Friday, April 15, 2005

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.


At 1:17 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

Deterrence worked because the Soviets were rational actors. Even if they believed in the eschatology of World Revolution, the apparatchiks themselves liked their perks, their power, their dachas, their dollar stores, etc. As they moved the pieces on the chessboard of the Cold War, they were careful never to expose their king, trading pawns when necessary and working for the long-term advantage.

The Great Islamic Jihad shows some of these characteristics, particularly the patience over long-term objectives. But the jihadis rely on the shahids, eager to lay down their lives for Allah and the 72 Black-eyed Ones, who can presumably be deterred by nothing.

However, that may be true only of the cannon fodder of the Jihad. The bin Ladens and Zawahiris, the imams and the financiers, may well be rational actors willing to modify their goals under the pressure of reality, to protect their own positions. We shall see.

At 1:44 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Loyal Achates said...

How can we have massive nuclear retaliation against an amorphous mass movement with no country and no headquarters?

Not to mention the dozens of times the world was nearly blown to pieces during the cold war - and even after. Deterrence is a myth, and nuclearism is an ugly and dangerous thing. The sooner we get rid of our nukes the better.

At 2:27 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

Loyal Achates, I don't agree. The massive terrorist network that we face today could not exist or operate without the tolerance and even support of a number of state sponsors. The most important of these, Saddam Hussein, has been taken down, at the cost of massive blood and treasure on the part of the USA.

A nuclear sword at the throat of despotic regimes could do a lot to deter their appetite for propogating terrorism. Nukes should be reserved for the worst-case scenarios of terrorism (e.g., Iran putting nukes or dirty bombs into the hands of al-Qaeda), but they need to remain in our arsenal.

At 5:17 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Robbie said...

I think George Bush does a much better job than nukes.

On the other hand, the US military is pretty stretched out. Perhaps detterence by regime change can only do so much at a time.

At 7:03 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Loyal Achates said...

It just sickens me to hear people talk so grandly about 'deterrence' and 'mutually assured destruction' and 'nuclear swords'. Ignoring for a minute that Saddam was NOWHERE NEAR the biggest state sponsor of terrorism (that would be our good friends the Saudis), it also obscures the fact that neither you nor anyone else in the government has the faintest idea what a nuclear war would even mean. It means nothing more than a bunch of men sitting in a control room pushing buttons and ending the human race. To think that this is a risk we can afford to take is mind-bogglingly callous and worse than naive.

Well, thank goodness we have people like you, who are brave enough to use humanity as a bargaining chip in a game of international brinksmanship.

At 8:12 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Tran Sient said...

'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'

Once the majority of these are traced back to Russia and China, then what?

At 8:38 PM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous Fred said...

"But the way of preparedness and deterrence seems to be the necessary way to go."

Preparedness and deterence will require credibility in taking preemptive action rather than waiting for imminent threats.

One thing that has not been mentioned here is Qaddafi's giving up his nuclear progam in response to the overthrow of Saddam.

At 8:45 PM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

Obviously, nuclear war is not something I advocate. I think, though, that to not consider the arguments in the referenced article, and to dismiss them out of hand, makes humankind more vulnerable to an actual nuclear war, not less. Deterrence may indeed have worked with the Soviets ("worked," that is, to deter them, not to kill them), and a more specialized type of deterrence might also work in the present situation.

The Levi article is available by subscription only, so you may not have been able to read it. It does in fact discuss the question of a nuclear weapon being traced back to an ally such as Russia, and asks, "what then?" This is what he says: Were a Russian nuclear weapon acquired by terrorists, the United States would be unlikely to strike back. But no one knows what steps the United States would take were terrorists to acquire a Pakistani bomb. Would the United States attack its ally? Would it matter whether the bomb was stolen, or provided deliberately? For deterrence to work, these questions need clear answers now. Such clarity would go a long way towards deterring transfers of nuclear weapons, making it more likely that actual retaliation would never be necessary.

My point was merely that these tough questions need to be asked and thought about. All the alternatives are extremely and profoundly distressing. But dismissing the idea of some form of deterrence out of hand leaves humanity open to be used as a "bargaining chip"--by terrorists. Ignore this fact at your peril

At 10:42 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

I worry most about Iran getting the bomb and Israel staying on high alert with theirs. All it takes is one button to be pushed and there is no telling where they would start to fall over there. Talk about devastation not only to human life but to the world's economy. Highly radioactive material all over ME oil fields? I doubt the UN can stop Iran from getting the bomb.

At 1:16 AM, April 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's an excellent essay on this general subject at

Read the whole thing. Really good.

At 5:20 AM, April 16, 2005, Blogger James said...

