Saturday, July 29, 2006

Deterrence vs. Destruction

Secretary of State Rice has reportedly told Prime Minister Olmert there will be a cease fire by the end of this coming week. That is probably more an order than a prediction. So it is now time for Middle East players to remember the difference between deterrence and destruction. Destruction is a strategy to eliminate an enemy’s threat by eliminating the enemy. It requires preponderant force that rapidly reduces the enemy’s capability to retaliate and then reduces the enemy to a disorganized, powerless mass. It also requires some vigilance to prevent that enemy’s reappearance in one form or another.

Deterrence is a strategy of meeting a threatening enemy with one’s own threat. The idea is to make the enemy think twice about attacking you and then a third and fourth time. And so on, until it gets to thinking about something else. Effective deterrence has three requirements: The threat must be understood by its recipients, it must be potent and it must be credible. “Potent” means the punishment you can inflict upon the enemy, if it attacks, is more than the enemy wants to pay for its expected gain in attacking you. “Credible” means the enemy can believe you might punish it, despite your costs for administering the punishment and for possible retaliation by the enemy. This calculus of deterrence was formalized in the 1950s and 1960s; to the extent it was internalized by the US and USSR, it helped stabilize the Cold War.

During the past two weeks, Israelis living in the northern villages, towns and cities have done a tremendous job in assuring the credibility of Israel’s future threats. They continue to support the war on Hizbullah, despite IDF’s failure to stop the rocket attacks on them. The public knowledge of this result increases the probability that Israel leaders in the future will enforce a threat, even if the enforcement exposes their civilian population to prolonged attack.

The civilian population in Lebanon, more than Hizbullah itself, now knows how potent the Israel punishment can be. Their suffering might eventually cost Hizbullah something, when they have opportunities to express their disgust at the organization having invited Israel to go wild at their expense. Clueless about this possibility twenty days ago, when he ordered the abduction of the Israeli soldiers, Hassan Nasrallah is belatedly coming to its recognition. In a speech today, he told the Lebanese that Hizbullah would free the last bit of Lebanese soil held by the occupier – a reference to a possible deal over Shaba Farms – and would become part of Lebanon. In other words, it would stop reaming other Lebanese for its own sake. How refreshing! Still the Israeli responses to its provocation has cost Hizbullah directly: Several hundred dead and wounded fighters, a few dead middle managers, a depopulated southern Lebanon, destroyed housing and facilities, overwhelmed social services, criticism in the Arab world, perhaps a dressing down from its patrons Syria and Iran, probably a refusal of any rearmament for the present and a commitment by every outside power that Hizbullah fighters will be pushed back from the border with Israel.

Yet, Hizbullah can claim some deterrent power of its own. Its forces have killed a significant number of Israeli soldiers as well as civilians, maintained operations and communications, while under attack, and sprung some surprises on the IDF, like the shore-to-ship missile that crippled an Israeli corvette. Also Nasrallah appears to be playing a very skillful escalation game, pausing at each stage to indicate a willingness to escalate further or to deescalate. This is very surprising, because the abduction of the soldiers demonstrated an ignorance of the international game, seemingly as profound as Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust or Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Perhaps even more surprising, Israeli leadership seems to have gotten the message.

In the looking glass world of strategic logics, mutual deterrence is not the balance of fear or terror established by strategies of destruction. It is more a grudging exchange of respect. If Israel and Hizbullah have begun to approach that, they can each declare victory and start talking.


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