Belmont Club

When in doubt, don't

In 1995, during the middle of President Clinton’s first term, the US Strategic Command declassified a document titled the Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence which laid out the principles for dealing with threats from strategic inferiors — both Russia and other nations — after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Although the paper was written from the American point of view, it was informed throughout by the implicit assumptions of what hostile nations might attempt to achieve from a position of strategic inferiority.

In other words, the Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence provides a framework within which to understand why the Russian leadership has vowed to consider a military response, or even a renewal of the Cold War in response to the US-Czech accord marking the start of the deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe. The NYT reports:

President Dmitri A. Medvedev and his predecessor, Vladimir V. Putin, who is now the Russian prime minister, have told the United States that the Kremlin sees a missile shield in this part of Europe as a threat to Russian security. Mr. Putin has said it could even lead to a new cold war.

But American and Czech officials said the system’s radar component, to be stationed south of Prague, would defend the NATO members in Europe and the United States against long-range weapons from the Middle East, particularly Iran.

“Ballistic missile proliferation is not an imaginary threat,” Ms. Rice said Tuesday after meeting with the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek. She said Iran continued to work toward a nuclear bomb, along with long-range missiles that could carry a warhead.

The key concept embodied in the Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence is the idea that it rests on an American commitment to inflict an unspecified but devastating response upon any nation or group that attacks it. In order to prevent any adversary from legalistically parsing a pre-announced set of conditions under which the United States would retaliate, all the terms were left intentionally vague so that only American national command authority could say with certainty what would happen next. In the words of the document:

While it is crucial to explicitly define and communicate the acts or damages that we would find unacceptable and, hence, what it is that we are specifically seeking to deter, we should not be very specific about our response. It is however, crucial that the level of our commitment to the things we value be unfaltering, and that the adversary have little doubt of this. Without saying exactly what the consequences will be if the US has to respond, whether the reaction would either be responsive or preemptive, we must communicate in the strongest ways possible the unreakable link between our vital interests and the potential harm that will be directly attributable to anyone who damages (or even credibly threatens to damage) that which we hold of value.

This has the effect of threatening a vastly disproportionate response towards any attempts at aggression by strategic inferiors. While a proportionate response is not ruled out, neither — and this is the essential point — is a wholly disproportionate one. Under such a doctrine a missile defense capability would play a very important role: it would greatly increase the potential lopsidedness of the exchange. Time and again the Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence emphasizes the idea that one of key goals of modern defense is to instill uncertainty in the minds of an adversary — whether that opponent is rational or not.

Deterrence of the Soviets never depended on having “rational” leaders. Stalin was in charge when the Soviets first began a build-up of nuclear arms, and it is difficult to consider him as an example of a rational leader. This is perhaps the grossest error of those who make arguments that the new multilateral threats are “undeterrable” because the new regional actors are not likely to be rational. Stalin was hardly more rational than they. The very framework of a concept that depends on instilling fear and uncertainty in the minds of opponents was never, nor can it be, strictly rational. Nor has it ever strictly required rational adversaries in order to function. What should be sobering to all of us in viewing deterrence as a process is that its outcome was never, nor can it ever be, strictly predictable.

What a working missile defense shield will do is make any Russian limited WMD attack on the West a very uncertain proposition. While Russia’s arsenal is easily big enough to overwhelm, through sheer numbers, the defensive system based in Poland and the Czech Republic any such attack would also be big enough to guarantee Russia’s destruction in the resulting retaliation. It may be an exaggeration to claim that a missile defense will have the effect of disarming the Kremlin of any viable military response between issuing a diplomatic protest and starting Armaggedon but it is quite clear it threatens to invalidate a large range of the “full spectrum” responses now available to the Russians. How much the Russians value the ability to make limited, but brutal threats is illustrated in a story the Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence relates with a mixture of horror and admiration.

