Deterrence: thinking about the unthinkable
Nuclear deterrence appears to have "worked" during the Cold War to prevent the conflagration most of us who grew up in those times feared and half-expected might happen. If deterrence did work, it was because both the US and the USSR were interested in the survival of their respective countries and people.
Deterrence is an ugly way to go about it--after all, its efficacy rests on the supposition that we be willing to launch a large-scale fleet of nuclear weapons to retaliate against an attack. But somehow, paradoxically, having been on record as being committed to such a course of action seems to have worked to prevent it from actually ever taking place. One can surmise this, although there is no way to know for certain how heavily deterrence weighed into the calculations of the nations involved.
One of the many frightening things about the current crop of Islamicist terrorists is that they are seemingly unconcerned about the survival of any particular country or its people, and they are more than willing to sacrifice populations in order to get what they want. Their focus is less on this world and more on their vision of the world to come, with the consequence that they appear to lack compunctions about blowing us all to kingdom come.
Here's an interesting attempt by Michael Levi, entitled "Old Guard" (in the subscription-only New Republic), to update the notion of deterrence and make it relevant to the world of modern-day terrorism.
Levi makes two main points. The first is the idea of retaliation even for failed attacks:
A new approach would start by rethinking the terrorist calculus. Observers are right to assume that groups like Al Qaeda would be willing to endure severe retribution following a successful nuclear attack, undermining a basic tenet of deterrence. But such groups may not be willing to endure severe retribution following a failed nuclear plot--for them, that would be the worst of all worlds. As a result, promising retribution for even failed nuclear plots may deter terrorists from taking risks in the first place, and hence from initiating attacks. A strategy like this would work best if combined with homeland security measures designed to make terrorist failure more likely.
The second idea is to make it easier to trace nuclear weaponry to its source throught the use of nuclear "fingerprints," enhancing the capacity to retaliate against states (who are theoretically, at least, more deterrable) who might try to give nuclear arms to terrorists.
The whole notion of deterrence seems morally abhorrent. It's both difficult and horrifying to realize what we are actually talking about here, which is threatening the large-scale killing of mostly civilian populations in return for the large-scale killing of our mostly civilian population. And, in order to work, it must not be perceived as a bluff; it must be clear to the terrorists and the countries with the potential to supply them that we mean what we say, and are prepared to carry it out.
Here's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara speaking in 1967 on the concept of deterrence, as it worked back then:
The point is that a potential aggressor must believe that our assured-destruction capability is in fact actual, and that our will to use it in retaliation to an attack is in fact unwavering. The conclusion, then, is clear: if the United States is to deter a nuclear attack in itself or its allies, it must possess an actual and a credible assured-destruction capability
It seems particularly apt that the acronym at the time for the policy of deterrence vis a vis the Soviets was MAD (mutually assured destruction). The whole scenario seemed mad indeed, something out of science fiction. Did it work? I certainly have no particular expertise in the matter, although it seems logical to suppose that deterrence was indeed a factor.
But one thing seems clear: as abhorrent as thinking this way is (most especially, the idea of retaliating for a failed attack, an attack in which no one has even been killed!), we need to conceive of the horrible possibilities in order to combat them, although sometimes the possible solutions seem almost as horrible. What is the best solution? I certainly do not know. But the idea is that, if we send out the message of readiness to retaliate, we will avoid having to actually do so.
As Levi himself says, we are by no means assured that this approach will be effective. Towards the conclusion of his article, he writes:
None of these elements of a new deterrence strategy is as rock-solid as cold war deterrence once was, and nothing will change that.
I'm not sure I would ever have characterized Cold War deterrence as "rock-solid" (perhaps it was, but, if so, only in retrospect). But it would be a major mistake not to consider these terrible scenarios and try to plan for them as best we can. In fact, if we fail to do so, it would also be "mad."
So, we face a terrible dilemma: which way lies madness? Perhaps both ways. But the way of preparedness and deterrence seems to be the necessary way to go, as it seems to have been back in those Cold War days. I never thought we'd be feeling so much as a hint of nostalgia for the relative "rock-solidness" of their deterrence--but, regretfully, here we are.