Deterrence: The condition in which an adversary is certain that any attack will be met with retaliation, but is unsure of the extent of the retaliatory response.
I don’t claim to be an expert at international relations, world history, or current socio-economic trends. What I am is a simple retired submarine officer who has spent the last 20+ years living and traveling around the world, interacting with military officers from dozens of countries, and developing a world-view that I hope will allow me to explain to my children in a logical way why some people might want to kill them just because they’re Americans. Here’s what I believe right now: (Disclaimer: I reserve the right to modify my opinion if and when I get new factual information. I’ve seen many people on the ‘net complain that people “believe their opinions are right”, as if that’s a negative. Opinions are, by definition, what one believes to be true based on the information they have. To those who are against one believe that one’s opinion is right, I would ask them to name an opinion they have that they believe to be wrong. Not too easy, huh?)
We (the United States) have been at war with people who subscribe to what is frequently called an “Islamist” philosophy since at least 1979, when our Embassy in Teheran was over-run by Iranian militants. This war continued on through our involvement in Lebanon in the early ‘80s, through the scattered terrorist attacks of the ‘90s, and reached new heights with the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and finally with the attacks on September 11th, 2001. This was a rather one-sided war; not from a military point of view, but from the viewpoint that only one side (the Islamists) recognized that we were at war – that is, up until the morning of September 11th. At this point, the American public realized, as had many in the military that I had worked with through the 90s, that we were in a no-shit, world-wide war against a determined enemy.
We prosecuted the opening phases of this “new” war brilliantly, overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and mostly chasing Al Queda (or the “UBL” organization, as we military professionals always referred to it before 9/11) into the ungoverned regions of Pakistan. Our next step in the war is where it got tricky.
Our goal should be to deter the terrorist from attacking the U.S. homeland, or that of our allies, ever again. As I said at the beginning of this entry, deterrence is the state where the enemy is certain that we will retaliate, but unsure of how we will retaliate. This brings us to the Iraqi theater of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). We had any number of reasons to attack Iraq and replace their government: 1) They were shamelessly violating oil sanctions imposed as a result of their failure in their aggressive war against Kuwait; 2) they were shooting at our warplanes enforcing the “no-fly” zones imposed as a result of previous Iraqi violations of the cease-fire ending the Persian Gulf War; 3) they were harboring terrorists who’s stated goal was to attack the U.S. (the fact that these particular terrorists were not involved in the 9/11 attacks notwithstanding). [Note to readers: I personally saw 1) and 2) above, so for the purposes of this blog they will be treated as a "given".] Also, and what I believe was the best reason to eliminate the Baathist regime, is 4): They were "loose cannons" whose future actions we could not predict, and who were likely to cause even more trouble by not being removed. In saying I believe that this was the best reason for a pre-emptive war, I'm not arguing that this is the "ethically right" causus belli
(arguments 1, 2, and possibly 3 above fit the bill better), I'm just saying that that is how power politics operate in the new, unipolar world. Might may not make right, but perceived weakness doesn't mean you can kick the bully in the nuts and not expect him to hunt you down. This is the real world, not a college classroom. There are those who say that the oil sanctions and no-fly zones were unfair; that may be so, but I believe that a country (or stateless people, in the case of the Palestinians) should suffer some penalties as the result of starting an aggressive war that they then go on to lose. Two centuries ago, that penalty would have been complete loss of sovereignty over some or all of their territory; international opinion now seems to have moved away from this option.
I believe that the message we were trying to send to the Islamists in positions to attack the U.S. by invading Iraq was, basically, “You attacked us, and you figured that you could accept the loss of your major base of operations. However, we’re also taking away an option for a future base of operations as well, as part of our retaliation. Think about that the next time you want to start something.” [Is this fair? Probably not. Is this type of thinking required to defeat our new enemy? I believe it is.] Although for political reasons we had to go through the UN and try to base the war on “weapons of mass destruction” (which we assumed was a “slam dunk”, mostly based on our failure to understand the Arab psyche, as well as assuming that the Iraqi acknowledgment of a chemical/biological stockpile in the mid-90s was valid), I believe that most international leaders understood the real story.
We now find ourselves occupying a country who doesn’t want us there, and where we honestly don’t want to be for an extended period of time. This wasn’t a “war for oil” – if we wanted cheap oil, we could just occupy Canada. This was, in my opinion, a warning shot across the bow of Islamist strategists: our level of retaliation was more than you expected, and you can expect it to be worse next time. Our goal should be, such that when a terrorist wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Hey, I should attack the United States”, his next though should be “…but if I do, the consequences will likely be worse than I am able to bear. Therefore, I won’t attack the U.S., and live to fight another day.”
That being said, I believe that, unfortunately, we have shown that the U.S. wasn’t psychologically or politically ready to pursue such a strategy, as shown by the negative public reaction to recent setbacks in Iraq. We’ve shown that there is a level of resistance that can make a large part of the electorate start declaring the operation to be another “Vietnam” and a “quagmire”. This is unfortunate; we had a chance to change the world. I believe that we must “stay the course” in Iraq, and finish what we’ve started there, hoping that the small seed of democracy can grow, and choke out the Islamist thistle patch that is flourishing there now. Perhaps we have taught the terror masters that we won’t let an attack go unanswered, as we did when the USS Cole was attacked. I hope so, but I doubt it. We still don’t understand the motivation that drives our most implacable enemies and their supporters (Note: I do not mean we should alter our behavior to change their motivations, just that we need to understand them to be able to counter [and kill] them more effectively). Until our leaders and the public at large fully understands the hate that dwells in their hearts will we find the will to fight them at the level where we need to in order to gain complete victory. We aren’t there yet (I’m not even there – I was repulsed by what I saw from Abu Grahib), and I fear we won’t be until another attack helps force it into our collective psyche. I hope it won’t come to that, that we have met our goal of deterring our adversaries, who know that another attack will likely result in the increase of American will to will enable us to fight them on their terms… and that’s what I tell my children.
Note: I intentionally did not read Bill Whittle’s
essay titled “Deterrence”
when that came out several months ago, because I’ve been planning on writing this since before I started blogging. If any of the ideas expressed here were expressed earlier (and I’m sure better) by him, this wasn’t a case of plagiarizing; simply a case of a lesser blogger reading some of the same resources and coming to similar conclusions.
(Edited to correct mis-spellings and poor sentence structure... I'm an Engineer, not an English major.)