A Cliff Notes version of "On the Fear of Matches"

The Chieftain of Seir’s essay “On the Fear of Matches” is instrumental to my understanding of US policy in the Middle East. Since a lot of people find the Chief’s essays hard going, I thought I would spell out the basic points here.

(A) US sales of high tech weapons to Israel almost perfectly correlate with the rise of Israel as a nuclear power. It is thought that Israel first acquired useable atomic weapons in 1968. This is also when the US started providing considerable amounts of high tech military weapons to Israel. The Chief quotes both pro and anti Israeli sources to back up this claim.

(B) Israel prepared to use atomic weapons during the Yom Kippur war and made the US aware of this fact. Not only did the US intervene in a dramatic way to help Israel during the war, but an explicit policy of keeping Israel stronger then the combined strength of its neighbors dates from this period.

(C) Israel went on nuclear alert during the first Gulf War and this was instrumental in causing the US to devote considerable military resources to taking care of Israel’s concerns. As the Chieftain of Seir says…..

This policy has not been 100% successful at eliminating nuclear scares. Israel went on a nuclear alert during the First Gulf War as the result of the Iraqi scuds that were being fired at it. Saddam Hussein seems to have calculated that as long as he did not put chemical or biological weapons on his missiles, Israel would not nuke Baghdad. People all over the world should be grateful that calculation was more accurate than his calculations that it would be easy to take Iran’s oil fields, America would not intervene to take back Kuwait, or that George W. Bush was not really determined to remove him from power. But it does not seem to have sunk into people’s consciousness how close the First Gulf War came to going nuclear.

(D) Due to its geographical nature and the technical limitations of its nuclear delivery systems, Israeli has no effective second strike capability. This means that there is tremendous pressure on the Israeli leadership to shoot first and ask questions latter. This means that standoff between Israel and a hostile nuclear power is going to be unstable.

The basic thrust the “On the Fear of Matches” is that Israel’s nuclear weapons have constrained US policy options in the Middle East. You can ignore the security concerns of a non-nuclear power, but you cannot ignore the concerns of someone who can start throwing around weapons of mass destruction.

The Chief ends his essay by warning that…..

This is the nightmare that western powers are trying to prevent with their attempts to pressure Iran into dropping their nuclear program. But even if they succeed in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, it does not solve the underlying problem. What if Pakistan should become extremely hostile to Israel due to a change in government? What if Saudi Arabia should purchase nuclear weapons from North Korea or Pakistan?

The time when America could give Israel a sense of security just by selling it advanced weapons is gone. So what is the United States going to do now to try to minimize the chance that Israel will use their nuclear weapons?

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