The Magazine

Deterrence and Prevention

Why a war against Saddam is crucial to the future of deterrence.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By TOD LINDBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE QUESTION of what to do about Iraq--and moving down the track, what to do about North Korea--typically gets described as a choice between deterrence and preemption (or perhaps better, "prevention"). If Saddam Hussein can be contained and deterred from using weapons of mass destruction, as some contend, then there is no need to go to war against him. If, on the other hand, we cannot be confident that he can be deterred, then preventive action is necessary. Reaching the latter conclusion is generally considered a doctrinal leap--a declaration of no confidence in the theory and practice of deterrence.

This idea of a radical break with past practice and past theory is embraced by both sides--by the advocates of deterrence and by the partisans of prevention. In the case of the former, the movement from deterrence to prevention represents a rejection of time-tested means of dealing with adversaries in favor of the always risky course of waging aggressive war--and losing in the bargain the justification of necessity, thus imperiling the moral legitimacy of our cause. For the advocates of prevention, it's good riddance to deterrence. Now that an alternative is available, who needs a doctrine that keeps the peace only at a level of utmost precariousness?

In practice, of course, U.S. policy has long been a blend of both deterrence and prevention. As Max Boot has noted, the United States has often chosen to act preemptively or preventively. At the same time, we have also fielded forces meant to deter parties from taking action we would find inimical, in many cases with apparent success. Of course, the contrast between messy reality and tidy theory is no refutation of a theory; it may simply represent a failure to apply the theory as systematically as it might have been. In the case of deterrence and prevention, however, I would suggest that the mess runs deep, and the theory is not tidy at all.

When people talk about deterrence, they usually assume that the unacceptable conduct to be deterred is both clear and consistent over time. In many cases, this may be true, the case of a nuclear first strike between rival superpowers being clearest of all. But it is not always true, and it is certainly not true in the case of Iraq.

Until and during the first Gulf War, the objective was to deter Iraq from the use of weapons of mass destruction against coalition forces or Israel. At the time of the cease-fire agreement, however, something important changed, and the change was little appreciated at the time. The United States insisted that Iraq disarm, and Iraq agreed. It is clear in retrospect that this amounted to a major shift in the U.S. view of deterrence, as least as applied to Iraq. The United States was seeking to deter not only Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction but also its acquisition and possession of such weapons.

Iraq, it quickly became clear, was disinclined to abide by the new terms. The question, then, was what the United States (here, as leader of a coalition) would do to enforce them. How serious was Washington? Serious enough to insist on sanctions against Iraq until it fully complied with the terms of United Nations resolutions demanding disarmament. But this failed to impress Iraq overmuch. Serious enough to sever Saddam Hussein's sovereignty over parts of the country, the northern and southern no-fly zones, by maintaining a steady military presence. But again, evidently not impressive enough to persuade Saddam to disarm. Serious enough, in the wake of September 11, to begin assembling allies for military action to change the regime in Iraq and to return to the United Nations to seek what became Security Council Resolution 1441, declaring Saddam in "material breach" of his obligations and offering him a "final opportunity" to comply--which he remains unwilling to do. Serious enough, finally, to amass a huge force in the region with the evident intention of putting it to use.

All of this activity has aimed to persuade and if necessary coerce Iraq to accept a new standard of conduct (though now more than a decade old) and to deter Iraq from breaching it in the future. If at any point Iraq had relented and disarmed (or relents now and disarms), then the terms of deterrence would have been reestablished and that would have been the end of the matter.

But if the showdown comes to blows, in what will be called a preventive action on the part of the United States, it will be preventive in two senses: both in the immediate sense of thwarting Saddam Hussein, but also as an advertisement more generally of what is acceptable action by other parties.