Welcoming the Overdue Resurrection of Deterrence

By Sinnreich, Richard Hart | Army, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Welcoming the Overdue Resurrection of Deterrence


Sinnreich, Richard Hart, Army


During the past few months, folks attentive to national security matters have been hearing and reading a good deal about a defense concept that largely faded from public view after 9/11: the concept of deterrence.

In late October, concluding a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace devoted largely to the need to refurbish our aging nuclear weapons stockpile and improve its oversight following à series of highly publicized missteps, Defense Secretary Robert Gates turned to what he called "the broader implications of deterrence in the 21st century."

"There can be little doubt," he noted, "that the post-Cold War world offers a new strategic paradigm for nuclear weapons, and particularly for the concept of deterrence." The problem, he pointed out, is how to deter "rogue regimes that threaten their neighbors and our allies" and "weapons passing from nation-states into the hands of terrorists."

Like containment, the national security strategy with which it was inextricably associated, deterrence was America's central military objective throughout most of the Cold War. Although pursued in different ways, and those not invariably sensible or convincing, deterrence in one form or another largely guided the nation's military planning until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. removed its principal target.

The foundation of America's deterrence strategy throughout that period was our nuclear posture. While the adoption of "flexible response" in 1961 sought to broaden the nation's military options, reducing dependence on the nuclear threat, the Pentagon continued until the end of the Cold War to devote both policy and programmatic attention to sustaining a credible deterrent posture.

That changed significantly after 9/11. Convinced that Secretary Gates's rogue regimes and terrorists couldn't be deterred by the threat of military retaliation, nuclear or otherwise, the new administration turned instead to a defense strategy it called preemption, in effect abrogating America's long-standing reluctance to engage in preventive war.

Introduced by President Bush in a speech at West Point in June 2002 and formalized in a revised National Security Strategy later that year, preemption reflected the administration's view that "containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies."

Instead, President Bush argued, "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge," taking "preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives. …

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