Aug 30, 2006
The death of deterrence
By Gabriel Kolko
THE UNITED STATES HAD a monopoly of nuclear weaponry only a few years before
other nations challenged it, but from 1949 until roughly the 1990s,
deterrence theory worked - nations knew that if they used the awesome bomb,
they were likely to be devastated in the riposte.
Despite such examples of brinkmanship as the Cuban missile crisis and
numerous threats of nuclear annihilation against non-nuclear powers, by and
large the few nations that possessed the bomb concluded that nuclear war was not worth its horrendous risks. Today,
by contrast, weapons of mass destruction or precision and power are within
the capacity of dozens of nations either to produce or purchase. With the
multiplicity of weapons now available, deterrence theory is increasingly
irrelevant, and the equations of military power that existed in the period
after World War II no longer hold.
This process began in Korea after 1950, where the war ended in a standoff
despite the nominal vast superiority of the United States' military power,
and the Pentagon discovered that great space combined with guerrilla warfare
was more than a match for it in Vietnam, where the US was defeated. Both
wars caused the US military and establishment strategists to reflect on the
limits of high-tech warfare, and for a time it seemed as if appropriate
lessons would be learned and costly errors not repeated.
The conclusion drawn from these major wars should have been that there were
decisive limits to US military and political power, and that the United
States should drastically tailor its foreign policy and cease intervening
anywhere it chose to. In short, it was necessary to accept the fact that it
could not guide the world as it wished to. But such a conclusion, justified
by experience, was far too radical for either of the United States' two main
political parties to embrace fully, and military contractors never ceased
promising the ultimate new weapon. America's leaders and military
establishment in the wake of September 11, 2001, argued that technology
would rescue the country from more political failures. But such illusions -
fed by the technological fetishism that is the hallmark of their
civilization - led to the Iraq debacle.
There has now been a qualitative leap in technology that makes all inherited
conventional wisdom, and war as an instrument of political policy, utterly
irrelevant, not just to the US but to any other nation that embarks upon it.
Technology is now moving much faster than the diplomatic and political
resources or will to control its inevitable consequences - not to mention
traditional strategic theories. Hezbollah has far better and more lethal
rockets than it had a few years ago, and US experts believe that the
Iranians compelled the group to keep in reserve the far more powerful and
longer-range cruise missiles it already possesses. Iran itself possesses
large quantities of these missiles, and US experts believe they may very
well be capable of destroying aircraft-carrier battle groups. All attempts
to devise defenses against these rockets, even the most primitive, have been
expensive failures, and anti-missile technology everywhere has remained,
after decades of effort and billions of dollars, unreliable. 
Even more ominous, the US Army has just released a report that light-water
reactors - which 25 nations, from Armenia to Slovenia, already have and are
covered by no existing arms-control treaties - can be used to obtain
near-weapons-grade plutonium easily and cheaply.  Within a few years,
many more countries than the present 10 or so - the army study thinks Saudi
Arabia and even Egypt most likely - will have nuclear bombs and far more
destructive and accurate rockets and missiles.
Weapons-poor fighters will have far more sophisticated guerrilla tactics as
well as far more lethal equipment, which deprives the heavily equipped and
armed nations of the advantages of their overwhelming firepower, as
demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. The battle between a few thousand
Hezbollah fighters and a massive, ultra-modern Israeli army backed and
financed by the US proves this. Among many things, the war in Lebanon is a
window of the future. The outcome suggests that either the Israelis cease
their policy of destruction and intimidation and accept the political
prerequisites of peace with the Arab world, or they too will eventually be
devastated by cheaper and more accurate missiles and nuclear weapons in the
hands of at least two Arab nations and Iran.
