Thinking Seriously About Deterring Iran and Hezb'allah
Roughly 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu wisely observed, “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
We call that deterrence and its success generally depends upon two key perceptions. (At this stage, realities are only relevant to the degree to which they contribute to perceptions.) A wise potential aggressor will ask first about the relative correlation of forces—the relative strength of each side. Can his armies defeat their opponents, and what are the chances that other nations will join in collective defense to defeat his plans? The second variable, equally important, is perceived will. It doesn’t matter how strong other players are if the potential aggressor believes they lack the will to engage.
Individuals decide to engage in aggressive behavior, sometimes acting collectively and sometimes alone. To deter aggression, it is essential to identify those individuals and to use positive and/or negative incentives to dissuade them from attacking. The goal is to persuade them that, when all the dust settles, they will be much worse off than would be the case had they decided instead to play golf.
It is the nature of man that rational actors tend to pursue their perceived self-interests. To successfully deter international aggression, it is sometimes necessary to act in such a way as to modify perceptions. Public statements, moving a carrier battle group into the region, calling up reserves, and many other measures can increase the likelihood that aggression will be deterred.
Image: Marine Corps barrack bombing in Beirut. Public domain.
These are not new issues to me. I have spent more than half a century studying war and teaching about effective means of peacekeeping. After my second Army tour in Vietnam, I became a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, where I was the resident expert on the Vietnam War and Asian editor of the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs. When Congress in 1984 established the United States Institute of Peace, it was my honor to serve as its first president. I subsequently co-taught an advanced interdisciplinary postgraduate seminar entitled “New Thinking about War and Peace” at the University of Virginia for more than two decades before my 2020 retirement.
The current situation in the Middle East is profoundly dangerous and could potentially lead to a nuclear World War III. Anyone who takes it lightly does not understand the situation.
Going door to door in Gaza to root out Hamas terrorists will not be easy, but I have confidence that the Israeli Defense Force will ultimately prevail—although perhaps at a horrific cost. Beyond that, the two most immediate regional threats are that Hezb'allah will decide to open a second front by attacking Israel from Lebanon, and Iran may decide to participate directly as well. I believe both can be deterred, but that will take some effort.
With respect to Hezb'allah, I believe we should immediately put them on notice that the United States is looking for an excuse to decimate them. October 23rd will mark the 40th anniversary of the terrorist truck bomb that murdered 241 sleeping U.S. Marines, soldiers, and sailors in Beirut. That was an Iranian operation using proxy forces that ultimately became part of Hezb'allah. We should make Hezb'allah understand that our two carrier battle groups eagerly await orders to crush them if they launch an attack against Israel.
Not only was Iran behind the murder of our Marines in Beirut four decades ago, but most American military personnel who were killed or maimed in Iraq by “Improvised Explosive Devices” were victims of Iranian intervention. Iran is now working actively to develop nuclear weapons, and the survival of Israel and much of the world community may depend upon preventing that from happening. So, we need to signal to Iran, as well, that America is looking for an opportunity to exact justice for its prior aggression and to eliminate its nuclear facilities and Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps the time has come to demonstrate the capabilities of our F35 fighters—for Iran and Hezb'allah to experience and other global tyrants to observe.
There is a serious risk that Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and/or Kim Jong Un will miscalculate and engage in aggressive behavior that might ultimately risk global nuclear war. So, it is very important that they understand the United States and its allies are prepared to counter any such behavior should they seek to exploit the current conflict.
Let me make something very clear. Russia and China have substantial nuclear forces, and confronting them runs a clear risk that a nuclear war will ensue. However, I believe allowing them to engage in international aggression will ultimately greatly increase that risk. Now is the time to make it clear in advance and in no uncertain terms that America is prepared to take whatever measures are necessary to protect Israel and the world from additional aggression.
There are many other things that we can do to make it clear to our adversaries that Hamas’ attack on Israel was a terrible blunder. Starting with the Vietnam War, Congress has repeatedly undermined presidential efforts to deter or respond to international aggression—contributing to the loss of millions of lives in the process. Congress should set aside its partisan bickering, and Democrats in the House who claim to believe in bipartisanship and to care about Israel should join with Republicans to elect a Republican Speaker of the House based upon which candidate receives the most votes from fellow Republicans.
The United States should obviously ensure that the $6 billion that was supposed to be turned over to Iran as part of the hostage swap is never delivered. Just as it was absurd when National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan claimed Iran would not be able to use that money to fund terrorism—as if injecting $6 billion into Iran’s economy would not free up for terrorism the $6 billion the mullahs were going to have to spend on their citizens. We could transfer that money to the U.S. Treasury as compensation for injuries to Americans and then take $6 billion out of the Treasury and send it to Israel.
Or we might provide it as credits for Israel to purchase military equipment from American companies. That would have the benefit of incentivizing increased U.S. production of military equipment, which will be necessary if things do not go extremely well in any event. What the critics now denounce as the “Military-Industrial Complex” was known as the “Arsenal of Democracy” when it helped win World War II.
Professor Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia School of Law, where he taught for more than three decades, He cofounded the Center for National Security Law in 1981.