Deterrence is much over-rated. In fact, it seldom works at all.
However, much of America’s current military strategy still emphasizes deterrence. For instance, the Navy mission statement specifically includes “deterring aggression” while the Army’s “posture statement” cites deterrence.
The Air Force seems more focused: its mission statement mentions flying, fighting, and winning.
It goes without saying that every war and “conflict” in the long, sanguinary history of the human race was the result of failed deterrence.
The Roman general Vegetius said “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” His oft-quoted statement may be interpreted two ways. It may be seen as advocating deterrence, but it can also be taken otherwise: a nation prepared to fight a war can more easily shorten the feud. Nevertheless, despite possessing the world’s greatest army, Rome was tackled by a succession of enemies including Carthage, the Celts, Epirus, Teutons, and Visigoths.
Let’s fast-forward and take a quick look at deterrence in the XX century.
Britain’s Royal Navy was the greatest afloat, both in size and capability. Yet that naval dominance failed to prevent Germany from starting both world wars within 25 years of each other. Even after the example of the Great War, with a naval blockade that choked the Kaiser into submission, Adolf Hitler went to bat a second time, knowing that his own naval construction plan would not peak until 1948.
Sometimes efforts at deterrence don’t merely flop: they boomerang. As in Unintended Consequences. No better example exists than President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 decision to move the Pacific Fleet from California to Hawaii in an effort to stay Tokyo’s aggression. Instead, all he achieved was to place his fleet within striking range of the Imperial Navy, as America learned to its cost one Sunday morning. Some conspiracy theorists have concluded that’s just what FDR had in mind, since he was not otherwise going to get an isolationist America motivated to join the fight.
Despite the enormous reduction in all branches of the U.S. military after WW II, America still possessed the strongest navy and air force on earth. Neither fact impressed Kim Il Sung, who started the Korean War and ended in a tie. The absurd conduct of the Vietnam War requires no elaboration.
In 1982 Britain’s military capability far exceeded Argentina’s, but the ruling junta was unimpressed. Presumably safe 8,000 miles from England, the Argies seized the British-owned Falklands/Malvinas, and expected the fait accompli to stick. It didn’t, of course: Britain dispatched a task force to the South Atlantic and, in one of the unlikeliest wars of the century, drubbed the macho men in Buenos Aires.
There’s a sexual aspect to deterrence. The Latinate machismo of the Argentine generals led them to underestimated Margaret Thatcher. But the Bush Leaguers also fumbled badly (read: avoidably) in 1990 by sending a female ambassador to Iraq, dealing with a Muslim despot who had knifed his way to the top.
Technological superiority also is over-rated. Continuing PR for the enormously expensive F-22 Raptor stealth fighter contends that its awesome capabilities will deter aggression (from whom it is far from certain, but let’s not digress.) That’s a baseless assertion on its face. Not even the world’s finest fighter aircraft ever prevented a war, nor could it. Otherwise Hitler would have been awed by the Supermarine Spitfire; Kim by the F-86 Sabre; Ho Chi Minh by a double dose of F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader; and Saddam by the F-14, -15, -16 and -18! We all know how well those worked out.
So…when has deterrence succeeded? The default response is the 50-year Cold War in which the West and Soviet bloc both possessed the power to incinerate each other with thermonuclear bombs, and therefore consented to wars on the periphery. The Soviets were far more astute in their handling of peripheral conflicts, allowing fellow travelers to do most of the fighting and dying while America bled in Korean snows and Asian jungles.
Since it’s almost impossible to prove a negative, we continue to speculate upon other successful examples of deterrence, which necessarily remain unknown. But logically we may conclude this: any wars averted by respect for the potential enemy were far smaller than the world wars, and likely smaller than middling exercises such as Desert Storm.
The lesson should be obvious: deterrence only works against enemies with the same mindset as one’s self. After all, the Soviets were merely evil; not crazy. That’s why the Bushido-drunk warlords in Tokyo strapped on a nation with an economy nearly six times their own, twice the population, and the inventor of the airplane, submarine, machinegun, and mass production. And a bunch of other stuff.
North Korea and North Vietnam were well aware of America’s vast military superiority but reckoned they could beat us because they did not fear us. Saddam Hussein knew all about the U.S. military—he had received covert assistance during his eight-year war with Iraq. But he attacked Kuwait, which provided much of our oil because he did not respect us.
Now we’re entering the tenth year of a cultural/religious war with enemies who do not fear death, let alone the United States Government. There’s no reason they should. The mullahs in Tehran look at America and they see the simpering face of Jimmy Carter.
In the open-ended war against “terrorism” (read: radical Islam), there are still thousands or millions of American who Just Don’t Get It. This month’s peace rally in Washington, D.C. included twenty-something twits (and older twits) who obligingly bleated for the cameras: “We just need to get along with everybody.”
Well, Sweet Cheeks, here’s a flash for you. It takes two To Get Along, but it only one to fight.
America needs to learn the old-old lesson: a pound of respect can buy a ton of deterrence.