I have to agree with a previous poster, George Bush tends to be a bit of a deterrence. I think the US was seen as soft because of its measured responses to al-Qaeda attacks previously and the 1990s predilection for wanting to build international consensus before acting.

That don't-give-a-sh** glint in George Bush's eye, especially after a couple of successes in that area probably helps immensely in dissuading state sponsors of terrorism from really allowing something big to happen.

At 1:32 PM, April 16, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

I have to agree that GWB does present a bit of deterrence, though I think he does it in the wrong places much of the time. The problem is that NUCLEAR deterrence is in a whole different realm. Even GWB knows that - to my knowledge, he has not seriously entertained dropping A-bombs, no more than any other past president did at any rate (they all CONSIDER it at one point or another.)

People talk as though dropping a few nukes is like sending in a fleet of planes to bomb a city..Nooooo. In a heavily armed world, with lots of nukes, no telling what would happen. Do we care to risk it?

I have no problem retaliating for failed attacks, just not with nukes. In any case, nukes as weapon only work against a state that has something to lose. Not clear that bin Laden feels he has anything to loose by unleashing nuclear catastrophe - it might suit his strategy.

At 11:38 PM, April 16, 2005, Blogger troutsky said...

There is in fact only one country in history who has shown it is willing to use such weapons and any other nation thinking rationaly of its own defense would want to own a few of it's own.Until EVERYONE disarms,we all live on the edge of the abyss.

At 11:24 AM, April 18, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

Troutsky, weeelll...only one country has in fact used a nuke in war, but I think there are a few that have shown that they are ready and willing:
USSR in Cuba, India, and Pakistan. Let's hope we never find out HOW willing they are. Once was enough. Ooops, that's twice. Forgot about Nagasaki. Do those two count as one??

At 6:27 PM, April 18, 2005, Blogger Loyal Achates said...

When you attend a funeral,
It is sad to think that sooner or'l
Later those you love will do the same for you.
And you may have thought it tragic,
Not to mention other adjec-
Tives, to think of all the weeping they will do.
(But don't you worry.)

No more ashes, no more sackcloth,
And an arm band made of black cloth
Will some day nevermore adorn a sleeve.
For if the bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbors too,
There'll be nobody left behind to grieve.

And we will all go together when we go.
What a comforting fact that is to know.
Universal bereavement,
An inspiring achievement,
Yes, we will all go together when we go.

We will all go together when we go.
All suffused with an incandescent glow.
No one will have the endurance
To collect on his insurance,
Lloyd's of London will be loaded when they go.

Oh we will all fry together when we fry.
We'll be french fried potatoes by and by.
There will be no more misery
When the world is our rotisserie,
Yes, we will all fry together when we fry.

Down by the old maelstrom,
There'll be a storm before the calm.

And we will all bake together when we bake.
There'll be nobody present at the wake.
With complete participation
In that grand incineration,
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.

Oh we will all char together when we char.
And let there be no moaning of the bar.
Just sing out a Te Deum
When you see that I.C.B.M.,*
And the party will be come-as-you-are.

Oh, we will all burn together when we burn.
There'll be no need to stand and wait your turn.
When it's time for the fallout
And Saint Peter calls us all out,
We'll just drop our agendas and adjourn.

You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas.
Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollahs.

And we will all go together when we go.
Every Hottentot and every Eskimo.
When the air becomes uranious,
We will all go simultaneous.
Yes, we all will go together
When we all go together,
Yes we all will go together when we go.

- Tom Lehrer

At 5:08 PM, April 23, 2005, Blogger jj mollo said...

MAD is an intellectual construct. Many good and kind people cannot deal with it. It is emotionally repugnant, hard to grasp and harder to accept. The fact is, nothing else was going to work. Excepting a brief window of opportunity after 1945, we could not beat the Soviets, and we could not even break even.

There were good people who put this together and their choices were not easy ones to make. Should HST have dropped the big ones? There was no question at the time. He would have been impeached if he had hesitated. The people who won that war were not monsters. The people who won the next one were not monsters either.

Our leaders have to think deeply. Reason out the clattering dominoes of consequence. They are mere mortals, but you must have faith that they are basically good mortals. Like Sherlock Holmes, we need to do the necessary research and eliminate all the tempting but impossible solutions. Whatever is left, no matter how frightening and counter-intuitive, is the course we must take.

At 5:17 PM, April 23, 2005, Blogger jj mollo said...

It is true, however, that MAD does not apply today against the Mullahs or the Wahabi fanatics. The difference is, there may be ways to defeat them in detail. Part of finding the solution begins with conversations like these. The West definitely has an advantage in the meme-generation arena. We are working inside their social OODA loop.


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