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Forward Defense

And the "Hama rules."

11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2007 • By STUART KOEHL
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The problem today is an asymmetry of values (as well as capabilities) between ourselves and our present and potential adversaries. How do you deter people if the things they value are not material, but rather religious or ideological? Such people cannot be deterred by threats of death or material destruction, since their motivations are spiritual and intellectual. Therefore, the conventional calculus of deterrence cannot work, which leaves one with a variety of active and passive defenses against attack. Traditionally, there are three basic forms of defense one can adopt: preclusive defense; defense-in-depth; and forward defense.

In preclusive defense, one tries to keep the enemy from penetrating into one's territory by putting all one's effort into guarding the periphery. Call this the "Great Wall" or "Maginot Line" approach. It has been tried at various times and places against many different threats, but in general it has always failed because one cannot be equally strong at all places. In regard to the WMD threat, especially in regard to rogue states and terrorists, a U.S. preclusive defense would have to include missile and air defense systems, but also very aggressive screening of all persons and goods entering the United States, because a WMD can be delivered by various means. When one considers the magnitude of the task, and the burdens it would impose on both the economy and our freedom of movement, it is clear that a preclusive defense is not really viable.

The second approach, defense-in-depth, accepts that the enemy will get through, somewhere, at some time. It aims to limit the damage the enemy can do, localize him, and eventually destroy him. This has generally been a successful strategy from a purely military approach, but it exacts a tremendous social toll, since the enemy is fought on one's own soil, and therefore the damage inflicted by both sides is done to one's self. In the context of terrorism and WMDs, defense-in-depth would require a quantum increase in the level of surveillance over society, greater intrusion of the government into the activities of its citizens, the construction of passive defenses against attack (shelters, response teams, reconstruction plans, etc.) in addition to active defenses (greatly increased police and security forces, anti-missile systems, etc.). The material and social costs are not likely to be accepted by the American people. Finally, there is the prospect that, in the case of WMDs, just one failure can have long-lasting, catastrophic effects.

The final approach, forward defense, aims to engage the enemy on his own territory, before he has a chance to attack. As such, preventive attack is an element of a forward defense strategy, but not the only one. Diplomacy remains a key element of forward defense, since it is better to get one's allies to police their own backyards than to do it one's self. One can also exert leverage on those states which either aim to develop or support others in the development of WMDs or who support and sponsor terrorists. Backing up diplomacy can be a range of active and passive suasion techniques, which would include military assistance (more training than materiel, in most cases), economic support, bribery (if necessary), and a host of threats and sanctions (which must be considered credible to have any effect).


Only when all of these methods have been tried and failed does actual preemptive attack become necessary or desirable. And even then, the preemptive attack does not have to involve overt military force--which really should be the last resort. Covert operations, what the Chinese strategist Sun Tsu would call "attacking the enemy's plans," are probably the most cost-effective means of precluding terrorists or rogue state WMD programs. One can infiltrate hostile organizations, feed them disinformation, sow dissent within their ranks, attack their communications and financial networks--all of which the U.S. has been doing with considerable success since 9/11. One can escalate the response through various forms of direct action, such as targeted assassinations of critical personnel (WMD expertise doesn't grow on trees, particularly in the Third World), which could also have a deterrent effect on other key personnel (Israeli threats and attacks against German scientists effectively derailed an Egyptian missile program in the 1960s). One can set a thief to catch a thief by employing one's own insurgents and terrorists against the terrorists themselves (but beware of blowback!). One can use one's own special operations forces to attack key facilities, or assets--as the Israelis recently did in Syria. If properly planned, supported, and executed such methods can disrupt the enemy's ability to attack, while posing relatively little political or military risk to one's self (a country with an illicit weapons program or terrorist training camps can hardly complain in a public forum about the destruction of things it denies having).

Of course, if one has neglected to do these things, in the hope that the problem will go away, then the situation can escalate to the point that a massive military response is necessary. According to Israeli historian and military analyst Martin van Creveld, here the risk is one of doing too little rather than doing too much--one must excise the threat utterly as quickly as possible, using as much violence as necessary to ensure success. Having come this far, one really cannot cavil at "collateral damage," but must act with utter ruthlessness.

This is one of two approaches to terrorism and insurgency advocated by Van Creveld in his recent book, The Changing Face of War, giving as an example Hafez al-Assad's crushing of a rebellion in the city of Hama in 1982. Van Creveld makes one other key point--having done what needed to be done, one must never apologize, since this merely lends credibility to one's enemy and effectively undoes much of what has been accomplished. Having done what one needed to do, unashamedly, one establishes the credibility of his deterrent and therefore has less need to resort to massive violence in the future:

Presenting yourself to the world, you will offer no regrets and shed no tears over the victims. Instead, you will explain exactly why it had to be done and make sure everybody understands you are ready to do it again at a moment's notice. . .

But better by far to act before matters come to a head.


Adopting a forward defensive strategy against both terrorism and WMDs does not, of course, mean that the United States should ignore its defensive perimeter, or disregard the eventuality of a terrorist or WMD attack on our own soil. It does mean that we have to consider and rationally prioritize our allocation of resources--first, to engaging the threat in its backyard, not our own; then to defeating attempts to penetrate our borders, either with people or with weapons; and finally, to preparing to respond to an attack and restore normality as quickly as possible thereafter. A balanced and judicious approach to the twin threats of WMDs and terrorism can both protect us and keep us from having to employ the "Hama Rules."

Stuart Koehl is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Transatlantic Relations and a contributor to THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD.