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The ‘Deterrence Works’ Fantasy

The ‘Deterrence Works’ Fantasy

Deterrence worked with the Soviet Union. Here's why it won't work with Iran.


There are few foreign-policy positions more silly than the assertion without context that “deterrence works.” It is like saying air power works. Well, it worked for Kosovo; it didn’t work over North Vietnam.

It’s like saying city-bombing works. It worked in Japan 1945 (Tokyo through Nagasaki). It didn’t in the London blitz.

The idea that some military technique “works” is meaningless. It depends on the time, the circumstances, the nature of the adversaries. The longbow worked for Henry V. At El Alamein, however, Montgomery chose tanks.

Yet a significant school of American “realists” remains absolutist on deterrence and is increasingly annoyed with those troublesome Israelis who are sowing fear, rattling world markets and risking regional war by threatening a preemptive strike to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Don’t they understand that their fears are grossly exaggerated? After all, didn’t deterrence work during 40 years of Cold War?

Indeed, a few months ago, columnist Fareed Zakaria made that case by citing me writing in defense of deterrence in the early 1980s at the time of the nuclear freeze movement. And yet now, writes Zakaria, Krauthammer (and others on the right) “has decided that deterrence is a lie.”

Nonsense. What I have decided is that deterring Iran is fundamentally different from deterring the Soviet Union. You could rely on the latter but not on the former.

The reasons are obvious and threefold:

(1) The nature of the regime.

Did the Soviet Union in its 70 years ever deploy a suicide bomber? For Iran, as for other jihadists, suicide bombing is routine. Hence the trail of self-immolation, from the 1983 Marine barracks attack in Beirut to the Bulgaria bombing of July 2012.

Iran’s clerical regime rules in the name of a fundamentalist religion for whom the hereafter offers the ultimate rewards. For Soviet communists – thoroughly, militantly atheistic – such thinking was an opiate-laced fairy tale.

For all its global aspirations, the Soviet Union was intensely nationalist. The Islamic Republic sees itself as an instrument of its own brand of Shiite millenarianism – the messianic return of the “hidden Imam.”

“You love life and we love death.” Try deterring that.

It’s one thing to live in a state of mutual assured destruction with Stalin or Brezhnev, leaders of a philosophically materialist, historically grounded, deeply here-and-now regime. It’s quite another to be in a situation of mutual destruction with apocalyptic clerics who believe in the imminent advent of the Mahdi, the supremacy of the afterlife and holy war as the ultimate avenue to achieving it.

The classic formulation comes from Tehran’s fellow (and rival Sunni) jihadist al-Qaeda: “You love life and we love death.” Try deterring that.

(2) The nature of the grievance.

The Soviet quarrel with America was ideological. Iran’s quarrel with Israel is existential. The Soviets never proclaimed a desire to annihilate the American people. For Iran, the very existence of a Jewish state on Muslim land is a crime, an abomination, a cancer with which no negotiation, no coexistence, no accommodation is possible.

(3) The nature of the target.

America is a nation of 300 million; Israel, 8 million. America is a continental nation; Israel, a speck on the map, at one point eight miles wide. Israel is a “one-bomb country.” Its territory is so tiny, its population so concentrated that, as Iran’s former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has famously said, “Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” A tiny nuclear arsenal would do the job.

In U.S.-Soviet deterrence, both sides knew that a nuclear war would destroy them mutually. The mullahs have thought the unthinkable to a different conclusion. They know about the Israeli arsenal. They also know, as Rafsanjani said, that in any exchange Israel would be destroyed instantly and forever, whereas the ummah – the Muslim world of 1.8 billion people whose redemption is the ultimate purpose of the Iranian revolution – would survive damaged but almost entirely intact.

This doesn’t mean that the mullahs will necessarily risk terrible carnage to their country in order to destroy Israel irrevocably. But it does mean that the blithe assurance to the contrary – because the Soviets never struck first – is nonsense. The mullahs have a radically different worldview, a radically different grievance and a radically different calculation of the consequences of nuclear war.

