Deterrence is a topic that has been much on my mind since the early days of the “al-Aqsa Intifada” – when every time our army knocked down a suicide bomber’s family home or otherwise seemed to act in a draconian, thoughtless, and insensitive manner, the authorities trotted out the justification that Israel was acting “to deter future acts of terrorism”. The IDF eventually investigated its policy of home demolitions and decided, unsurprisingly, that the practice had never had a significant deterrent effect; indeed, home demolitions had probably acted as a stimulant for Palestinian terrorism. (I blogged on this topic back in December 2005; and my most recent academic conference presentation, at the IEEE Intelligence and Security Informatics conference in May 2006, was on “Rational-Choice Deterrence and Israeli Counter-Terrorism”. I’ll post the full article here if anyone’s interested.)
In the aftermath of our recent military campaign in Lebanon, many Israeli right-wingers have been wringing their hands (and, rhetorically, the necks of our Prime Minister and Defense Minister) over Israel’s supposed “loss of deterrence” due to our failure to destroy Hezbollah and its rocket-launching capability. Now I would hardly claim that our operation in Lebanon was an unqualified success; but I’ve become enough of a deterrence-skeptic that I’m instantly suspicious of people who use “deterrence” as a rationale for using maximal military force in asymmetric conflicts. Too often, “deterrence” is really just an excuse to blast away at people we don’t like.
It was refreshing, then, to read the following in an article by Yair Lapid about the Israeli news media’s handling of the Lebanon campaign (the italics are mine):
“Israel’s deterrence capabilities have been severely handicapped,” we told the whole world. This without bothering to remember that deterrence is a psychological situation for which there are no standards of measurement and no one can really know what those capabilities are.
After the Six-Day War, for example, the Israeli deterrence was at its highest and we got attacked on Yom Kippur anyway. After Yom Kippur every one knew that Israel’s deterrence had been damaged but no one attacked.
In other words, even when dealing with state actors, deterrence can be very difficult to measure – except, of course, in retrospect.
Deterrence works best against entities with a basically materialist outlook. The reason that the American-Soviet deterrent system of “mutually assured destruction” worked as well as it did was that both nations, while differing in many other values, were fundamentally uninterested in “martyrdom”; communism and capitalism both justify their policies based on the prosperity and well-being they provide their populations, and neither system could find a way to portray a nuclear holocaust, even a “victorious” one, as a success.
At the opposite end of the “deterrability” scale, suicide bombers are notoriously almost impossible to deter. How, after all, do you threaten someone who is already determined to die, and who has been promised extravagant rewards in an afterlife that is beyond your reach?
In evaluating potential deterrence, it’s crucial to determine where the entity to be deterred belongs on the Soviet-Union-to-suicide-bomber scale. Syria, for example, is not at all opposed to death per se, but much prefers to see other countries doing the fighting and dying. (Dr. Boaz Ganor of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism has suggested that Syria might be a more fruitful target for deterrence than Hezbollah itself in Israel’s attempts to solve its Lebanese problems.) Iran, on the other hand, is currently being led by a radical Shi’ite clique that appears to set a high value on “martyrdom”, even if Iran itself is the “martyr”. This is why the prospect of Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons is so scary: a country that is willing to become a nuclear wasteland in return for destroying its enemies cannot be easily deterred, even by a country with superb second-strike retaliatory capabilities. Thus the confrontation between an eventual nuclear Iran and a presumed-to-be-nuclear Israel would not have the inherent deterrence-driven stability of the American-Soviet match-up, or even of India and Pakistan.
I see no reason to believe that Israel’s ability to deter Syria has been degraded by our recent operations in Lebanon; after all, we certainly proved that we have plenty of firepower, the political will to deploy it, and even the ability to take casualties without panicking. I don’t believe our ability to deter Iran has significantly declined either – it wasn’t much to begin with. And Hezbollah? Remember who introduced suicide bombing to the Middle East! Hamas and the rest were taught the bomb-belt business by our friends up North; so we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we ever had a meaningful capacity to deter Hezbollah from attacking us simply by attacking them in return.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)