Credibility Of Military Threats In Doubt If Waging War Considered Out Of Bounds
By Amir Oren
Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” has some unique features in this continuous-coverage day and age. It is, until the Kiev government changes its mind or some of its irate citizens decide to take measures into their own hands, totally one-sided, with Russia on the offensive and Ukraine on the defensive, no target across the border being hit by missiles, planes, artillery or infantry raid, all easy to accomplish at least as a symbolic show of force and defiance. Within Ukraine’s territory, little or no fighting has been exposed to press and public, only the civilan and humanitarian impact on cities and refugees.
Apparently, the Ukrainian authorities chose the role of victim in a crime perpetrated by Putin. It is a successful tactic, though not necessarily a winning strategy – perhaps parts of the Russian population would have protested their ruler’s whims if the Ukranians responded in kind to what they have suffered. World sympathy is a necessary but far from sufficient ingredient in a combination devised to stop and repel the invaders.
Looking beyond the circumstances of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Putin’s moves, which despite doubts regarding the logic behind them are certainly Russional, based on a Russian rationale, brought into stark relief an issue both political and philosophical – is war, as an instrument of national policy, now obsolete, or is that indeed the rule but it is undercut by the exceptions reserved by its proponents for themselves.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken to using carefully crafted language to describe “the Kremlin’s war”. It is, he claims, “premeditated, unprovoked and unlawful”. Surely, L, as the State Department’s legal shop is abbreviated in internal documents, has put its lawyers to work so as to both collar the Kremlin and leave loopholes for future friendly use.
Catch-2022 is that one cannot avert war without threatening to resort to it. A last resort, for sure, and only one tool in a box which includes diplomacy, economics, energy and information operations. The reluctance to pay the price of open, declared full-scale war has made the Soviets, and until late February the Russians, prefer “the gray zone”, using hackers, mercenaries, advisors and so-called volunteers, under the threshold of war, rather than units in uniforms. Tolstoy would have resisted it as lacking elegance, but an updated title should be “War and Peace and Other Phases In Between”.
The old Strategic Air Command’s motto, Peace Is Our Profession, was not universally acclaimed in the 1960’s, but it did express a wish to avoid the decision to launch B-52’s and silo-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with their nuclear warheads into Soviet airspace. It was defense built on deterrence and deterrence built on decisive power and the belief that decision-makers, having run out of other options, will press the button.
The UN Charter is structured around this contradiction. It aims to delegitimise war while acknowledging that at times it might be justified. The mechanism built to seperate just from unjust wars is the Security Council. Fine in principle, as when World War II Allies fought Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but almost useless when Cold War adversaries cancel each other out by their veto power, the UNSC being a deadlocked government rather than an august Supreme Court.
Chpater VII of the Charter distinguishes, in Article 39, between several situations leading to war – “any threat to peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression”. The whole point of the exercise is to give the mythical beauty pageant notion of world peace priority over any particular country’s grievance against its neighbour. It was that premise which led President Eisenhower, in November 1956, to hold no bars in opposing the Anglo-French-Israeli assault on Egypt. Whatever the merit of their case, he argued, the potential global conflagration due to their military initiative outweighed it.
Correct, but with a caveat. While Article 39 spoke of “measures to maintain or restore international peace and security”, down that Chapter it was noted, in Article 51, that nothing in it “shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations”.
Of course, there’s the rub, or several of them, out of which scholars and practitioners of diplomacy and international law make their living. A Member-State is well defined, which is one reason Israel insists the Palestinian Authority not be conferred this status, but what, exactly, is self-defense, in an age of hair-trigger balance of terror, pre-emptive strikes and settling old scores by new and devastating means?
When Blinken, in a dizzy round of speed-dating to shore up support for the American stand against Putin, publicly promised his UAE counterpart to bolster the Emirates “strong defensive capabilities against threats from Yemen and elsewhere in the region”, it was devoid of precise meaning, and not only because Iran was not named.
The Biden administration is not in the business of issuing counter-threats to that “elsewhere in the region’s” threats. The old “all options on the table” was put in storage, along with the table itself, perhaps until the likes of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo are back in office. Joe Biden does not believe in empty threats. He may not even believe in fuller ones.
For Israel, a “credible military threat” brandished as a big stick behind the soft speaking in Vienna was a major tenet of national security. Without it, a reappraisal of the entire Iranian strategy, drafted by the IDF General Staff with Mossad collaboration, filtered by the National Security Staff and to be approved by the Cabinet, is in order.
Israel has until recently been cross-eyed. Its main problem loomed from the East, but the response was predicated on help from the West. Under the Pentagon’s Unified Command Plan, the European Command, whose Chief also serves as the Commanding General of NATO’s forces, had jurisdiction over it.
This had one basic advantage to Israel, but several accumulated disatvanges. In wartime, on the scale of 1967 or 1973, EUCOM’s assets, from the Sixth Fleet to airlift capacity, were and still are to be committed to Israel’s rescue, if needed. Such wars, however, are not realistic propositions when Egypt’s President Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II are in charge of close military relations with Israel. The IDF is focused on Iran itself and its tentacles in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and the West Bank. All of these entities fall under CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command.
So while some 85-90% of Israel’s operations and plans were conducted in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility or imagined scenarios in it, with only the rest being EUCOM-oriented, American bureaucratic considerations dictated a cumbersome arrangement. IDF’s contacts with CENTCOM, themselves quite a novelty compared to the disconnect which prevailed until a decade or so ago, had to be coordinatec through EUCOM. In addition to the semi-annual ICE (IDF-CENTCOM-EUCOM) conferences, nicknamed Château in honor of the NATO Chief’s HQ in Mons, outside of Brussels, each mundane miltary manoeuvr mandated a middleman.
