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December 10, 2007

Is Deterrence Back?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Against my better judgment I watched my former mayor, Rudolph Guiliani on Meet the Press and I have to say I share the view expressed here by M.J. Rosenberg that it was not Rudy's finest effort.

But one thing he said really did jump out at me. When asked about Iran's nuclear program, Guiliani extolled the virtues of deterrence.  Here's what he had to say:

We should utilize as much pressure as we’re capable of.  But the fact that that is there, that military option is there, not taken off the table ultimately increases the pressure, doesn’t it?  The reality is the pressure works.  They said that, too, right?  They, they said in 2003 Iran abandoned its nuclear program, they believe, because of all the pressure, all the threats, that they are susceptible to that.  2003 was the year in which we deposed Saddam Hussein.  It was the year in which America showed massive military strength.

Interestingly, John Bolton made a somewhat similar point in his absurd op-ed last week in the Washington Post. In criticizing the NIE's focus on diplomatic suasion, Bolton instead argues that the Iranians were undoubtedly influenced by the US invasion of Iran Iraq:

It [the NIE] implies that Iran is susceptible to diplomatic persuasion and pressure, yet the only event in 2003 that might have affected Iran was our invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not exactly a diplomatic pas de deux. As undersecretary of state for arms control in 2003, I know we were nowhere near exerting any significant diplomatic pressure on Iran.

This is not completely accurate, indeed the Iran NIE argues the following:

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit  approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and  military costs.  This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.  It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be.

But, whatever the case, the concessions by Bolton and Guiliani are important - because both men seem to indicate that deterrence and containment had an impact on changing Iranian behavior. Why does this matter? Because the key rationale for war with Iraq; the entire basis of the Bush Administration's national security strategy, namely the preemption doctrine, is based on the notion that deterrence doesn't work.

Here is President Bush in a speech at West Point in 2002:


For much of the last century, America's defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment.  In some cases, those strategies still apply.  But new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence -- the promise of massive retaliation against nations -- means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.  Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

Here's what the 2002 National Security Strategy said:


Deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people,and the wealth of their nations.

Traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents; whose so-called soldiers seek martyrdom in death and whose most potent protection is statelessness.The overlap between states that sponsor terror and those that pursue WMD compels us to action.

Now of course the Bush Administration has wrongly conflated state sponsors of terrorism with the terrorists themselves, but the argument here seems pretty clear - rogue states can't be deterred. Of course, in the run-up to the the Iraq War, no argument of the Bush foreign policy team was more absurd then this one. While it may be impossible to deter a terrorist like Mohammed Atta, states are very different animals and are much more likely to respond to carrots and sticks. Indeed, history is replete with lessons.

Pre-war Iraq is an excellent example. Every time Saddam Hussein got the idea to move against one of his neighbors, it took the threat, and sometimes use of, military force to convince him otherwise. Moreover, the UN sanctions regime and no-fly zones, patrolled by the US and UK kept Saddam in a very restrictive cage. He was unable to project military power outside his border and in fact, the Northern fly-zone helped the flowering of Kurdish civil society. Of course, as we now know, they also short-circuited Saddam's WMD programs. In short, they were among the most successful sanction regimes in human history.

Clearly, a far less invasive system of scrutiny and pressure seemed to have a similar effect on Iran. There is a lesson there about the power of deterrence and containment in the age of terror. Subconsciously, Bolton and Guiliani seem to get it; whether a Guiliani Administration would act on this knowledge, well that is something else altogether.


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"...the Iranians were undoubtedly influenced by the US invasion of Iran"

Don't get ahead of yourself there Michael

Michael, they don't think about these things with the kind of precision that you do. Or, to put it another way, Bush and his ilk talked up both sides of Iraq. First there was the "smoking-gun-mushroom-cloud" line which speaks to your point about the end of the deterrence era. But the other argument they made, without ever dealing with or even noting the contradiction was that invading Iraq was an act that would deter other countries from defying or threatening us. So Iraq was both a rejection and application of deterrence theory, at least the way Bush told the tale (which depended heavily on what day he was telling).

I'm sorry to have to say this, but Giuliani and Bolton are right.

There is little reason to think that the arrival of an American army in Iraq in 2003 was not the biggest external factor in Iranian thinking about whether to proceed with a dedicated nuclear weapons program. This does not make it the only reason, or invalidate the NIE's conclusion that the Iranian government weighed costs and benefit with respect to this subject four years ago and is capable of doing so now. It is just such a calculus that would persuade any rational actor to avoid taking steps that might lead to a direct confrontation with the American military.

