Threat Ratings

There was a time when you would be on fairly safe ground if you named Egypt and Syria as the biggest threats to Israeli security. Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia were considered too weak or too distant to deserve this infamous distinction. In contrast, the record of aggression of Egypt and Syria and large, Soviet-armed forces on Israel’s borders gave them obvious priority as the enemies to be reckoned with.

Such simplicity belongs to a bygone era. At a security conference in Israel on Tuesday, senior officials argued over which country or terror organization was the number- one threat. Mossad director Yossi Cohen said it was still Iran; IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot ranked Hezbollah first; former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo insisted that the unsolved conflicts with the Palestinians and the Arabs represent the greatest danger. (Last August, he said that civil war in Israel was the only existential threat.) Striking the pose of global strategist, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman declared that North Korea has now overtaken Iran as the gravest threat to world peace.

The lack of consensus is somewhat baffling and more than a little troubling. If these experts can’t agree on who our worst enemy is, where does that leave us?

On the other hand, one can ask why these presumably busy men are spending their time rating enemies. Will any of us sleep better at night if we have been told that Iran is still the axis of evil? What does it really matter which is the biggest threat? Don’t we have to prepare to defend against all of them? Or is it that they just have to have something to say when they get up and make speeches at prestigious conferences?

Well, if it’s any comfort, this befuddlement is not just an Israeli malaise. The Americans are just as divided over what’s on the threat board as the Israelis. In Washington, too, former steady foes have been replaced by a shifting lineup of bad guys. Whereas the Soviet Union was for decades the dependable other half of Mutually Assured Destruction, today life — or the peril of death by thermonuclear annihilation — is not so simple.

A recent article in the U.S. News & World Report on a meeting between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, and some of the nation’s top brass revealed a wide variety of viewpoints.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford surprised some by picking Russia. “My assessment today, senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security,” he said, noting that Russia remains the No. Two nuclear power and has been acting in a rather unneighborly way.

Marine chief Lt. Gen. Robert B. Neller acknowledged Russia’s power, but observed that “Right now, I don’t think they want to kill Americans…I think violent extremists want to kill us. And their capability is not that great but their intent is high, and the fact [is] that they have a message that seems to resonate around the world, not just in this country but in other countries in the Western world. They concern me equally.”

Defense Gen. James Mattis struck an entirely different note during his confirmation hearings, when he asserted that the single greatest threat to national security is the federal debt.

“We don’t want a military that just breaks the bank, but at the same time, we cannot solve this debt problem on the backs of our military alone…I consider it an abrogation of our generation’s responsibility to transfer a debt of this size to our children,” Gen. Mattis said.

In this, Mattis echoed something that President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “There is no defense for any country that busts its own economy.”

To answer one of the questions asked above: No, the preoccupation with threat ratings is not just speech filler. In order for a country’s civilian and military leaders to decide how to allocate resources, there has to be some form of prioritization. Even the United States has a limited number of aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, infantry and marines, and it has to be decided at some point how many to send and where to send them.

However, that doesn’t mean reaching a consensus will accomplish all that much. Russia was the agreed-upon Enemy No. 1 while the war in Vietnam was going on. Yet, the United States tore itself up over whether losing South Vietnam to the communists would endanger American security and freedom. In the end, the answer was in the negative, but getting there was an agonizing process.

Dean Acheson was blamed for inviting the North Koreans to invade the South in 1950 when he neglected to include Korea in a speech delineating the U.S. “defense perimeter” in Asia. Pyongyang understood that omission to mean that the region had a low priority for Washington, and acted accordingly, launching an invasion a few months later. Mr. Acheson later contended that his presentation was not his own innovation, but the same as the established policy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No matter, the making of that priority had grave consequences.

So the effort to rank the threats to our security goes on, as it must, in order to provide a platform for a coherent defense strategy. Whether, in the end, there will be peace or war will not be decided by the mortals who head the IDF or the Pentagon. Ultimately, it’s in the hands of Hashem.