Arming Israel lessens nuclear danger

August 22, 2007|By Ariel Ilan Roth

The White House recently announced it had made yet another deal to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, followed by a comparable sale to Israel. It's a well-worn pattern, showing that once again, the price to be paid for arms sales to our moderate Arab allies always seems to be an equivalent sale, under very favorable terms, to Israel.

Critics such as John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue in their forthcoming book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, that subsidized sales to Israel, like the one announced in July, are evidence of the chokehold that pro-Israel lobbyists exercise on broader U.S. foreign policy in the volatile Middle East. In reality, these subsidized sales are not so much a chokehold as a cork: Supplying Israel with large quantities of advanced conventional weapons keeps the Mideast nuclear genie in its bottle for a little longer. This is precisely what the United States wants and an incontestable national strategic interest.

Without the regular infusion of new American arms, the Israeli air force would atrophy and its capabilities would almost disappear because of Israel's inability to afford to arm itself with advanced air weapons. Without subsidized American airplanes and smart bombs to rely on, Israel would be forced to ask itself how it could stretch its meager budget so as to attain the most security for the least amount of money. That question has long had a temptingly attractive answer - greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

The reason is simple: Israel relies on deterrence for security. Today, that deterrent strength comes from perceptions of the capabilities of its vaunted air force. The Israeli air force is credited with laying the groundwork for Israel's success in 1967, and its exploits have remained impressive, including the 1981 attack on the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq and the ongoing role it plays as the executive arm of Israel's targeted assassination policy in Gaza. Without the powers of the air force, Israel would have to seek to deter rivals through other, cheaper, domestically produced means.

The United States has, in its own past, given in to a similar temptation. Reliance on nuclear threats was the cornerstone of President Dwight Eisenhower's "New Look" strategy in the 1950s. But the dangers in such a policy are manifest. As President John F. Kennedy's "Flexible Response" plan recognized, nuclear weapons are wonderful as a supreme deterrent but are not effective when the stakes are less than existential. No one, including the United States, believed that it would retaliate massively against a minor provocation. And yet, without a rich conventional arsenal, what choice would it have had?

If Israel ever has to cut back on its conventional arsenal because of a decline in U.S. largess, that would mean, almost perforce, an expanded reliance on its nuclear arsenal. It would also mean that Israel would be more likely to escalate crisis situations so that the stakes seem higher in order to enhance the credibility of the threat to go nuclear.

The more Israel relies on nuclear threats, the more uncomfortable moderate U.S. allies including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be with their inability to respond in kind. With the broad conventional palette of arms made possible by American aid, Israel is able to place the emphasis on conventional deterrence while maintaining ambiguity about its nuclear policy. This ambiguity likewise allows Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to look the other way, or at least allows the focus to remain where it belongs for the present - on Iran.

The development of nuclear weapons by Iran's Shiite theocracy is likely to cause serious agitation in moderate Sunni bastions like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to acquire nuclear weapons. There is no need to add their desire to balance Israel's nuclear might to the equation. A widely proliferated nuclear Middle East is a nightmare not just for the United States but for the whole world.

The boost in arms sales and promises to Israel that accompany U.S. sales to moderate Arab states are not evidence of the influence of the pro-Israel lobby at all. They are only evidence that there are still some very smart people in Washington who understand that the price for keeping Israel's nuclear posturing to a minimum is to make sure that it has ample conventional means to rely on instead.

Ariel Ilan Roth is associate director of the Homeland Security Program at the Johns Hopkins University and a visiting assistant professor at Goucher College. His e-mail is air@jhu.edu.

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