When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from his meeting Monday with President Barack Obama, he may have recognized in the president a fellow proponent of the Netanyahu Doctrine: to avoid the use of force, be ready to use it. After all, Obama had just reiterated that he won’t take any options off the table on Iran, “including military.”
Of course, the Netanyahu Doctrine is nothing new – the ancient Romans described it as si vis pacem para bellum, “he who wants peace must prepare for war.” Hebrew wisdom extolled self-restraint as the highest form of heroism, and such ancient wisdom has also guided Netanyahu’s policies, and not only on Iran. But while this doctrine did not originate with Netanyahu, the prime minister has become closely associated with its application in the region, despite facing significant criticism.
The doctrine is simple to formulate, yet nearly impossible to successfully implement because to be a success, three components must be in place: the capability to use force, projection of a true willingness to use it, and a deep desire to avoid doing so. No one, including the leader, knows what will actually happen at the critical moment of decision regarding the use of force, but the other side should be sufficiently concerned and unsure to consider the threat credible. When done right, the doctrine is a masterful tightrope walk over the twin abyss of Vietnam and Munich: Prepare for war too much and you risk instigating the very war you wish to avoid; prepare too little and you risk encouraging aggression through weakness and appeasement.
But the artful balancing act needed to reach a successful diplomatic outcome means this approach can be easily misunderstood. Some mistake it for bluster, others for bluff. But it is neither. Building the capacity to use force and conveying the willingness to use it can easily lead outsiders to mistakenly interpret such acts as the policies of reckless leaders itching for war. These were precisely the accusations leveled at both Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak by retired Israeli security officials, who rang the alarm bells convinced they could save the country from “trigger happy cowboys.”
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for example, has publicly hit out at Netanyahu and Barak for spending three billion dollars on “adventurous fantasies” and “military delusions” for operations that “will never be carried out.” Yet such investment serves not only to build the capability to use force, but also conveys a willingness to use it. The same is true for the massive recruitment of reserves, who stood ready to enter the Gaza Strip during operation Pillar of Defense, but who never had to because diplomacy allowed the desired outcome of relative calm.
When Netanyahu gave his now famous speech at the United Nations a year ago, memorably charting a red line to Iran’s weapons nuclear program, many interpreted the speech as an Israeli attempt to entangle the United States in a war that would serve Israel’s interest. But Netanyahu’s goal was precisely the opposite. His speech was not about how to go to war – it was about how to avoid it. Netanyahu’s message for the international community, and especially to the United States and its allies, was that a clear red line to Iran, backed by a credible military threat, was necessary for diplomacy to work.
The fact is that diplomacy alone was not going to achieve the aim of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Diplomacy backed by force had a fighting chance. A year later, the results of Iran’s elections and its recent “charm offensive” and offers of negotiations have proven this doctrine correct.
It is no accident that Netanyahu is at once considered Israel’s most hawkish prime minister and yet has not actually taken the country to war. It is no accident that under his watch the number of Jews and Arabs killed as a result of violent conflict between has fallen noticeably under his watch. Too many make the mistake of judging Netanyahu by his hawkish rhetoric, and too few by the outcomes of his policies.
When implemented well, the outcome of the Netanyahu doctrine is peace, not war.