first comprehensive one developed under President Ronald Reagan was 41 pages; the latest was 52 pages -- they tend to be remembered (if at all) for one or two notable highlights. For example, Obama's 2010 NSS was characterized by analysts as the anti-Bush strategy, which highlighted America's restraint in the world and renewed partnerships with friends and allies. The last paragraph under the "Invest in the Capacity of Strong and Capable Partners" section on page 27 declared the objective: "Prevent the Emergence of Conflict." This includes a few generalized goals that "will help us diminish military risk, act before crises and conflicts erupt, and ensure that governments are better able to serve their people."

Conflict prevention's placement as a policy goal deep within the NSS, and the lack of specificity about how this is pursued, says a lot about how the U.S. government thinks about preventing future wars. In a major speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2009, President Obama asserted: "one of the best ways to lead our troops wisely is to prevent the conflicts that cost American blood and treasure tomorrow." However, as debates about future roles and missions unfold, the military's theory and practice of conflict prevention remains as under-prioritized and under-developed as in 2009. President Obama should elevate the importance of conflict prevention in the next NSS, and the military should act accordingly in terms of future strategies, training, education, and doctrine.

The common refrain one hears from military officials is that the mere presence of U.S. forces in any given region has a stabilizing effect, and deters the outbreak or escalation of conflict. Of course, this assumption is subjective depending on the intended audience's interpretation. Consider the Pentagon's reaction to China's unexpected and confusing declaration of an Air Defense Identification (ADIZ) that extends over disputed territories in the East China Sea. In response, a U.S. official soon announced: "We will ensure our view of how the U.S. operates in that area is clear. At some point there will be something to demonstrate that." It didn't take long. Just days later, the United States flew two unarmed B-52s through the ADIZ without informing China. U.S. military officials understandably contend that such routine flights are intended to assure its ally Japan, and emphasize the principle of free navigation in open seas or airspace. Of course, Chinese officials might perceive these moves as an aggressive escalatory response to Beijing's announcement, which itself followed Japan's own ADIZ declaration.

The potential for misperception in the East China Sea is heightened by what little insights Pentagon officials have into Chinese military thinking and decision making, despite years of military exchanges. As Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently acknowledged of his Chinese counterparts: "What their motives are, ambitions are, I wouldn't even pretend to guess those." The B-52 flights are known as Phase Zero, or "shaping" operations, "to dissuade or deter potential adversaries and to assure or solidify relationships with friends and allies." Yet, Welsh's admission gets to a core dilemma in preventing an outbreak of hostilities: How can the U.S. military influence the opinion of Chinese leaders, if it does not know their motivations?

Beyond "shaping" regional environments, there are a range of discrete programs that military officials count toward preventing conflict: training of foreign military officers within the United States, conducting joint training exercises, and other capacity building efforts for partner and neutral country's militaries. Much of this falls under the broad umbrella of geographic combatant commands' (COCOMs) theater security cooperation plans. According to many COCOM officials and staffers, these are often developed and implemented without due sensitivity to specific sources or "drivers" of instability or conflict, namely what triggers could lead to an outbreak of hostilities. Of course, no one's infallible: A fitting example of how these programs can backfire is Gen. Amadou Sanogo, who, in 2012, led a coup in Mali after participating in several military education training programs in the United States.

The first step to rectifying the U.S. military's under appreciation for conflict prevention is for President Obama to provide a clear statement of support near the top of the 2014 NSS. Without reframing U.S. national security around anticipating, preventing, and mitigating conflicts that bear on U.S. interests, the military cannot undertake corresponding changes in its own strategic guidance documents. Of course, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are lead actors in "upstream" prevention, but only the military has the funding, personnel, planning capacity, geographic reach, and relationships with foreign security officials to have an immediate impact on the ground.

There also needs to be further prioritization of conflict prevention in military doctrine and directives. For example, there is a Pentagon directive for stability operations (number 3000.05) that mandates: "Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct with proficiency equivalent to combat operations." This sentence, first published in 2005, signaled to all military agencies the importance of stability operations, and outlined the 83 specific tasks that are supposed to be developed and implemented in a coherent manner. There is no comparable directive for conflict prevention, but if defense leaders believe preventing conflict is as important as winning wars, there should be.

Conflict prevention should also be a point of emphasis in the professional military education system. You won't find Barnett Rubin's 2002 classic, Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action on the course list at West Point. Nothing analogous to the subject is offered at service academies or universities. You will not see conflict prevention or mitigation publications on the professional military reading lists of the service chiefs or combatant commanders. I've reviewed master's theses written by mid-career officers -- often a predictor of emerging themes and missions in the military-- and there are none on this topic. Without developing a body of knowledge and policy-relevant recommendations, the military's preventive programs will be based on untested assumptions and inadequate information, which appears to be the case with regards to China.

