America's Deterrence Problem
Image Credit: The White House (Flickr)

America's Deterrence Problem


Over at The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead has a post about Washington, Tehran, and deterrence that's worth your time. In effect Professor Mead maintains that the Obama administration has signaled — inadvertently in all likelihood — that it isn't serious about keeping Iran from bursting into the club of de facto nuclear-weapon states. Iranian leaders listen to tough talk out of Washington, says Mead. But they also notice that, for instance, the United States has done little to put substance into its no-nonsense policy toward Syria's Assad regime. They may expect the same treatment as they amp up their uranium-enrichment efforts, accelerating toward the nuclear threshold.

Pretty bracing stuff. Mead goes so far as to accuse the administration of acting like a bizarro Teddy Roosevelt: "we've been a loudmouthed blowhard with a handful of wet noodles instead of a big stick." And indeed, TR understood that you can send a false signal through actions unrelated to the formal conduct of diplomacy — actions like passing a budget. Budgets are strategic documents. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Roosevelt fretted that slackening the pace of U.S. Navy shipbuilding would telegraph to the victor that America had grown "fickle and infirm," unable or unwilling to defend its economic and military interests in the Far East. Perversely, fiscal prudence in Congress and his administration could tempt a domineering Asian power to challenge those interests from its newfound position of strength. Arguing over navy budgets and U.S. staying power in Asia — sounds like something ripped from today's headlines, doesn't it?

Or here's a theoretical way of looking at the problem of deterrence. Writing half a century ago, Henry Kissinger portrayed deterrence as a product of three variables: capability, meaning usable physical might; resolve, meaning the leadership's willingness to use that capability; and belief, meaning the degree to which the adversary takes the deterring side's capability and intentions seriously. If any of the three variables is zero, simple algebra says deterrence goes to zero. Deterrence is a threat. If Tehran doubts either American capability or American fortitude, Washington will be unable to forestall a nuclear breakout. Professor Mead suggests that the administration is serious about its threats but is conveying the opposite impression. If so, Washington is unwittingly driving Kissinger's belief factor — and thus deterrence — to zero. Time to hoist new signal flags?

Read the whole thing.

February 19, 2013 at 11:55

Beat nuclear armed China for fun ???

How about play with fire at gas station for fun.

papa john
February 19, 2013 at 07:20

I couldn't agree more. Striking NKorea with lots of precision guided missiles and if need be, taking out the crazy NKorean leadership and this could invite the Chinese into the fight so be it. This is our chance to beat the Chinese for fun. We can play soft anymore with these thuggish wannabes. 

Stefan Stackhouse
February 19, 2013 at 06:59

Threats are only useful if they are actually credible. A non-credible threat is worse than useless, it can actually provoke the very thing you were trying to deter. This is why threats must be used sparingly and with extreme caution and dexterity, bringing them out only when it is for something that really, really matters. It is not enough to simply be seen carrying the big stick; one must also be seen as being highly selective in its employment, but also being very sure and devastating whenever it is employed. It is only in doing this that one can speak softly, for it is only then that  ones actions and the silent threat being conveyed actually do speak louder than words.

February 19, 2013 at 00:11

Because a Nuclear Capable Iran could create a Grand Islamic Alliance against Israel, since Israeli deterence would now be forfeited.

February 19, 2013 at 00:09


A very nice refutal of the article, I do hear you. It is ill advised for a war with Iran especially since it's military is capable of defending itself as well as even by financing Iraq against Iran was a folly. Maybe a limited strike to strategic targets to halt or pause it's nuclear ambition would be a bit acceptable than a land war in Iran.

Afghanistan also should not be blamed, why would the United States sacrifice more people if the Regime their is not appreciative of American Lives lost to put them in power? I for one would concur with the widrawals. 

One thing I agree with the article is the United States should have intervened in Syria especially since  their is a consensus of major powers to help the beleugered Syrians who are fighting for freedom, though the US should be careful not to support the Islamist Extremist factions in the fight as this would only be another Egypt.

February 19, 2013 at 00:01

Which facts? By fact since the US took over as Hegemon there has been lesser wars in the world. I would think US brings forth stability.

February 18, 2013 at 15:04

When (not if) Assad falls, Syria will be the next Egypt ruled by radicals and a springboard to spread it elsewhere. Their favourite target is Turkey. Through Turkey they will spread to Europe. No amount of deterrence works against them as they don't belive in the capability and resolve of their opponents.

