In early 2003 an Israeli agent in the Gaza Strip telephoned Mustafa, a wealthy Palestinian merchant in Gaza, to inform him that over the previous three months his son Ahmad had been preparing for a suicide bombing mission in Israel. Mustafa was told that if his son followed through with his plans, he and his family would suffer severe consequences: their home would be demolished, and Israel would cut off all commercial ties with Mustafa's company. Neither he nor the members of his family would ever be permitted to enter Israel again. (1) Faced with this ultimatum, Mustafa confronted his son and convinced him that the cost to his family would far outweigh any possible benefits his sacrifice might have for the Palestinian people.
Since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Israeli authorities have prevented more than 340 suicide bombings from advancing beyond the planning stages. In addition, they have intercepted 142 would-be bombers, most of whom were en route to destinations deep within Israel. (2) The war against Palestinian terrorism, like the war on terrorism more broadly, aims to prevent terrorists, including suicide bombers, from achieving their objectives. Suicide bombers are the most sophisticated smart bombs ever devised. They are well integrated into their communities, they are mobile, and they often can choose the best moment in which to wreak the greatest havoc and produce the highest number of casualties. Yet as the case of Mustafa and his son illustrates, the right mix of threats in at least some instances challenges the conventional wisdom that suicide bombers are undeterrable.
In the war on terrorism, in which suicide bombers have repeatedly demonstrated their deadly efficiency, the United States and its friends and allies confront challenges similar to those Israel has dealt with for years. To meet these challenges, the United States and other opponents of terrorism will need a strategy that can more effectively address this threat.
Classical deterrence theory, which emerged after World War II with the buildup of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union and the subsequent concern over the possibility of total annihilation, is inapplicable to the war on terrorism. The Cold War divided the world into two opposing camps. The United States and the Soviet Union, with more than enough destructive power to wipe out humanity several times over, relied on their burgeoning arsenals to maintain the peace between them.
The literature on classical deterrence inspired by the Cold War typically characterizes the deterrent threat posed by the United States and the Soviet Union as a dichotomy: nuclear deterrence would be successful so long as the price for launching a nuclear war was mutual assured destruction. Although classical deterrence, as articulated and practiced during the Cold War, did not prevent conventional conflicts such as the Korean War and the war in Vietnam, in neither case did the United States or the Soviet Union resort to the use of nuclear weapons to bring them to an end.
In some situations, however, the logic of classical deterrence theory has proved hugely irrelevant. One particularly notable case is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following defeat in three full-scale wars in 1948, 1956, and 1967, Israel's committed enemies responded by gradually shifting their main objective from the total destruction of Israel to a strategy of limited war to achieve limited objectives. Another effect of these defeats (including the war in 1973) was a noticeable increase in moderation among Arab leaders, including Egypt's Anwar al-Sadat, Syria's Hafiz al-Assad, Jordan's King Hussein, and even the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat vis-a-vis their Israeli neighbor.
A second significant exception to the usefulness of classical deterrence theory is the current war on global terrorism. Classical deterrence had no relevance for the 19 al Qaeda operatives who took control of four commercial jetliners on 11 September 2001, slamming two into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. Only the bravery and determination of several passengers on the fourth plane, whose struggle with the hijackers caused it to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania, prevented even greater catastrophe. Classical deterrence also has little salience for al Qaeda more generally or militant groups linked to it. In the war on terrorism, the United States and its friends and allies need a strategy that does not test on the same dichotomous, all-or-nothing conceptualization of deterrence that prevailed during the Cold War.
This article presents a different conceptualization of deterrence, one best described as cumulative deterrence. Cumulative deterrence illuminates the reasons why Israel, in its more than 50-year history, not only has managed to survive in an exceedingly hostile neighborhood but also has made tremendous strides in improving its overall strategic situation. It has done so through the considered application of threats and military force on the one hand and assorted incentives on the other.
The war on terrorism will not be decided with a single, overwhelming blow. It is a war that will demand extreme patience, unshakable resolve, international cooperation, and a creative, harmonized mix of defensive and offensive measures. It will require policies that seek to improve the political, economic, and social conditions of those living in places where terrorism is allowed to flourish and martyrdom is encouraged. It also will require inducements that steer would-be terrorists (including potential suicide bombers) away from their destructive impulses and toward the creation of free, prosperous, and secure societies.
A cumulative deterrence strategy designed for the war on terrorism would build on victories achieved over the short, medium, and long terms that gradually wear down the enemy. It would involve a multilayered, highly orchestrated effort to inflict the greatest damage possible on the terrorists and their weapon systems, infrastructure, support networks, financial flows, and other means of support. It would demand excellent intelligence, a broad coalition, and a globalized network that would facilitate the exchange of vital information and encourage transparency. Finally, it would require cutting-edge technology and highly trained military forces. The ultimate goal should always be 100 percent enemy inaction.
The next section describes the key differences between classical and cumulative deterrence. The following section considers the application of the cumulative deterrence model to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The usefulness of cumulative deterrence for the global war on terrorism is the subject of the penultimate section. The conclusion summarizes the article's main findings.
Classical Deterrence vs. Cumulative Deterrence