Home / israel/palestine / I See We’re “Restoring Deterrence” Again

I See We’re “Restoring Deterrence” Again


Deterrence is a favored word among all too many military and defense strategists. It is wildly overused, to a point where its use stymies thought. If an action (or expenditure) is claimed to promote deterrence, well then it’s not to be questioned. For that reason alone the word should be retired. But it’s worse than that.

Deterrence implies agency on the part of the deterrer and powerlessness on the part of the deterred. It implies that actions on the part of the deterrer are determinative. It imparts a feeling of control over the situation that may not be there.

The phrase “restoring deterrence” has cropped up again. But what is to be restored, and by whom? We now know that Hamas has been quiet the past few years, not because it was deterred, but because it was preparing and waithing for the right time. I’ve seen the phrase used in connection with IDF actions against Hamas. Those actions seem to be retributive, or intended to destroy Hamas’s ability to strike, but neither of those is primarily about deterrence. Rather, they are direct military action.

The US has dispatched two aircraft carrier groups to the region to “deter” Iran and Hezbollah, as the New York Times says in its headline. But perhaps the word warn would be more appropriate. Substitute warn for deter in this quote from the article, for example.

American officials said they do not want war with Iran but were explicitly sending the military forces to deter Tehran with the option of using them if provoked.

What difference would this make? Warn allows more agency on the part of Iran, which Iran may be exercising. Again, from the article,

Analysts wondered if the message had truly gotten through. They said the fact that Mr. Biden felt compelled to send a second carrier group suggested that the deployment of the first one did not produce the kind of response from Iran that Washington had expected or wanted.

Perhaps it’s not a matter of the message getting through (agency by would-be deterrer) but rather decisions by Iran (agency by the one to be deterred). Deterrence transfers agency to the deterrer, but this is hardly ever the case. Recognizing that other nations have agency in response to actions hoped to deter allows for vulnerability on the part of the would-be deterrer. And vulnerability must not be admitted.

However, a recognition of vulnerability must be part of a country’s assessment of its own security situation. Deterrence has acquired connotations of invulnerability, which will not serve defense well.

The idea of restoring deterrence assumes that deterrence was the previous state, and that the previous state is desirable. A lack of open warfare is desirable, but Hamas preparing another attack is not. Why not just say we want to end the killing?

The word deterrence is too useful as a perceived cudgel for military and government speakers to give it up easily. But to understand the situation behind the words, we need to consider what is being said when it is used.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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