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.