The Difficulties of Deterrence

As my regular readers and friends will know, I am writing a PhD on the use and effectiveness of deterrent policies against terrorism. It's an important subject, because the way a state decides to fight terrorism can protect people from harm, but it can also cost vast sums of money, endanger the lives of soldiers, kill civilians, topple governments, cause global outcries, and quite possibly result in incentives leading to more terrorism, not less. It also might not even protect many people from much harm if the policy is flawed. In other words: it's a matter of life and death.

So what the heck is deterrence, anyway? Deterrence is when I encourage you not to attack me by promising I will attack you back so hard you'll regret it. Sound brutal? Well, let's face it: it's not a happy, "I'm OK you're OK" kind of foreign policy. It has its merits, though. The greatest is that it is inherently defensive in nature, rather than offensive. "I will retaliate if you attack me" is not the same as "I will attack you." So the decision is left to the other party, which is crucial because this distinguishes deterrence from things like preemption and prevention (think of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam so that he can't even think about one day attacking the United States), which seek to control others, rather than simply coerce them.

A second benefit, which further argues for its morality, is that it is also inherently limited, potentially costing less in terms of both blood and treasure, but I will get to this below.

A policy based on threats of violence seems awful to us folks living in countries with the rule of law, where we're taught that violence is never the answer. I agree with that sentiment, by the way. I long considered myself a pacifist and still abhor violence. After all, we have recourse to police, courts, managers, what have you if there's a problem. That's the point of a state, really: to keep its people safe from external threats, and those emanating from its own citizens -- to order society so that it can be run peacefully. Outside of states, though, there is no police force. If a country is attacked and cannot defend itself (yes, this does still happen in today's world!) its only hope is to call another, stronger, country to its rescue. The reason the US has such a big military is that it often is that country and defines its "interests" broadly: Japan not getting freaked out by China and developing nuclear weapons, scaring the whole region into a destabilizing arms race, for example (to prevent this, America promises to protect Japan and mediate disputes in the region, making everyone relax a bit).

OK, so there's my defense of the morality of deterrence. How about the difficulties, as mentioned in the title? Well, there are plenty of them. For one thing, the threat deterrence is based on must be credible. This means I have to have the capability to retaliate and the will to do so. For a country like the US, it is mostly the latter that is problematic. When US troops were attacked in Lebanon and Somalia, the US pulled them out after public outcries. The impression was that the US had no stomach for casualties. In fact, al-Qaeda probably believed this when it launched the 9/11 attacks, hoping that it could encourage the US to pull its troops out of the Middle East. I have recently discovered that Hamas also doubted that Israel would launch a full-scale attack on it when it was launching lots of rockets from Gaza in the run-up to the '08-'09 Gaza War. This was because Israel had been forced out of Lebanon by Hezbollah. Israel was stuck in southern Lebanon and could not crush Hezbollah without re-invading, for which there was no political or diplomatic support, at home or abroad. It eventually had to withdraw.

So deterrence failed to stop rockets coming in from Gaza because Israel's deterrent threat was no longer credible, despite Israel's obvious military capabilities and the large numbers of Hezbollah fighters killed by Israeli forces. This brings me to the most difficult part of maintaining a credible deterrent: preventing getting yourself stuck in quagmires.

Realist theorists are the ones that often stress deterrence. They are also the ones who most advocate only limited intervention to protect core interests and maintain the credibility of a country's deterrent threat. For example: roll into Kuwait to eject Saddam Hussein from the country? Yes. Saddam's presence risked destabilizing the region (Iran and Saudi Arabia were alarmed, and Saudi Arabia asked the US to intervene to protect it), and US inaction would have wholly discredited its deterrent capability and given a green light to would-be invaders everywhere. Invade Iraq when it showed no signs of attacking the US, then overthrow its government and start a new one? No. This is a risky operation likely to be very costly and drawn out, and its effect on deterrent credibility is questionable as it is not in response to any attack. Attack Afghanistan for its role in harboring terrorists? Yes. If the US wished to demonstrate that allowing terrorists to congregate and act in a country is expensive, that's certainly one way to do so. From the perspective of deterrence, setting up a new regime in the country was not strictly necessary and also carried significant risks similar to those in Iraq, which should now be clear.

This brings me back to the second advantage of a deterrent policy: its inherently limited scope and the caution this promotes. Is it nice to leave dictators and regimes like the Taliban in power when we have the capability of removing them? Liberals and neoconservatives (liberals in wolf's clothing) think not. They may sometimes be right: If everything goes well, the people of a country might be freed, and a responsible democracy might set in. Everything doesn't often go right, however, and even if it does, can we be sure it was worth the bloodshed and cost? It should be obvious to anyone right now that the US cannot march against every dictatorship or reviled regime in the world and overthrow it -- it is just too expensive and would bleed the country dry, preventing it from maintaining peace in the rest of the world. Pick your battles. Realism and deterrence policies provide a guide on how to do so.


  1. I neglected to mention perhaps the single greatest difficulty in practicing deterrence: convincing the public (voters and the world at large) of why you should go to war for seemingly little reasons to maintain an abstract "deterrence." Because deterrence requires a DISPROPORTIONATE response, and because most people will not have reasoned through the alternatives to deterrence I've written about here, they will conclude that an enforcement strike is immoral warmongering. I argued that it is not, but it's not an easy thing to explain credibly, is it?


Post a Comment

Popular Posts