The Magazine

The Obsolescence of Deterrence

Cold War nostalgia grips the antiwar movement. Apparently they've forgotten about the balance of terror.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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When President Bush enunciated his radical new doctrine of preemption, the forcible disarmament of rogue possessors of weapons of mass destruction, it was met with a mixture of disdain and consternation by a foreign policy establishment instinctively allergic to new doctrines. Most objected that this policy, aimed today at Iraq, was simply too reckless and costly, risking disastrous outcomes--from "Black Hawk Down" urban fighting in Baghdad to chemical and bioweapon attacks on American troops or Iraq's neighbors.

But those are mere prudential objections. The more fundamental objection was that in principle the idea of disarming Saddam Hussein and his ilk does not withstand scrutiny. Not because preemptive disarming is too costly but because it is unnecessary. Why? Because deterrence works. "I have seen no persuasive evidence," argued Sen. Ted Kennedy, "that Saddam would not be deterred from attacking U.S. interests by America's overwhelming military superiority." So why go to war to disarm him? "Containment of Saddam is so far working," said Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "He will not in my judgment initiate an attack with a weapon of mass destruction, because it would lead to his own destruction if he did that. He's a survivalist."

Of course, now that the Security Council has ordered Saddam to cough up his weapons of mass destruction or face "serious consequences," Kennedy and Levin and other leaders who had strenuously spoken out against the war have fallen silent, wisely not wishing to be seen as to the left of France on this issue. Who can object to Saddam's unilateral disarmament, achieved through the painless means of U.N. inspections?

It is most unlikely, however, that Saddam will succumb to the patient prodding of Hans Blix and disarm peacefully. If he doesn't, there will be no escaping the choice: preemptive war or living with Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. President Bush has made it clear that if left with this choice, he will see to it that Saddam is forcibly disarmed by the American military and whatever allies join us.

Therefore, when this hiatus of cozy consensus ends--as it inevitably will either when Saddam violates Security Council Resolution 1441 to the satisfaction of France, or when the United States loses patience with both Saddam's cheating and the Security Council's equivocation--the question of a war over these weapons of mass destruction will return. It cannot be otherwise. This is the central question of our time, extending far beyond Iraq. How to deal with the inevitable proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to rogue states: preempt or deter?

The case for deterrence rests on the following syllogism:

Weapons of mass destruction were not invented yesterday. We have half a century of experience on how to keep them from being used. What kept the peace with a hostile nuclear superpower was deterrence: The Soviet Union had nukes; we had nukes; both sides knew that if they dared use their nukes first, they would be obliterated. Saddam Hussein is infinitely weaker than such vast continental superpowers. He will certainly be as deterrable as the Soviets were. As Brent Scowcroft put it: "Threatening to use these weapons for blackmail--much less their actual use--would open him and his entire regime to a devastating response by the U.S. While Saddam is thoroughly evil, he is above all a power-hungry survivor." Why does the president feel, asks Zbigniew Brzezinski, that "deterrence doesn't work, when it worked with such murderous, dangerous tyrants as Stalin, as Mao Zedong. It worked during the Cuban missile crisis"?

The first problem with this argument is its nostalgia for containment and nuclear deterrence. Like all nostalgia, especially Cold War nostalgia, it depends on a memory that is highly selective. And fuzzy. It presents the international relations of the second half of the 20th century as simple and stable. They were not. We came more than once to the brink of Armageddon. In October 1962, we came to within a single misjudgment, a single miscommunication, perhaps even a single overeager fighter pilot. Had one thing gone wrong--for example, had Kennedy not ignored a particularly belligerent message from Khrushchev while acknowledging a more conciliatory subsequent message--the United States and the Soviet Union might well have reduced each other to a smoking ruin.

The fact that we escaped is not an argument for the stability of deterrence. It is an argument for luck. Indeed, it is an argument for trying to escape deterrence and find sturdier ground for human survival. If the Cuban missile crisis is evidence of the virtues of deterrence, God help us. It brought us closer to the abyss than any event in human history, and could very well have taken us over had the United States and the Soviet Union had different leaders at the time. The world will not survive more than a very few missile-crisis equivalents before someone makes a blunder that precipitates catastrophic nuclear war.

DETERRENCE NOSTALGICS also conveniently forget its debilitating psychological effects. For fifty years, the peace of the world hinged on a balance of terror. As Churchill memorably characterized the central paradox, "Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation." Terror and paradox are not easy to live with. To rest strategic stability on terror and paradox is to ask a lot of a democratic society.

Sometimes too much. During the now warmly remembered Cold War, ban-the-bomb and disarmament movements erupted with dismaying regularity. They reached their apogee during the nuclear hysteria that swept Western Europe and the United States in the early 1980s. This widespread collapse of the consensus in favor of deterrence saw the largest political demonstration in American history, an anti-nuclear rally that brought over 700,000 protesters to New York City in June 1982. Opinion leaders, academics, physicians' groups, major media, and the Democratic party were so seized by fear of nuclear war that they frantically sought escape by either a ridiculous solution--a nuclear freeze (it passed the House of Representatives 278-149)--or a disastrous one: unilateral disarmament. Indeed, the book that sparked the frenzy, Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth," perhaps the most celebrated book of the time, was an indictment of deterrence and a manifesto for disarmament.

Learned psychiatrists testified to the heavy psychological price America was paying for deterrence. High suicide rates, teen depression, drug use, and anomie were attributed to the unbearable stresses of living under a nuclear cloud. According to Harvard's Dr. John Mack, it was the cause of "widespread fear, sadness, helplessness, cynicism and anger." However hyped these claims, the very fact that they were made, widely published and widely received, shows how traumatized the country had become by the very thought of living under the balance of terror. When at the apex of the hysteria ABC screened "The Day After," a film that depicted a nuclear attack on the United States, psychologists and counselors were deployed the next morning throughout the country, and especially in the schools, to try to calm the panic. Such was the stability, both strategic and psychological, of a balance of terror.