The confident belief that they are like the Soviets is a fantasy. That’s why Israel is contemplating a preemptive strike. Israel refuses to trust its very existence to the convenient theories of comfortable analysts living 6,000 miles from its Ground Zero.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.

September 2, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) kishore, September 10, 2012 2:31 PM

the world is divided in two kind of people one we intellectual always think how better we can make human life and the other one always think how they can destroy us.Their contribution to the world is Zero we have to control these 1.4billion or so people with our intellectual might it is possible, only thing we have to do is work hard to innovate new kind of sophisticated weapons which can control human brains from far distance and thus control these people like robot who r at our disposal to do our work without having any independent thinking of their own this is the only way left to master these people. It is utterly rubbish that we infiedels will one day convince these people about humanity

(9) kate b, September 6, 2012 8:23 AM

All the Islamic nations plus UN 'human rights' panelists who are the worst violators have passed this:

In short it is the same as Orwell's: War is Peace Freedom is Slavery Ignorance is strength Please watch till the end as Hillel Neuer explains the motion. Why is it worrisome? It couches itself in 'Western' language and condones Islamic religious fanaticism for all Israel's surrounding neighbours plus all those with this ideology, globally. Notice your friend now going to the Hajj every year, their moderation will be holding your feet whilst the fanatic kills you (attributed to Marco Polo, but `i can't find the primary source). There is nothing like this next war, it cannot be compared to anything that has ever been. This is not merely with Iran, as you can see.

(8) Robert Rubin, September 4, 2012 6:03 PM

maybe not black and white totally

I certainly agree with your comments with a few thoughts. Not sure you lived through the 60s events with Krushchev banging his shoe at the UN declaring, 'We will bury you' plus the whole thing of the Cuban missile crisis. I was in elementary school at that time and remember the class drills for filing into the bomb shelter and ducking under our desks etc.. so while you are correct overall in your analysis, it was not so crystal clear at that time. Also don't assume the potential war is just between Iran and Israel in terms of measuring damages. Other US and european powers including the Saudis and other Sunnis won't stand idly by as the bombs fly. The whole persian Gulf is a stake so there are other dynamics to this as well. Thank you.

(7) J. Apicella, September 4, 2012 2:09 AM

Support Isreal Put Keep America Out of War

War kills. War cripples, maims and blinds. We should do all we can to keep America out of another war in the Middle East. What else can America do without risking American Jewish and Gentile lives. When I look at the Army I see no one I know.

(6) Richard-Rafael Joachim, September 3, 2012 2:43 AM

Doom's Day cult

This may well be the only time in history that a nation has come to be ruled by a doom's day cult - and that its leaders are narrow-minder 'clerics' whose ultimate aim is the destruction of their own people and any 'infidels' they can take with them. There is an anti-clerical movement in Iran - these people prefer to call themselves Persians - and in exile. Now many are realizing the Shah's government wasn't so bad as it was portrayed and was well on the way to becoming a constitutional monarch. Now the violent crazies are in control and untold numbers of Iranian people are being secretly incarcerated and State murder has become commonplace. Iran is a very dangerous place for 'free-thinking' people and those who are horrified that the cok-koo clerics want to throw nukes around the region. They don't care if millions die. It's time for tjhe Persian people to rebel against the mad mullahs and bring Iran / Persia back into the civilized world. The time for diplomacy has ended, you can't with insane people. A clinical military strike to 1. disable Iran's nuclear ability, and 2. personally target the mullahs and their henchmen such as the universally recognized madman whose name even contains the word 'mad' as in Armadinnajad. This may be the trigger for the Persian people to arise against their 'religious' oppressors and any rebellion should be totally supported by all freedom loving nations. As in all dictatorships, remove the head/s and the nation will run about aimlessly like a headless chicken. Iran is not just a threat against Israel but the big nations must see that Iran is a threat to Russia - in its support of the Chetchen Muslim terrorists, and to China and its western 'Muslim' provinces. Iran must go! Enough of their murderous cultist nonsense.

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