Deterring war is far better than waging war. The best recent example of a successful deterrence policy practiced by the United States and the Soviet Union in the decades after World War II was the Cold War, a policy which prevented the outbreak of a real war. The strategy of Washington and Moscow in those years was based on a recognition that war would lead to mutually assured destruction (MAD). That was enough for both sides not to press the trigger.
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This kind of deterrence is not necessarily limited to conflicts between nuclear powers. Although the years since World War II have seen a number of conventional wars, the outbreak of some conventional wars has been avoided because one side or the other to a conflict has been successfully deterred from going to war.
The Middle East is a good example. In Israel there is frequent talk of Israel’s deterrence, the failure of Israel’s deterrence, and the need to reestablish Israel’s deterrence. In the years 1948-1973 Israel was unsuccessful in deterring the Arab world from successive attacks against it. The Arab aggressors believed that they could defeat Israel, and that even if not successful on the battlefield the cost to them would not be catastrophic.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War changed all that. It demonstrated that even when Arab aggression against Israel was launched under optimal conditions, Arab armies would be defeated and Arab capitals, Cairo and Damascus, would be threatened.
This demonstration of Israel’s strength has since 1973 deterred aggression by a coalition of Arab armies against Israel. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel, and Syria, which did not sign a peace treaty with Israel, refrained from attacking it again. The Israel Defense Forces’ victory in that war was sufficient proof to those contemplating an attack on Israel that such an attack was bound to end in failure. But not just in failure on the battlefield, but something no less important to Arab dictators – the possibility of the downfall of their regimes. This calculus is typical of nation-states governed by dictatorial regimes.
But time and again Israel has been unsuccessful in deterring terrorist organizations from attacking it. Is there an essential difference between the calculus of a ruler of a nation-state that leads him to desist from aggression, in other words to be deterred, and that of the leaders of terrorist organizations out to harm Israel?
Obviously, the individual terrorist, the suicide bomber, cannot be deterred, no matter how powerful Israel is. He firmly believes that by his terrorist act he is promised the pleasures of paradise in the afterlife. Is the terrorist organization that sent him on his murderous mission any different? Can Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Al-Qaida be deterred?
As for Al-Qaida, the answer is obvious: It cannot be deterred. Its leaders answer to none but themselves and carry no responsibilities beyond their own organization. The same is probably true for Islamic Jihad.
For many years it was true for Hezbollah – it could not be deterred, it had to be defeated. Since Hezbollah assumed a political role in Lebanon, joining the Lebanese government, it has become susceptible to pressure from the Lebanese public and may refrain from taking certain actions out of consideration for the political consequences in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the periods during which Hezbollah has refrained from taking actions against Israel, which have been interpreted by some Israelis as being due to successful Israeli deterrence, may have been simply periods chosen by Hezbollah to increase its stock of rockets to be used against Israel at a time of its own choosing, or periods like the present, when Hezbollah is knee-deep mired in another front.
There was reason to believe that Hamas, having taken charge of the Gaza Strip and being responsible for the wellbeing of the population there, would be deterred from launching rockets against Israel’s civilian population out of consideration for the local population in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s agreements to the two cease-fires after operations “Cast Lead” and “Pillar of Defense” were based on this premise. It was a mistake. The cease-fire periods were used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stock up on more and longer-range rockets in preparation for the next attack on Israel’s civilian population. Those who thought they were deterring Hamas were only fooling themselves.