Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What ever happened to deterrence?

With all this talk of bombing Iran, you wonder if nobody remembers the Cold War. Given that it lasted so long, it's hard to see how you could miss it. When the Soviets threatened us with nuclear holocaust, we guaranteed them the same. It was called Mutually Assured Destruction. But before that was Assured Destruction, which was the doctrine whereby if we were attacked at all, we assured the Soviets of nuclear annihilation. Given our overwhelming nuclear superiority over Iran, why can't we use that same strategy? Make it very clear: if Iran launches a nuclear weapon on the U.S. or any ally, or if a smuggled nuclear device is exploded on U.S. soil, Iran will be held accountable and the country will be flattened under a rain of nuclear weapons.

But in this debate, no one seems to want to talk about the strategy that won the Cold War. Instead, on one side, you have the right-wing hawks claiming we Iran can't be deterred and cannot be allowed to possess the bomb, so we should attack. On the left, you have people saying we shouldn't ever threaten anyone. But threatening a counterattack is perfectly reasonable and it even puts you in a better strategic position. It's much easier to defend militarily and to gain allies diplomatically if you are the defender instead of the aggressor. It's also much more likely that the American public will fully support, and maintain supporting, a counterattack than a pre-emptive attack. Granted, a counterattack implies that the initial attack has already occurred and thus a large number of people have already died, but that is the risk a free society must take. The illusion of absolute security is tempting, but ultimately unattainable. Better to deter your enemy as much as possible and destroy him if attacked.


At 7:41 PM, Blogger El Jefe said...

i think a big reason why this strategy may be less attractive this time around (and I am playing a bit of devil's advocate here) is that this type of deterrence is that it creates a Prisoner's Dilemma. This in and of itself is not a problem, because a rational player in a Dilemma will always Co-Operate (the basis of tit-for-tat) in the first playing. For over 50 years, this prevented nuclear holocaust; however, there are 2 serious concerns.

First, if the Prisoner's Dilemma is played out only once (as in nuclear war) Co-Operating is not necessarily the correct strategy; in fact there is no "correct" strategy. Second, even if Co-Operating is the correct strategy, it requires "faith" that your opponent will act rationally, and therein lies the rub. While I think that this guy Ahmanihejed is much, much more bark than bite, I also don't know that he has the desire (or even the capacity) to think rationally. In which case, deterrence will not have it's desired effect, and instead of becoming a Stabilizing factor, it can easily become a Destabilizing factor.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Dan Craig said...

But you do play it out over and over when you decide not to launch a nuclear attack. In MAD, then, it's really more an iterative game (that would end only if a player defects) and thus there is benefit to co-operate. I guess AD is not quite the same because the magnitude of the retaliation is vastly unequal between the players.

Regardless of the game theory aspects, I think in general we don't give our enemies enough credit for thinking rationally, at least as rationally as we can expect a decently intelligent person in a social and political context to think. Even in a totalitation nation, you don't become a leader of a country by being crazy, you do it by scheming treachery, which is still rational even if it's amoral. The Soviets showed themselves to not care much about the individual lives of their people (see Stalin's mass killings), but they still chose not to instigate a nuclear war that would destroy themselves. Likewise, Ahmadinijad certainly says some ridiculous things, but you have to admit he and the Iranian leadership sure are spliting the international community on this issue and doing in very well. Despite the talk of wiping Israel off the map, I don't think he'd be willing to wipe Iran off the map in the process. Even people like bin Laden aren't necessarily irrational, though they may be evil. Their henchmen, like this Moussoui, may be crazy or even schizo, but bin Laden is using those people for his purposes and running quite a machine.

In general, we seem to want to attribute irrationality to those who hold different worldviews and morals, and thus come to different conclusions about how to act. At some point, basic assumptions are made on faith, whether it's faith in democracy and liberty, or faith in sharia and suicide. We all fight for what we believe, and it's probably the safe bet to assume the leaders on all sides are smart, talented, and capable.


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