Cumulative Deterrence and the War on Terrorism

By Almog, Doron | Parameters, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Cumulative Deterrence and the War on Terrorism


Almog, Doron, Parameters


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.

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