Thursday, August 24, 2006


For some reason, modern states are not as deterrable as they once were. At least that's the conventional wisdom. I recall growing up in the 1970s and '80s with nuclear war, and all that that implies, being "out there." We could talk about first strike vs. massive retaliation, and launch-on-warning vs. ride-out-the-attack. It was in the conversation. We got Civil Defense manuals in grade school (I was too late for duck-and-cover drills), with diagrams of heat and blast damage in concentric circles from airbursts of various megatonnages. There were other diagrams of plume exposure patterns of fallout from ground bursts. I took a national security policy class at the University of Rochester that the students nicknamed, "Bombs and Rockets." It was damned interesting.

I remember one friend of mine in Winchester, Massachusetts. He lived next door and was two years older than me. One day, contrails criss-crossed the summer sky above in a way I had never seen before. My friend said they were Russian missiles. I believed him, of course. I was eight. Probably, they were US fighters from Hanscom and/or Otis flying exercises. I stood for hours, looking up, my mouth agape. In front of my house.

Russians. They could kill us all at any moment. Where we live.

Most people were content to leave it at the "balance of terror" or "mutually assured destruction" level, a la Twilight Zone and WarGames. One bomb and everybody dies, effectively. Makes for a fine morality play. But there were nuances for the nuclear cognoscenti to examine over late night beers, coffees, and cigarettes. Even later, I've had the opportunity to discuss nuclear strategy with former Warsaw Pact pilots trained and charged with penetrating Western Europe to deliver nuclear weapons. And I've spoken with Western pilots who were trained to go the other way. I even got to introduce two such former enemy pilots to each other, telling them that if the balloon ever went up they would probably have passed each other in flight. Handshakes and smiles.

So the current hubbub over Iran and North Korea is slightly perplexing to me. Sure, there is a worry that North Korea might be undeterrable. Perhaps. But Iran certainly is deterrable. They want to live. And they want to win. To do the latter, they have to do the former.

Iran is deterrable. They have things of value that others can put at risk. Iran says Israel should be wiped off the map. Israel could do that to Iran right now, if it chose. Iran is striving for its first nuclear weapon. The US has thousands. Am I missing something?

So, I'm asking: Whatever happened to deterrence?


At 4:14 PM, Blogger Joe Katzman said...

What happened is that your assumptions are wrong.

"But Iran certainly is deterrable. They want to live. And they want to win. To do the latter, they have to do the former."

Um, newsflash. These are the people who brought "suicide bombing" into the Islamic lexicon. A mode of thinking that most certainly does NOT require survival in order to win.

Then there's the substantial faction that believes in hastening the coming of the 12th Imam - essentially, the apocalypse - in order to usher in the triumph of Islam on earth.

There is no shortage of statements et. al. on file from Iran's leaders at many levels along these lines. Including statements that even if Iran is destroyed along with Israel, that's still a win because Islam would still survive.

You need to step out of your secular, Western mindset, and consider the mindset of Iran as it is, not as you imagine it to be or think you'd act in their place.

At 4:50 AM, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

A lot of people, like the commenter above like to believe Iran (or North Korea for that matter) are ruled by crazies and are just unredeemably evvvilll. The powers that be like to encourage that believe, as it allows them to do stuff they could not otherwise get away with (like invading Iraq)...

Deterrence does not fit that picture.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Michael Puttre said...

Actually, Joe, I think the rulers of Iran and elsewhere are prepared to use suicide bombers as weapons, but are not necessarily prepared to commit suicide personally. Nor are they prepared, I don't think, to commit suicide as a people, as a civilization. Because then they lose. On the other hand, as Eddie Izzard points out, Hitler did "wind up in a ditch covered in petrol,"so it's not unthinkable for undeterrable, apocalyptic leaders to come to power.

I don't think I'm restricting my thinking too much to a Western perspective (although I can't help it to some degree, being, um, Western). The concept of deterrence is surprisingly transportable across civilizations.


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