Finally, there should be a continued focus on closer interagency cooperation in preventive action. U.S. government agencies have come a long way in recognizing and forcing collaboration and coordination in the field. For example, COCOM theater security cooperation plans are often developed in conjunction with ambassadors' country plans, and every geographic COCOM deputy is a civilian. Yet, making prevention-related communities in different government agencies work together requires constant attention and encouragement.

There is also the rarely stated dilemma of allowing ambassadors and civilian officials greater insight into the "black" Special Operations forces that operate within their regions or country. If the future warfighting is -- as Pentagon officials contend -- one where Navy SEALS and Army Delta teams conduct small-footprint lethal operations against suspected adversaries, then civilian officials must have more routine insights into what those operations are. As things stand, many retired ambassadors lament special operations actions. They've told me, in so many words, the same thing: "We don't really know what they do, but we deal with the aftermath."

In May 2011,  the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, emphasized:

The reason I've been in the military my whole life is try to prevent wars.... I think that is a noble goal that all of us should seek, to end wars and prevent wars as much as possible...we work hard to try to be engaged globally in a way that is preventive in nature, so that wars won't take place in the future.

Mullen's passion for peace is echoed by many general officers, who have experienced first-hand the brutal costs and consequences of war. And while they recognize the importance of preventing conflicts that could bear on U.S. national interests, they also convey that it must be a priority for the White House first to get increased attention, and that they need a lot of help thinking about this issue. After a dozen years of warfare, and subsequent focus on counterterrorism, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, it is time to place conflict prevention at the forefront of objectives for the military.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Micah Zenko

The Real Nuclear Option

Why Israel might nuke Iran to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. Seriously.

This weekend's interim Joint Plan of Action between the P5+1 countries and Iran over its nuclear program was met with skepticism and hostility from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet. The divergence of the Israeli leadership's perception of the nuclear agreement from that of its close U.S. ally is understandable and expected given the differing threat perceptions the two countries hold over a prospective Iranian bomb. Subsequently, these officials emphasized three points in their public reactions: the agreement is, in Netanyahu's words, a "historic mistake" that makes the world a "much more dangerous place"; Israel is not obligated to accept its terms; and Israel retains the right to attack -- as Netanyahu's spokesperson termed it -- "the Iranian military nuclear program," with all of Israel's military capabilities.

Like many other national security analysts, I have followed the developments in Iran's civilian nuclear program closely for the past two decades, parsing the comments of Iranian and U.S. officials and combing through leaked or declassified intelligence assessments and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly reports. I have witnessed or participated in war games that simulate a political/military crisis over Iran's nuclear program, and I've interviewed planners about how the U.S. military envisions a range of joint U.S.-Israeli or unilateral moves and contingencies with Iran that might be triggered, escalated, or culminated. (All of this supplemented, of course, with countless op-eds and analytical pieces from wonks, academics, and former officials.)

What never ceases to amaze in these discussions is the total omission of Israel's nuclear weapons in U.S. policy debates about confronting Iran. There is an unspoken understanding that Israel's bombs are an option best left off the table, even as Israeli officials routinely hint at missions where they would be used -- specifically for deterrence or to threaten deeply buried targets in Iran. This tacit agreement within Washington policy circles of focusing on Iran's nonexistent nuclear bombs, while consciously ignoring Israel's actual nuclear arsenal (which is itself directly pertinent to discussions about Iran), should be retired, especially as a more comprehensive solution between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom -- plus Germany) is pursued in the coming months.

Israeli officials provide several theories for what Iran would do with nuclear weapons: transfer them to terrorists groups, increase its support for proxy groups, and even coerce the world with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The most commonly asserted objective, however, was offered by Netanyahu to an American television audience in early October: "Everybody knows that Iran wants to destroy Israel and it's building, trying to build, atomic bombs for that purpose."

U.S. policymakers echo this dire depiction. Recently, on the Senate floor, Sen. Lindsey Graham claimed: "If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, the first target will be Israel." And in September, Graham asserted without any irony: "The last place in the world you want nuclear weapons is the Mideast. Why? People over there are crazy." Let's put aside for a moment his indelicate slurring of the mental health of 500 million people. Not only did he forget or consciously ignore the one regional nuclear weapons power, but he omitted the 60 to 70 B61 bombs that the United States still maintains at the Incirlik air base in Turkey. More importantly, however, he entirely discounts the possibility of rational deterrence.

The problem with Netanyahu and Graham's scenario is that Iran would face an immediate and massive nuclear retaliation from Israel. The ability of Israel to reliably threaten Iranian military capabilities and population centers forms the deterrence calculus that would prevent leaders in Tehran from authorizing such a suicidal atomic bolt from the blue.

Israel has had operationally deployable nuclear weapons since 1967, when then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol reportedly ordered the assembly of two crude nuclear devices that could be raced on trucks toward the border with Egypt if Arab armies overwhelmed Israel's defenses. When asked directly about the existence of its nuclear arsenal, Israeli officials repeat the policy position that "we won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." Historian Avner Cohen described this strategy of amimut -- Hebrew for "opacity" or "ambiguity" -- as having evolved piecemeal over the decades to provide Israel with the benefits of nuclear deterrence while avoiding the consequences or obligations of being a nuclear power.

