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Assessing Defense Officials’ Assessments

One reason Israel has struggled to muster international support for its demand for defensible borders is that one can always find some former senior Israeli defense official to proclaim this unnecessary. A typical example was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s statement this weekend that Israel no longer needs to retain the Jordan Valley for security purposes, because “there is no eastern front”: Israel is at peace with Jordan, and “there is no longer an Iraqi army.”

What made this statement truly remarkable was the timing: On the very same weekend that Dagan made this categorical pronouncement, al-Qaeda in Iraq largely completed its takeover of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. As the New York Times reported, this means that “Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar”–a province bordering directly on Jordan. Since Qaeda-linked groups also control large swathes of eastern Syria, Jordan now has al-Qaeda sitting on two of its borders: Syria to the north and Anbar to the east. Granted, al-Qaeda’s forces are currently busy fighting Syrian and Iraqi troops, but if they prevail in these battles, Jordan, which al-Qaeda has targeted in the past, will clearly be next in line.

In other words, Dagan is correct that “there is no eastern front” at this minute. But given the massive instability in the region and the marked gains that hostile forces like al-Qaeda have made just in the last few months, only a fool would be willing to gamble that the eastern front won’t reappear in another year, or two or three–especially given the likelihood (as I explained last week) that Israel’s withdrawal from the Jordan Valley would actively contribute to destabilizing Jordan, just as its withdrawal from Gaza destabilized Sinai. Yet this is precisely the gamble Dagan is advocating: Wager Israel’s security on the hope that even with the region in the midst of convulsive upheaval, the eastern front will nevertheless remain dormant for the foreseeable future.

All this speaks to a larger point about the validity of senior defense officials’ pronouncements: Their field of expertise is fairly narrow, and outside it, their assessments have no more validity than those of anyone else–and sometimes less. Dagan, a senior IDF officer before taking over the Mossad, certainly knows what’s needed to stop columns of tanks from invading Israel; had he said the Jordan Valley was unnecessary for this purpose, it would have to be taken seriously. But he didn’t; indeed, by saying it’s unnecessary specifically because the “eastern front” no longer exists, he clearly implied that the valley would be needed were the eastern front to reappear.

Rather, Dagan’s assertion rests on a political assessment: that nothing is likely to happen in the foreseeable future to turn either Jordan or Iraq into a threat. But when it comes to predicting future political developments, defense officials have no special expertise whatsoever. In fact, their track record is notoriously poor (think, for instance, of intelligence agencies’ failure to predict the intifadas, the Arab Spring, the Iranian revolution, etc.).

So when defense experts say that “defensible borders” aren’t necessary, consider whether their pronouncements are based on military or political assessments. And if it’s the latter, anything they say should be taken with whole buckets of salt.


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