ONE CANNOT LEAVE THE SUBJECT of the opposition to deterrence during the Cold War without noting the hypocrisy of the antiwar movement's current newfound affection for deterrence. It spent the better part of the Cold War not only trying to scare the hell out of the citizenry about living under deterrence, but trying to establish its fundamental immorality. In 1983, for example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a famous pastoral letter on nuclear war at the height of the controversy over the nuclear freeze and the deployment of American Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe (to counter the Soviets' installation of intermediate-range SS20s in their part of Europe). Not surprisingly, the bishops found that deterrence, which rested, of course, on an American threat to launch a nuclear attack, violated just war theory: "It is not morally acceptable to intend to kill the innocent as part of a strategy of deterring nuclear war." Twenty years later, the bishops are again invoking just war theory to argue for the immorality of a preemptive war on Iraq--"We fear that resort to war...would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force"--a war whose very purpose would be to strip Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and thus escape the dilemmas (and immoralities) of deterrence.

Similarly on the secular left, the same people who for decades did everything they could to undermine deterrence have now all of a sudden discovered its virtues. In contrast, the honest position on the dilemmas of deterrence was best exemplified by Ronald Reagan. As president, Reagan did everything he could to bolster deterrence--his military buildup so outstripped the Soviets as to convince them ultimately to sue for peace in the Cold War--but only as a temporary measure in the absence of any substitute. He was a provisional supporter of deterrence, but was never satisfied with it because ultimately he felt it was immoral. He kept looking for an alternative different from that offered by the left, which was unilateral disarmament and surrender.

Which explains Reagan's extraordinary enthusiasm for strategic defense, which he proposed with utter sincerity as a means of escaping the moral dilemmas of mutual assured destruction. His idea of ballistic missile defenses was greeted with the same skepticism that has greeted the Bush doctrine of preemption. Twenty years later, the idea of nuclear defenses is not only widely accepted but is the official policy of the United States. The reason is simple. No people want to live in a hair-trigger situation in which their safety depends on the threat of the annihilation of millions.

IS THIS THE POSTURE we wish to adopt toward Iraq and other rogue states? At least during the Cold War one could justify deterrence on the grounds that there was simply no other choice. The balance of terror was imposed on us by necessity. The Soviets developed nuclear capability at a time when they were a great conventional superpower. They could not be disarmed (preemption would have required a surprise American nuclear attack). Saddam can be.

We would be choosing to live in deterrence with Saddam. Why? Had we had the choice of disarming the Soviets by more palatable means, say, a limited military operation like Israel's destruction of Saddam's Osirak reactor, it might have been a reasonable option. We have that choice today with Iraq. The deterrence nostalgics reject it, preferring to live voluntarily under a new balance of terror.

The current deterrence school starts with the assumption that there is no stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but there is no great need to worry because deterrence can deal with the problem. It takes the model of the bipolar late 20th century--two superpowers deterring each other and keeping the peace--and applies it to the 21st century. But the 21st century is not bipolar. WMD technology is spreading and coming within the reach of dozens of countries. Under such circumstances, the logic of deterrence argues perversely for increased proliferation--if everyone has nukes, everyone is deterred, and no one will use them. Safety through deterrence; universal safety through universal deterrence.

There's no escaping this logic. Yet it is plainly a huge bet against everything we know about human nature. It is also a terrible tempting of statistics. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will certainly include increasingly unstable and unbalanced characters. It will mean that even such inherently undeterrable substate groups as al Qaeda will in time get these weapons. The result will inevitably be a deeply unstable international structure that promises to break down at myriad points in the future, even the near future.

The case for deterrence, drawing on the bipolar Cold War, leads inexorably to a world of hyperproliferation. This is madness. As the era of weapons of mass destruction dawns, the better approach is to deny them--forcibly if necessary--to very bad actors. Starting with Saddam. Indeed, making an example of Saddam.

Ironically, the preemption option, if adopted, will serve as a higher form of deterrence. The idea of preemption is to deter states not from using weapons of mass destruction but from acquiring them in the first place. If you are merely deterring WMD use in war, it is already too late. You become open to precisely the kind of nuclear blackmail to which North Korea is today subjecting the United States (and Japan and South Korea). Preemption is a kind of pre-deterrence that stops the threat at an earlier, safer stage.

Overthrowing Saddam because of his refusal to relinquish these weapons would be a clear demonstration to other tyrants that attempting to acquire WMD is a losing proposition: Not only do they not purchase you immunity (as in classical deterrence), they purchase you extinction. You will be not only disarmed but dethroned. A death penalty (political or literal) for the attempted acquisition of these weapons should concentrate the mind of those contemplating acquiring them. Taken together with other nonproliferation measures, such as export controls, preemption can be the most potent deterrent to proliferation.

There are good reasons to oppose war on Iraq. Nostalgia for deterrence is not one of them. War with Iraq might indeed be costly; the risks need to be carefully weighed. But the case for preemptive war cannot be dismissed with the easy and unexamined invocation of deterrence. Yes, deterrence worked in the past. But in the past it was a play with very few actors. And even under those circumstances, the best of circumstances, deterrence was psychologically debilitating, inherently unstable, and highly dangerous. To voluntarily choose it as the principle on which to rest our safety in this age of weapons of mass destruction is sheer folly.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.