Despite Tel Aviv's long-standing refusal to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal, there remains little ambiguity about the arsenal's composition or its delivery vehicles. It is estimated that Israel has approximately 80 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to build at least 200 more. These nuclear warheads are believed to have explosive yields from 1 kiloton to 200 kilotons (and everything in between). These can be delivered by a nuclear triad of F-16 fighter-bombers, Jericho III ballistic missiles, and diesel-powered Dolphin-class submarines supplied and heavily subsidized by Germany. As Israeli Maj. Gen. Avraham Botzer noted when the submarines were first ordered: "They are a way of guaranteeing that the enemy will not be tempted to strike pre-emptively with nonconventional weapons and get away scot-free."

If you are wondering about the devastating impact Israel's bomb could have on Iran, enter "Tehran" into the nuclear-weapons effects website Nukemap, created by nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein. It is unlikely that Israel could wipe Iran off the face of the Earth, but it could certainly kill millions of Iranians, given that 70 percent of Iran's 80 million people live in dense urban areas. In a grim article in the May 2013 issue of Conflict and Health, researchers estimated that five Israeli 100-kiloton bombs would kill 43 percent of the 8.3 million people living in Tehran; meanwhile, two theoretical Iranian 15-kiloton bombs would kill 17 percent of everyone in Tel Aviv. (These estimates are consistent with the catastrophic human consequences of regional nuclear exchanges modeled in prior peer-reviewed articles.)

The recognition of Israel's nuclear capabilities will continue to matter over the next six months because, if we are to take Tel Aviv seriously, Israel could undertake a unilateral military attack against Iran's known nuclear facilities. Should the IAEA's outstanding questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program go unaddressed, or access to sensitive sites remain restricted, there are intentionally ambiguous undefined conditions under which Israel might attack Iran, with or without the United States. For example, Iran's Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant could be one target of an Israeli nuclear weapon. Fordow is a uranium-enrichment facility located beneath 60 to 80 meters of granite near the city of Qom. The facility at Fordow, according to Iran's declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is designed to contain up to 2,976 IR-1 centrifuges in 16 cascades. The Institute for Science and International Security has estimated that this set-up could produce one bomb's worth -- or "significant quantity" -- of highly enriched uranium per year.

In August, Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister for international affairs, strategy, and intelligence, claimed that Iran's uranium-enrichment facilities can be "destroyed with brute force," which he described as "a few hours of airstrikes, no more." Yaakov Amidror, who recently stepped down as national security advisor, asserted this month that Israel can "stop the Iranians for a very long time." Asked whether this includes Iran's deeply buried nuclear installations, he responded, "including everything."

Most U.S. government and nongovernmental experts in weaponeering effects disagree with Amidror. They have concluded that Israel's conventional air-dropped bombs cannot penetrate the bedrock to reliably destroy the centrifuges located within Fordow. Moreover, both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations have refused to provide Israel with the Pentagon's largest (and recently further improved) conventional bunker-buster bomb, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. Respected defense reporter David Fulghum quoted an anonymous U.S. defense specialist as saying, "Right now the Israeli capability against deeply buried targets is not much more than a noise-level effect." Given Israel's inability to deliver what one U.S. official termed "a knockout blow" against well-defended nuclear sites like Fordow with conventional bombs, a low-yield nuclear weapon could be the only viable alternative for a unilateral Israeli strike.

In August 2012, then-Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote a revealing piece that asked why U.S. reporters track every development in Iran's nuclear program but never mention Israel's nuclear arsenal: "Going back 10 years into Post archives, I could not find any in-depth reporting on Israeli nuclear capabilities." To be fair to the Post, if you look for such featured pieces in other major media outlets, you also will not find them. For example, according to LexisNexis, since Jan. 1, 2000, "Iran" and "nuclear" appear in New York Times headlines 603 times; "Israel" and "nuclear" appear 21 times. (Over that same time period, New York Times headlines also mention "nuclear" with Russia 86 times, with China 52 times, and with Pakistan 48 times.) One reason for this was offered by nuclear scholar George Perkovich: "It's like all things having to do with Israel and the United States. If you want to get ahead, you don't talk about it; you don't criticize Israel; you protect Israel."

Having written critically about Israel's nuclear weapons policies, I have never experienced any distinct career retaliation or condemnation. My impression is that refraining from discussing Israel's bombs is more a self-imposed constraint than a socially constructed taboo in the D.C.-centered foreign-policy world. Moreover, I have found Israeli policymakers and analysts much more willing than their American counterparts to talk about (if not explicitly name) the impact that Israel's nuclear arsenal has on its regional relations and to explore under what conditions that policy of amimut may no longer make strategic or political sense.

Either Israel's nuclear capabilities play no role vis-à-vis strategies to prevent an Iran from acquiring a bomb, in which case why have them at all, or they matter in terms of the missions they support, in which case they should be open for discussion.

David Silverman/Getty Images