The Madness of 'Deterrence'

Plus: Biden rejects the 'two-state solution' (again)

Last night, as most of the Middle East was sleeping and Americans were heading to bed, the Israeli military bombed targets near a major airbase and nuclear site in central Iran. Near-simultaneous strikes were reported on an air defense battery in Syria. Iraqi militias with links to Iran posted photos of what they said was a downed “Zionist missile” in a field outside of Baghdad.

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For an hour or so, it seemed the worst-case scenario was upon us — not just on social media, where false reports of World War III breaking out make for nightly engagement bait, but in the relatively more staid precincts of cable news. (One MSNBC analyst likened the strike to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.) Then, just as suddenly, the panic subsided. Damage was reportedly minimal. Iranian leaders — who had shut down their nuclear facilities in anticipation of an Israeli reprisal — laughed off the hit, broadcasting images of a normal morning commute in Isfahan, the city closest to the targeted airbase on PressTV.

Just as with Iran’s April 13 attack against Israel — a barrage that in that case was swatted away in a joint effort by the U.S., Israeli, and several Arab militaries — what appeared at first to be the trigger of an uncontrollable escalation turned out to be an opportunity for both sides to declare victory and back down. It seems that, for all their bluster, both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are more interested in dangerous posturing (and, in Netanyahu’s case, murdering Palestinian schoolchildren) than engaging in an all-out shooting war between the two most powerful militaries in the Middle East, both of whose nuclear capabilities are shrouded in secrecy.

(That war, I hasten to add, that would undertaken against the backdrop of the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, in which over 34,000 men, women, and children have already been killed, and millions more are in danger of starvation and further Israeli assaults.)

So why do these leaders who seem to be afraid of a regional war keep ratcheting up toward one? The operating logic behind all this escalation is based on a single word: “deterrence.” It is the idea that the best way to win a war is to get your enemy to back down before you actually fight one. That basic idea was developed into a theory during the early years of the Cold War, when American thinkers like Thomas C. Schelling, Glenn Synder, and Albert Wohlstetter found themselves confronting two inconvenient facts: 1) there was little chance the U.S. and its NATO allies could stop a Soviet ground invasion of Western Europe through conventional means; and 2) that even if there was a way to “win” a nuclear war, it would come with dire costs for both sides, to put it mildly.

In the ensuing decades, “deterrence” has grown into one of the primary abstract, game-theorized terms that both underpin and sanitize the horrors of modern war. There are two main kinds. One is “deterrence by denial” — in which you try to convince an enemy that it will be impossible for them to succeed — for instance, by boasting about the size of your nuclear arsenal. The other, more favored one, is “deterrence by punishment,” in which you threaten to harm the enemy in some way, either through sanctions or by blowing them up, should they follow through in attacking you.

“Deterrence by punishment” is the style in favor right now, especially in the Middle East. The problem is that largely relies on shows of force in which real people get hurt and killed. Further, even though such “rational” escalations are uniformly billed as “carefully calibrated” between instilling fear and provoking an even deadlier response — as if the target lists were compiled by a joint team of Goldilocks and René Descartes — each step in the shadow war between the U.S., Israel, and Western allies on one hand and Iran’s “axis of resistance” on the other has the other side to cross yet another imagined red line: striking foreign ships, killing U.S. troops, illegally blowing up an embassy compound, or, as in the last two cases, bombing one of the major belligerents’ home territories. It is reasonable to fear that, at some point, this escalation will reach a tipping point, beyond which “restraint” becomes impossible.

Yet despite the obvious dangers and shortcomings of this way of thinking, the obsession with deterrence has been everywhere in recent days. Iran’s April 13

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