Friday 17 May 2013

The Importance of Preemptive Strikes

Israel's recent double strike on Syrian weapons storage facilities has, once again, raised the issue of the validity of preemptive strikes.  Israel has used this tactic on more than a number of previous occasions, has already struck Syria already a few times this year.  There are those who go as far as attributing Israel's continued existence to the fact that she has been prepared to go out and defend herself even before the attack materialises.

The issue of preemptive strikes as a defense mechanism to counter a potential threat has a number of inherent problems attached to it, particularly when this encroaches on the sovereign territory of another country.  Firstly, there is always the question as to whether the perceived threat is real and credible.  We saw the consequences of a bad call on the perceived threat when it was revealed that intelligence information was incorrect prior to the Second Gulf War.  This dogged both Tony Blair and George W. Bush until the end of their respective tenures, and continues to dog them in their personal capacities to this day.  Secondly, there is the question as to whether one sovereign country has the right to attack another sovereign country in defense of itself even where the threat is sure.  It could easily be argued that there is an element of hypocrisy in this concept.  Does it make a difference if the perceived threat is not an immediate one, but rather a perceived future threat?  This is the case with Israel's strikes in Syria last week, where the rationale for the strike was that Hezbollah may use these arms against Israel at an undetermined time in the future.  There are no firm answers to these questions, and the international community has historically judged such deeds on the basis of the parties involved, rather than the act.  On this occasion, Israel succeeded in capitalising on the negative views currently held by the international community towards Syria and Hezbollah, and escaped with little or no censure by the international community - something quite rare for Israeli attacks.  But this has not always been the case in the past.

Israel, a small island located in a sea of aggressive and hateful enemies, has been forced to employ the tactic of preemptive strikes in order to survive.  Some of Israel's most famous and important victories - most notably that in the Six Day War - were achieved by surprising the enemy before they were able to inflict damage.  The Egyptian air force was destroyed while on the ground in 1967.  This surely paved the way for the famous Israeli victory.  Israel was roundly criticised for sending its air force aeroplanes to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor site in Iraq in 1981.  It was only many years later in 2005 that President Clinton finally acknowledged for the first time that the strike on Osirak by Israel was a "really good thing".  Similarly, the strike on the Syrian nuclear facility that was carried out by Israel in 2007, attracted criticism from Mohamed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Imagine if the civil war in Syria being waged at this time involved the added concern of nuclear weapons.  With the benefit of hindsight, the Israeli strike in 2007 has potentially saved massive consequences.

These historical experiences also put a context to the ongoing standoff with Iran concerning the development of its own nuclear facilities.  A preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would be much more difficult, and would have far greater consequences than the ones carried out against Iraq and Syria.  Both of the previous attacks solicited no military response at all.  This miraculous escape, after catching each of these countries off guard, is highly unlikely in the Iranian context.  It is almost assured that any attempt to carry out a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities would include a substantial response.  It is for this reason that Israel has tried using different tactics against Iran, including mounting a concerted campaign to assassinate key personnel employed in the Iranian nuclear industry and using cyber warfare to destroy software and hardware in use by the Iranian nuclear facilities.  Until now, these tactics have served to slow the processes down at best, and have not been effective in halting Iran's march towards becoming a nuclear power.  Israel is still considering a game-changing strike that will kill off Iran's nuclear push once and for all.  The threat posed by a retaliation to such a strike is surely much lower than the threat presented by a nuclear Iran.  Despite this fact, the threat presented by retaliation is substantial.

While not completely invincible, Israel's military and intelligence establishments have proven themselves over and over again.  Mistakes have certainly been made, but reports of potential threats which are reported by these organisations are always taken seriously by the Israeli government.  This is based on its amazing track record of getting things right more often than getting them wrong, and managing to sniff out information in a seemingly impossible way.  The way that the Israeli organisations work seems somehow to be different and more effective than similar intelligence agencies elsewhere in the world.  A potential threat to Israel which is reported by Israeli intelligence will almost certainly be taken seriously.  Equally, the Israeli intelligence community is well aware of the importance of the advice that they offer, and the consequences of giving bad advice or making mistakes.

It seems highly unlikely that Israel will reverse its tactic of preemptive strikes against enemies in the near future.  This tactic which has proved very effective in the past, and critical to Israel's survival. Despite the fact that a great deal of Israel's focus is on defense rather than attack, as evidenced by new developments such as the Iron Dome, the tactic of attack is often the best form of defense.  Despite this fact, we all wish to believe that this will always be used sparingly and very cautiously.  Ultimately, however, it is one of the ways that Israel will be able to maintain any superiority over its enemy neighbours around the Middle East.  If attacks and threats against Israel persist, Israel will be forced to employ measures to protect herself.  These measures include preemptive tactics to prevent the possibility of attacks taking place, and to prevent loss of innocent lives.  Extreme circumstances demand extreme measures.  It would be difficult to argue that Israel is not living under extreme circumstances.

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