What is now occurring in the Middle East reveals lessons just as relevant in
the future to festering problems in East Asia, Latin America, Africa and
elsewhere. Access to nuclear weapons, cheap missiles of greater portability
and accuracy, and the inherent limits of all anti-missile systems will set
the context for whatever crises arise in North Korea, Iran, Taiwan or
Venezuela. Trends that increase the limits of technology in warfare are not
only applicable to relations between nations but also to groups within them
- ranging from small conspiratorial entities up the scale of size to large
guerrilla movements. The events in the Middle East have proved that warfare
has changed dramatically everywhere, and US hegemony can now be successfully
challenged throughout the globe.
Iranian missile exercise
US power has been dependent to a large extent on the country's highly mobile
navy. But ships are increasingly vulnerable to missiles, and while they are
a long way from finished they are more and more circumscribed tactically
and, ultimately, strategically. There is a greater balance-of-power
militarily, the re-emergence of a kind of deterrence that means all future
wars will be increasingly protracted and expensive - and very costly
politically to politicians who blunder into wars with illusions they will be
short and decisive. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister,
Amir Peretz, are very likely to lose power in Israel, and destroying Lebanon
will not save their political futures. This too is a message not likely to
be lost on politicians.
To this extent, what is emerging is a new era of more equal rivals.
Enforceable universal disarmament of every kind of weapon would be far
preferable. But short of this currently unattainable goal, this emergence of
a new equivalency is a vital factor leading less to peace in the real
meaning of that term than perhaps to greater prudence. Such restraint could
be an important factor leading to less war.
We live with 21st-century technology and also with primitive political
attitudes, assorted nationalisms, and cults of heroism and irrationality
existing across the political spectrum and the power spectrum. The world
will destroy itself unless it realistically confronts the new technological
equations. Israel now must accept this reality, and if it does not develop
the political skills required to make serious compromises, this new equation
warrants that it will be liquidated even as it rains destruction on its
This is the message of the conflicts in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon -
to use only the examples in today's papers. Walls are no longer protection
for the Israelis - one shoots over them. Their much-vaunted Merkava tanks
have proved highly vulnerable to new weapons that are becoming more and more
common and are soon likely to be in Palestinian hands as well. At least 20
of the tanks were seriously damaged or destroyed in the recent conflict with
Israeli missiles target Beirut
The US war in Iraq is a political disaster against the guerrillas - a
half-trillion US dollars spent there and in Afghanistan have left the United
States on the verge of defeat in both places. The "shock and awe" military
strategy has utterly failed save to produce contracts for weapons makers -
indeed, it has also contributed heavily to de facto US economic bankruptcy.
The administration of President George W Bush has deeply alienated more of
America's nominal allies than has any US government in modern times. The
Iraq war and subsequent conflict in Lebanon have left its Middle East policy
in shambles and made Iranian strategic predominance even more likely, all of
which was predicted before the Iraq invasion. Its coalitions, as Thomas
Ricks shows in his wordy but utterly convincing and critical book Fiasco:
The American Military Adventure in Iraq, are finished. Its sublime
confidence in and reliance on the power of its awesome weaponry are a
crucial cause of its failure, although we cannot minimize its peremptory
hubris and nationalist myopia.
The United States, whose costliest political and military adventures since
1950 have ended in failure, now must face the fact that the technology for
confronting its power is rapidly becoming widespread and cheap. It is within
the reach of not merely states but of relatively small groups of people.
Destructive power is now virtually "democratized".
If the challenges of producing a realistic concept of the world that
confronts the mounting dangers and limits of military technology seriously
are not resolved soon, recognizing that a decisive equality of military
power is today in the process of being reimposed, there is nothing more than
wars and mankind's eventual destruction to look forward to.
1. Mark Williams, "The Missiles of August: The Lebanon War and the
Democratization of Missile Technology", Technology Review (Massachusetts
Institute of Technology), August 16, 2006.
2. Henry Sokolski, ed, Taming the Next Set of Strategic Weapons Threats, US
Army Strategic Studies Institute, June 2006, pp 33ff, 86.
Gabriel Kolko is the leading historian of modern warfare. His latest book is
The Age of War. He wrote this article for Japan Focus.