The story of the tactic applied by the Soviets during the earliest days of the Lebanon chaos is a case in point. When three of its citizens and their driver were kidnapped and killed, two days later the Soviets had delivered to the leader of the revolutionary activity a package containing a single testicle- that of his eldest son-with a message that said in no uncertain terms, never bother our people again.” It was successful throughout the period of the conflicts there. Such an insightful tailoring of what is valued within a culture, and its weaving into a deterrence message, along with a projection of the capability that can be mustered, is the type of creative thinking that must go into deciding what to hold at risk in framing deterrent targeting for multilateral situations in the future. At the same time this story illustrates just how much more difficult it is for a society such as ours to frame its deterrent messages-that our society would never condone the taking of such actions makes it more difficult for us to deter acts of terrorism.

Moscow finds limited but savage threats very useful indeed. It recently admitted to killing dissident Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko to send a pointed message, proving that the days of testicles in boxes is not over. But with Russian conventional forces vastly inferior to those of the US, the Kremlin’s nuclear leftovers formed the only means of sending Eastern Europe the proverbial severed finger. That power will become radically devalued with the emergence of a missile shield or at least useful only in the case of Armaggedon. Thus the Kremlin has threatened a military response — likely some new missile or penetrator system essentially invulnerable to the new defenses — in order to regain its strategic flexibility.

The effect of a missile shield on Iran and its proxies would be even more pronounced. Recently Iran threatened to strike at Israel and America should any attempts be made to interfere with the progress of its nuclear program. Once Teheran acquires a limited nuclear weapons capability it could theoretically deter an American doctrine of a vastly disproportionate response. No longer could Americans credibly threaten utter destruction in retaliation for a chemical, biological, dirty bomb or mega-conventional attack if Teheran possessed the credible means to fire even a handful of missiles at Western targets. With a half dozen missiles at the ready the Ayatollahs could be reasonably sure that, short of an actual nuclear attack on an American city, Washington might not dare take disproportionate action. In other words, the uncertainty which forms the kernel of American deterrence would be effectively undermined.

What a missile defense system in Europe would do is restore the ambiguity inherent in the American deterrent posture even in the event Iran has nuclear weapons. If the Ayatollahs cannot rely on their missiles penetrating the defense, they are faced with possibility that America could actually destroy it utterly, leaving no time for Teheran to even deploy shipping container bombs, in response to any attack Washington considered sufficiently offensive. The Ayatollahs could persuade themselves that Washington mightn’t but it would have to admit that it could. And that doubt might make all the difference. And by diminishing the Iranian certainty, the missiles also reduce the incentive for any terrorist organization, be it Sunni or Shi’a, to shelter under its leaky umbrella. Deterrence is above all a psychological game. The Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence reminds us that the vast expenditures of the Cold War — and today — go towards the purchase of uncertainty in the enemy’s mind.

Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the US may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. ‘This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.

Although little noticed by the press, a pointed exchange between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama early in their recent primary campaign illustrated how the evanescent quality of deterrence might be thrown away by a single Presidential word or gesture. The Washington Post reported:

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew another distinction between herself and Sen. Barack Obama yesterday, refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Osama bin Laden or other terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton’s comments came in response to Obama’s remarks earlier in the day that nuclear weapons are “not on the table” in dealing with ungoverned territories in the two countries, and they continued a steady tug of war among the Democratic presidential candidates over foreign policy.

“I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance” in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Obama said. He then added that he would not use such weapons in situations “involving civilians.”

Obama, perhaps realizing his mistake, walked back from the strategic precipice. Later the candidate said, “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.” But maybe for a moment it was, but the moment passed. And we are back, for now, in uncertainty.

Speaking of which, here’s some breaking news about the non-existent, exaggerated threat against which no defense is necessary …

PARIS: One day after threatening to strike Tel Aviv and United States interests if attacked, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were reported on Wednesday to have test-fired nine missiles, including one which Tehran claims has the range to reach Israel. State-run media, quoted by Western news agencies, said the missiles were long- and medium-range projectiles, among them a new version of the Shahab-3 which Tehran maintains can hit targets 1,250 miles away from its firing position.

Uncertainty cuts both ways.

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