The previous CENTCOM Commander, US Army 4-Star Joe Votel, was considered very friendly to Israel and its officers’ – especially veterans of Special Forces and Airborne units – buddy, yet his decisions had to be initialled by his Europe-based, and Europe-centric, colleague. When Votel retired, he was replaced by Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie – the Army and Marines, rather than the Air Force and Navy, usually rotate in this slot – who knew the region intimately from his earlier positions at CENTCOM and the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. McKenzie, as aware of Israel’s military and intelligence value – politics aside – as Votel and some of his predecessors (such as future Secretaries of Defense James Mattis and Lloyd Austin) were, set out to break down bureaucratic barriers.
It was to a great extent that he, as the senior American official in the region, overseeing some 20 countries from Tampa, Florida, as well as from his Persian Gulf perch, helped move Israel from EUCOM to CENTCOM, where it joined all of its Asian Arab and Moslem neighbours plus Egypt. It made for common sense and common endeavours.
The EUCOM-CENTCOM transfer is a work in progress, to be completed some 18 months from now, but the benefits are already obvious, with Israeli officers sharing conferences and exercises with opposite numbers from the Arabian Peninsula who are no longer, if they ever were, in opposition to them. An Israel Air Force Major, a Fighter Navigator, has been assigned to the Tampa HQ. In due course, other officers may be attached to regional staffs.
McKenzie’s farewell visit to Israel coincded with the Ukraine crisis and highlited the benefit to Israel of being liberated from EUCOM’s overwhelmed attention span. Russia is of course also committed in Syria, where a de-confliction mechanism with the IDF is in place, but there is a world of difference between a shooting war and a neighborhood where armed residents have to tread carefully to avoid lethal friction.
McKenzie was given his due credit in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where similar satisfaction awaits his successor and former subordinate as CENTCOM Chief of Staff, Army General Erik Kurilla. A paratrooper and Joint Special Operations Command veteran in Votel’s mold, a close friend of former Washington Defense Attach Major General Mickey Edelstein, Kurilla is expected to bring the torch forward.
But how and where, now that the Iran deal is in labour pains and the threat of war is seemingly taboo because of Putin? Will Biden agree to an Israeli definition of “clear and present” danger if it is years into the future? It takes a thousand miles leap from Tel Aviv to Tehran to portray the Persian peril of 2030 or so as “imminent”. If the Ayatollahs are clever or flexible enough to renounce the destruction of the Jewish State as their strategic goal, and they are left with a path to Nuclear weapons but without a declared will to use whatever means in their determination to see Israel gone, there will be little international – or even American- support for Israel’s quest to defend its title as regional Nuclear champion.
It is also posdible that once the dust settles and the smoke clears, in both Ukraine and Syria, Russia will throw its weight behind Damascus’ demand to resume negotiations over the return of the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for peace and supervised demilitarisation. Washington could then not say that Israel’s constant call for “defensible” borders demarcating a territory occupied since 1967 is more legitimate than a similar Russian rationale for whatever chunk of Ukrainian land they claim as part of a protective belt.
Meanwhile, Iran’s build-up of ballistic missiles, proxies and militias threatening Israel is very real. It is the reason Major General Tel Kelman, a Fighter Pilot who missed by a whisker being appointed to the Air Force’s top job, holds the military’s Strategic Plans portfolio, equivalent to the Joint Staff’s J-5 shop, with the explicit term “Third Circle” – Iran, what else – added to his title. Under him there are two Brigadier Generals and one Colonel, who happens to have commanded the IAF’s first F-35 squadron. If Israel takes off to strike at Iranian targets, this most advanced of flying munitions-carrying computers will probably lead the pack.
Back in February 1991, as Israel was hit by Saddam Hussein’s Scuds, young Lieutenant Kelman sat in his Kfir – French configuration, American engine, Israeli assembly – ready to fly into West Iraq in search of launchers. Another officer hot to trot and about to lead his Commandos into Iraq was Lieutenant Colonel Benny Gantz, as head of the elite Air Force unit Shaldag. It was not to be. Washington forbade it for policy reasons, providing Patriot anti-ballistic missiles and early warning as a partial substitute.
At the time, some top defense officials chafed that Israel’s defense doctrine will suffer a setback if the IDF and especially the offensive-minded IAF sit idly by. Events have not borne out this concern, with conditions on the ground and diplomatically having been better for Israel than ever before, alarmist cries over Iran getting ever closer to the bomb notwithstanding. Israeli experts with inside information are now almost universally relieved that the government in power a decade ago or so was prevailed upon to abort its contingency plan to strike Iran. Reconstituting the bombed-out facilities would have taken two to three years, and by now a victimised Iran could lay claim to Nuclear weapons not unlike India’s, Pakistan’s or – though it can’t prove it – Israel’s.
Israel’s current strategy thus has to go with flow, from the Potomac to the Dnieper, by latching onto the American concept of Integrated Deterrence. Its essence is protection against Iranian missiles of various shapes and drones, based on CENTCOM’s Fifth Fleet (in the Mediterranean it would still be the Sixth) and ground-based elements. Israel has the technology and experience to share, not only thanks to its Iron Dome lessons, but in effect a multi-layered Iran Dome.
War may not be totally obsolete, but its “premeditated, unprovoked, illegal” variants, “wars of choice” are, at least under Western eyes. So while on Russia-Ukraine Jerusalem and Washington are almost on the same page, in other contexts Israel’s martial music may be too loud for American ears, unless it is preceded and accompanied by a clear-cut, convincing case. (End).