Iranian militias do not appear to be “deterred” by the US bombings.

In late June, after Iranian-backed militias launched a drone attack on US troops in Iraq, US fighter jets responded by dropping bombs on militia facilities in Iraq and Syria. A Pentagon spokesman said the bombing was meant to be “a clear and unambiguous message of deterrence,” that is, don’t attack us again, or we will attack you again.

And yet, on Wednesday, less than two weeks after the bombings, the same militia fired 14 rockets at an Iraqi air base, which was hosting US forces.

It seems that the “dissuasive message” has not been conveyed.

Again, dissuasive messages often do not get through. Or they pass, but the recipient is not discouraged. Many countries, including the United States, frequently issue threats, organize attacks, or take other punitive measures to pressure another country (or a militia or other entity) to stop doing this. whether or not he does it in the first place.

Sometimes the pressure works; sometimes not. However, those in power here and elsewhere do not seem to be studying what works and what doesn’t, or Why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If they asked these questions in a serious way, they wouldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, without much success.

Small-scale attacks (whether using bombs, rockets, missiles or drones) are classic examples. The Israeli leadership would have stopped rocket attacks from Gaza long ago, had their relentless bombardment of Hamas and other terrorist groups succeeded in communicating the “deterrent message.” But no, Hamas continues to strike back.

Sanctions are another proven method of deterring adversaries from continuing to do conflicting things. Sometimes sanctions work, especially when the “stick” is paired with a “carrot”. For example, the talks that led to the Iran nuclear deal were prompted, in large part, by US sanctions coupled with a proposal to lift those sanctions if Iran dismantled its nuclear facilities. Sometimes they don’t work. For example, the threat to impose sanctions on Russia and China, in response to their cyber attacks, has had little or no effect.

A distinction must be made between deterrence through the use of force and more passive or existential forms of deterrence. An example of the latter is the deployment of troops to an area as a warning (this is my army; if you invade that area, I will retaliate). Since the mid-1920se century this has been expanded to include nuclear deterrence (here are my nukes; if you hit me, I’ll hit you back) and, in a variation, expanded deterrence (if you attack my allies, even if only with conventional weapons I could strike back at you with my nukes).

This type of deterrence works – until it doesn’t, in which case big, potentially catastrophic wars do occur – and it can work for a long time because the country threatened with nuclear retaliation is reluctant to take a gamble, as the consequences of a miscalculation are too huge.

However, this type of deterrence does not seem to prevent small forms of aggression. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union kept their distance with their mutual threats of annihilation, but these threats did not deter the superpowers (or their proxies) from invading smaller countries or to engage in acts of political subversion. . Strong nuclear arsenals do not necessarily push back smaller powers, such as Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, to Washington’s will. You wouldn’t think there was a nuclear threat against them. Nuclear deterrence appears to deter only nuclear war – or perhaps full-scale conventional warfare. (It could be argued, for example, that India and Pakistan would have waged war much more frequently and fiercely if both sides did not have nuclear weapons.)

Even in the field of nuclear weapons, it is not at all clear how many nuclear weapons a country needs to deter another country from attacking. American (and presumably Russian) officials cite calculations (largely theoretical) to justify the need for thousands of nuclear warheads. However, an otherwise puny and impoverished country like North Korea has succeeded in dissuading its enemies from an invasion – and even, on occasion, compelled them to provide economic aid – because it has, at most , a few dozen atomic bombs and looks pretty hopeless. to use them if they are pushed against the wall.

“Cyber ​​deterrence” is a big topic these days, as President Joe Biden – like a few presidents before him – has threatened Russia and China with “consequences” if they continue to launch or sponsor cyber attacks or attacks. of ransomware against US industries, power plants, water systems, or other “critical infrastructure”. But the intrusions continue. (It should be noted that the United States is also organizing “cyberoffensive operations” against other countries, which complicates matters.)

Some have tried to apply the principles of nuclear deterrence to conflicts in cyberspace, but there is no analogy between the two. Since the onset of the nuclear age, a clear and bold line has been drawn between the use and non-use of nuclear weapons, so that any the use of nuclear weapons – even a “limited” number of “small” nuclear weapons – could result in Armageddon. However, cyber attacks of various types and magnitudes are launched thousands of times a day. In deciding whether and how to retaliate, where should a president draw the line between a serious threat and a mere nuisance? Dozens of special commissions have attempted to analyze the distinctions and define various response orders, but no administration has set an official standard. In other words, in the cyber domain, the fundamental question of deterrence has not yet been addressed: what exactly are we seeking to deter?

This brings us back to the type of deterrence that the military tries to do systematically: how to stop attacks in a war zone or in a hot area that is not quite a war zone – for example, attacks like the mounted ones. by Iran- backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

The key element of deterrence is to threaten or impose a penalty that exceeds the gains the militia could obtain by continuing the attacks. To determine what deters, we should first determine what the militias want, how much effort they must put in to get what they want, and if we can live with the situation if they get it.

Here is an edifying tale. Thomas Schelling (deceased in 2016) was the master deterrent strategist. His books The conflict strategy and Weapons and influence are classics in the field. Schelling wrote eloquently, sometimes too carelessly, about sending messages with force. There is, he observed one day,

illuminating similarities between, say, maneuvering in a limited war and maneuvering in a traffic jam, deterring Russians and deterring one’s own children … between the modern balance of terror and the old hostage institutions.

He also wrote: “War is always a process of negotiation. Force must be used in a way that exploits “the bargaining power that comes from [the] ability to injure ”, to cause“ pure pain and damage, ”in order to put pressure on the enemy to avoid further pain and damage.

In 1964, senior officials in Lyndon Johnson’s administration drew up plans to step up military action in the Vietnam War. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s closest adviser on Vietnam, John McNaughton, was a close friend and former colleague of Schelling at Harvard, and he drew on Schelling’s work to devise a strategy that would affect “the will. Of the North Vietnamese army, to “dissuade” from continuing the fighting. No one knew how to do this, so McNaughton consulted with his old friend, Tom Schelling. (This episode of the story, which hardly anyone has cited, comes from my 1983 book Wizards of Armageddon and is based on my interviews with Schelling.)

The two men spent over an hour discussing what the United States might order the North Vietnamese to stop doing what they would obey in the wake of our bombing.

In the end, Schelling – the master theorist of deterrence strategy and limited warfare – couldn’t come up with a single plausible answer to a real limited war.

McNamara and Johnson began their bombing campaign anyway. Schelling told McNaughton that whatever they decide to do, it will work within three weeks or not at all. On March 24, 1965, nearly three weeks to the day after the bombing began, McNaughton wrote to McNamara: “The situation in Vietnam is bad and deteriorating. That fact never changed, but McNamara and his successors kept trying anyway. (McNaughton died in a plane crash in 1967.)

The point is this: In wars, big or small, sometimes it’s not clear how to dissuade opponents from doing or not doing what you want them to do or stop doing. Determine this problem before you start dropping the bombs. Either way, stop talking freely about sending “chilling messages” – because if you keep talking that way and the militias are not deterred, our messages on a myriad of topics will be taken less and less. serious everywhere.

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About Marco C. Nichols

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