Those of us who grew up during the cold war and the nuclear standoff era understood deterrence. We had read works by the likes of Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, Henry Kissinger and many others. We understood that deterrence consisted of a combination of the ability, visible and credible to a would-be attacker, to inflict unacceptable damage upon the attacker with forces that survive a surprise attack. An essential element in successful deterrence is a degree of uncertainty on the part of a would-be aggressor as to whether the target power, although attacked and damaged, will nonetheless retaliate—even at the risk of suffering further, damage in a second attack. Thus deterrence strategy relies on two basic conditions: the ability to attack must be perceived as credible; and the will to attack or retaliate must be perceived as a possibility, though not necessarily as a certainty.
It is obvious that the strategists in the Obama administration never studied deterrence theory—the US has not recently demonstrated a credible will to respond and is dismantling the capability. We previously discussed the nuclear component of deterrence
This lack of understanding has made the US’s allies nervous. Russia is grabbing territory, China is bullying its neighbors and Syria is murdering its people and the US has not demonstrated a will to engage to stop such activity. Many are asking under what circumstances America will act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for?
The answer to this question matters to stability in the world. As the answer becomes perceived as a negative one rogue states like North Korea will feel emboldened. In recent years, President Obama has demonstrated that he disagrees to the thinking that hard foreign-policy problems may actually have a definitive answer, typically involving the use of force. “Very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer,” he recently told an audience in Seoul.
This is emboldening to those who would challenge the interests of the US and its allies. Such sentiments are designed to appeal to war-weary Americans. Nowhere is the perception of growing lack of American will so strong as in the Middle East. The new government in Egypt ignores American finger-wagging about human rights and buys lots of Russian weapons. In Syria President Bashar Assad was caught red-handed last year gassing his own people; an act that the President had specifically warned would trigger American punishment. Yet this “red line” was crossed almost with impunity. All of this concerns allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others.
Yet some would argue reports of the death of American influence in the Middle East are exaggerated. President Obama can claim some successes: oil prices are stable, Israel has never been so prosperous or secure and Iran has agreed (under intense pressure) to curb its nuclear ambitions somewhat. Terrorism now poses far more danger within the Middle East than to the rest of the world. The perception of a lack of American will may not have done serious damage to American interests in the Middle East yet. However it has caused once strong allies spurred allies to look out for themselves. Israel has cultivated military and economic ties with China and India. Gulf States are arming themselves: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have all recently ordered huge arsenals.
We will address Asia in a separate article.
Mr Obama’s hands-off approach dismays the foreign-policy establishment back home. Democrats and Republicans alike chide the President for leaving a security vacuum for America’s enemies to fill. President Obama’s foreign policy team is divided, with an unhappy State Department under John Kerry desperate to see more help for anti-Assad forces in Syria, while the Pentagon has spent months explaining why extra weapons shipments cannot work. Meanwhile, President Obama is described as analyzing every option to exhaustion before concluding that inaction is the prudent course.
In a few areas, a toughening of current policies might be possible if the President thought that it would further his guiding principle -- to avoid new wars.
Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse. American power is not half as scary as its absence is becoming.