Strategists: Primum Non Nocere

By November 18, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 121

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The proposal that Israel should take a leading role in reducing the importance of oil is a clear case of transgression against the ethical imperative, which fully applies to strategists, “first, do no harm.” Doing so is sure to destabilize the Middle East and stamp Israel as “enemy number one” of all oil rich countries, with disastrous consequences for its national security.

Being a strategist – as decision makers, advisors or academics – imposes a heavy responsibility. The primun non nocere (first, do not harm) imperative of non-maleficence in medical ethics applies all the more so to strategists, who deal with the future of multitudes.

This moral precept is often breached. History is full of foolish strategies, which clearly could and should have been evaluated as such in advance. And many contemporary strategic writings are no better. My impression from lots of reading in a number of languages is that about half of what is published is insignificant and at least does no harm; about a quarter is useful for improving strategic praxis; but about a quarter is wrong and likely to cause damage if influencing actual strategic choices.

The quality of national security strategies is of crucial importance for the future of Israel, much more so than in countries that do not face existential dangers. Therefore, Israeli strategists must be especially cautious in developing recommendations, taking care to read realities as correctly as possible, clarify goals, rely on validated theories of strategic interaction and proceed by careful, “cold” reasoning with strict avoidance of wishful thinking and other cognitive fallacies. However, these requirements are often violated. This is unforgivable also when done by academics, who are privileged in not being subjected to all the pressures and distortions of establishments.

A case in point is the proposal of Dr. Emmanuel Navon that Israel should play a major role in ending oil’s monopoly (BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 118). With due respect to the author, whom I do not know personally, let me examine his piece briefly, in line with the adage of the Ottoman poet-policy intellectual Kinalizade Ali Celebi (d. 1572), “True friendship means to look on a friend’s work with the eye of an enemy.” Let me do so by moving through three assumptions of the paper, all of which are in my view wrong.

1. Israel can play a major role in reducing significantly the importance of oil.

In its 2010 Annual World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency predicts that global energy demands will increase by more than a third over the next 25 years. While oil is only one source of energy, as correctly noted by the author, the overall increase in energy demands is likely to also increase the demand for oil, not only for transportation as claimed by the paper.

The amounts of oil used by Israel are much too small to make any difference to the global demand for oil. Therefore, increasing the use of electric cars and biofuels in Israel is trivial in global terms. And, with due respect to Israel’s impressive scientific and technological achievements, the assumption that they can play a major role in reducing the global demand for oil seems unrealistic, as it is very doubtful whether electric cars and biofuels are the main solution.

2. Radically reducing the price of oil is good for Israeli national security.

Let me test this assumption with the help of a counter-factual scenario: Thanks to a technological breakthrough the price of a barrel of oil rapidly sinks to $30 USD. Leaving aside impacts on non-Middle Eastern oil rich countries – the significance of which for Israel’s national security is uncertain – the economic crisis of major Middle East countries, many of which have advanced military capacities, is sure to destabilize the regimes. This can easily result is the seeking of enemies and fanaticism directed against Israel, even if it played no role in the oil price drop.

To be more concrete, assuming that Iran will have nuclear weapons capacities or at least the ability to produce them in a hurry, such a socio-economic crisis may easily transform it into a “crazy state;” Rulers facing doom in any case may decide to take Israel with them, never mind Israel’s ultimate deterrence (which credible assures that Iran will be totally destroyed if it attacks Israel with mass-killing weapons, even if this does not help Israel any more).

3. Reducing the dependence on oil thanks to Israel’s active role will improve its national security.

The paper claims that “Israel will not only strengthen its strategic value vis-à-vis the United States and Europe, it might also provide its oil-producing neighbors with a good reason to be more pragmatic.” This is the gravest error in the paper, making its recommendation counter-productive for Israel’s national security.

To start with two relatively minor points, the strategic value of Israel vis-à-vis the US, Europe and Asia is largely the result of its ability to help in assuring oil supplies from the Middle East in case of a crisis. If the overall strategic importance of oil in the Middle East wanes, then unavoidably the strategic importance of Israel goes down too. Therefore, Israel and major oil-producing countries share an interest in maintaining the strategic importance of oil resources.

Also, most of the oil-richest Middle Eastern countries are rather moderate in their attitudes toward Israel, as illustrated by the Saudi Peace Initiative as adopted by the Arab League. Therefore, weakening these countries is not necessarily in Israel’s interest.

Much more fateful is the certainty that a conspicuous role of Israel in facilitating the declining cost of oil will stamp it as a major enemy of the oil rich countries, provoking all-out action against Israel. The prediction that the Arab states will become more “pragmatic” (the author probably means more accommodating towards Israel) is preposterous.

Taking all these points together, the recommendation of the paper must be rejected. Still, the initiative of the author should be appreciated. Proposing daring conjectures, even if wrong, contributes to the clarification of strategic issues. This is all the more important because my conclusions, stimulated by considering Dr. Navon’s thesis, lead to an important recommendation for Israeli leaders: Do not present or implement any initiatives which may reduce the importance of the oil resources of Middle Eastern countries.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: Peretz Partensky)

Prof. Yehezkel Dror

Prof. Yehezkel Dror is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book "Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses" was published by Routledge as part of the BESA Studies in International Security. He has recently published a new book with Westphalia press entitled "Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch".