James Holmes

America’s Deterrence Problem

“If Tehran doubts either American capability or American fortitude, Washington will be unable to forestall a nuclear breakout.”

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.