February 17, 2013 at 21:05

Why is Iran an issue after all? What if they are capable to build nukes? Any strawman arguments about burning down Israel that minute and having a great funeral pyre in place of Tehran?

If you see the nuclear capability as a prestige investment to shift the regional balance in favour of Iranian-Shia versus the Saudi-Sunni Islamic confession in a region where Shia majorities live on the land with the oil and a Sunni elites spend it, then you have the continuation of centuries of conflict in a nutshell. And so far none could make a good argument that Iran is pursuing more than nuclear capability that includes building nuclear bombs according to the non-proliferation treaty in case Iran faces a nuclear first strike.

Why the resolve to shed anyone's blood? Is it about controlled regime change in the strategic oil region after the fall of the Soviets?

Wim Roffel
February 16, 2013 at 19:53

Credibility starts with knowing what you are doing. Mead is one of many who first advocate extremist positions and then – when the US finds it needs to give them up – starts talking about credibility. 

Obama's Syria policy was a msiguided policy that led to the death of many thousands Syrians and seems likely to bring a Taliban like regime to power. To advocate that the US should continue this policy for the case of its credibility sounds to me like madness.

On Iran it is well known that the US needs to make serious concessions on sanctions. Until now it isn't prepared to do that. As long as the US is not prepared to make concessions to stop Iran's nuclear program the Iranians will keep seeing any new sanction the US imposes as yet another effort towards regime change – with the nuclear issue just being a convenient excuse.

peter a. wilson
February 16, 2013 at 11:19

Dear Captain Holmes,  I am surprised you take Walter Russel Mead so seriously as a strategic analyst much less as a flack for the now discredited neocon aka neo-Jacobin cadre that continues to call for a military showdown with Iran. The story of how the the party of war around George W. Bush of which this group of intellectual warhawks were a key part is now well understood.  Basically, the Bush party of war was quite willing to use mendacity to "sell" the Iraq War of choice to the American people with the promise of a short and decisive war that would help stop the threat of  AQ and its allies.  We all know how that war of choice turned out.  Even the Afghan War of necessity will likely end with at best ambiguous strategic outcome.  In light of this collective decade-long experience with the costly an ambiguous consequences of two protracted and contested military occupations aka big COIN/nation building, there is little interest in the United States with the exception of the unrepentant war hawks like Meade to start a long and protracted war with Iran about its nuclear weapon ambitions.  Assuming we can get through the budget sequester crisis, a Congressional act of the "fickle and  infirm", without doing serious damage to our national security posture, it would not make much sense to start war with Iran this year that led to a massive spike in oil prices, hardly helpful during our recovery from the Great Recession.  Furthermore, Meade gives no credit for the Obama administration's successs in orchestrating a rather effective petroleum buyers boycott of Iranian oil sales.  This and other financial attack measures has done serious damage to the Iranian economy.  Naturally, this coercive strategy may fail to prompt the Iranian leadership to cut a "grand bargain" – a deal that freezes the Iranian nuclear program under much tighter IAEA supervision but at the price of ending much of the punitive economic sanctions currently in place.  Naturally, Dr. Meade may be prepared to go to war with Iran if this strategy fails, but I view that option the height of geostrategic and geo-economic folly.  Better to follow a strategy of continued economic coercion while the U.S. transforms the global energy demand and supply system through the systematic exploitation of the shale gas/tight oil supply revolution and a continued campaign for energy efficiency and the development of non-petroleum alternatives.  As for what to do about Syria that is another story.   Regards, Peter A. Wilson,  Washington, D.C.

February 16, 2013 at 09:51

The US needs no deterrence policy against the rest of us.  The rest of us needs to have deterrence policies against the US.  The US hegemon is the almighty aggressor, by nature and by fact.  

February 16, 2013 at 07:44

I couldn't disagree more with helping Syrian Islamists. We should have confronted North Korea first if we wanted to deter Iran. Now Iran only needs to buy the bomb. If a guy in a bar wants to prove he is the alpha he would pick a fight with an alpha not a female. We chose to pursue our weakest enemies first and this has only cemented our stonger enemies' belief in our fundamental weakness. North Korea even attacked our ally twice with zero response from the US. China is launching continual cyber attacks on us directly and has invaded our allies' territory with zero actual response.

peter mathew Fitzpatrick
February 16, 2013 at 01:26

now let the opposition into the Canada embassy

February 15, 2013 at 23:46

Hear hear, it appears that the US has surrendered it's Hegemony by not acting like the Hegemon it truly is.

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