Now, could deterrence work, if at some future time Iran did eventually acquire a nuclear arsenal? It could. But this isn't certain, and where nuclear weapons are involved it really needs to be. I have some concern that commentators on this subject are too apt to take the success of deterrence during the Cold War with the Soviet Union for granted. In fact, there were several close calls; even Dana Perino can probably name one of them by now.

And, no, the post-Gulf War containment of Iraq is not a useful analogy, for several reasons the most important of which is that nuclear weapons are different. The consequences of their use and the swiftness with which that use could change so many things we count on in the world today makes nuclear proliferation a matter of the greatest importance. I have long believed that the crisis atmosphere the Bush White House sought to create with respect to Iran was unjustified, a belief based on my doubt that Iran was anywhere as close to obtaining a nuclear arsenal as Bush and Cheney represented. I am glad to have that doubt supported by the NIE, but cannot regard this as the end of the matter. Efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons in Southwest Asia are no less important than they ever were.

Michael, you no doubt have some evidence that Hussein on more than one occasion (1) "got the idea to move against one of his neighbors" and (2) "it took the threat, and sometimes use of, military force to convince him otherwise." These were your benefits of the terrible destruction of Iraqi infrastructure and the impoverishment of Iraqis which resulted in widespread death and deprivation. Successful sanctions indeed, if dead children were your goal.

Of course we all know that "the flowering of Kurdish civil society" is now threatening to break up the Iraq state and bring Turkey into the war, not necessarily good things.

Regarding 2003, what a coincidence that this new NIE (unlike the previous one) claims Iran scrapped their WMD program the same year that the US invaded Iraq. Personally I don't believe in coincidences where the government is involved.

they were among the most successful sanction regimes in human history

from a 2002 Harper's article
Since the U.N. adopted economic sanctions in 1945, in its charter, as a means of maintaining global order, it has used them fourteen times (twelve times since 1990). But only those sanctions imposed on Iraq have been comprehensive, meaning that virtually every aspect of the country's imports and exports is controlled, which is particularly damaging to a country recovering from war. Since the program began, an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five have died as a result of the sanctions—almost three times as many as the number of Japanese killed during the U.S. atomic bomb attacks. . .

Since August 1991 the United States has blocked most purchases of materials necessary for Iraq to generate electricity, as well as equipment for radio, telephone, and other communications. Often restrictions have hinged on the withholding of a single essential element, rendering many approved items useless. For example, Iraq was allowed to purchase a sewage-treatment plant but was blocked from buying the generator necessary to run it; this in a country that has been pouring 300,000 tons of raw sewage daily into its rivers. . . .

The devastation of the Gulf War and the sanctions that preceded and sustained such devastation changed all that. Often forgotten is the fact that sanctions were imposed before the war-in August of 1990-in direct response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. After the liberation of Kuwait, sanctions were maintained, their focus shifted to disarmament. In 1991, a few months after the end of the war, the U.N. secretary general's envoy reported that Iraq was facing a crisis in the areas of food, water, sanitation, and health, as well as elsewhere in its entire infrastructure, and predicted an “imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemics and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met.” U.S. intelligence assessments took the same view. A Defense Department evaluation noted that “Degraded medical conditions in Iraq are primarily attributable to the breakdown of public services (water purification and distribution, preventive medicine, water disposal, health-care services, electricity, and transportation). . . . Hospital care is degraded by lack of running water and electricity.” According to Pentagon officials, that was the intention. . . .

Among the many deprivations Iraq has experienced, none is so closely correlated with deaths as its damaged water system. Prior to 1990, 95 percent of urban households in Iraq had access to potable water, as did three quarters of rural households. Soon after the Persian Gulf War, there were widespread outbreaks of cholera and typhoid—diseases that had been largely eradicated in Iraq—as well as massive increases in child and infant dysentery, and skyrocketing child and infant mortality rates. By 1996 all sewage-treatment plants had broken down. . .

In the late 1980s the mortality rate for Iraqi children under five years old was about fifty per thousand. By 1994 it had nearly doubled, to just under ninety. By 1999 it had increased again, this time to nearly 130; that is, 13 percent of all Iraqi children were dead before their fifth birthday. For the most part, they die as a direct or indirect result of contaminated water. . .

In early 2001, the United States had placed holds on $280 million in medical supplies, including vaccines to treat infant hepatitis, tetanus, and diphtheria, as well as incubators and cardiac equipment.

And what do you think of the very popular view by a leading Israeli analyst Obadiah Shoher? He argues (here, for example, www. ) that the Bush Administration made a deal with Iran: nuclear program in exchange for curtailing the Iranian support for Iraqi terrorists. His story seems plausible, isn't it?

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