When I was in college, in the early 1980s, I invited Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, to give a speech on campus. At the time, U.S. colleges were hotbeds of opposition to the Reagan administration, especially to its defense policies. Sure enough, as Weinberger began to speak, a series of students stood up and began to heckle. One after another, they rose and chanted a single line, “Deterrence is a lie!”
I am reminded of that turbulent meeting as I listen to the debates over Iran’s nuclear ambitions because it highlights a strange role reversal in today’s foreign policy discourse. It used to be the left that refused to accept the idea of deterrence — searching instead for options such as a nuclear freeze. And it used to be those on the right who would patiently explain the practical virtues of deterrence.
“About once every 25 years, a new generation discovers the horrors of the bomb and the paradoxes of deterrence, and begins looking for a way out. But there are only so many times that one can present the apocalypse . . . so many beguiling alternatives to pursue and discard. Inevitably, the debate grinds to a halt pretty much where it began: affirming, while deploring, the necessity of relying on the balance of terror to preserve the peace.” That was Charles Krauthammer, writing in the New Republic in 1984. “Deterrence, like old age, is intolerable, until one considers the alternative,” he explained.
Yet today it is the right that has decided that deterrence is a lie. Krauthammer, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and others denounce containment and deterrence and would lead us instead to a policy that culminates in a preventive war. It is the right’s version of the nuclear freeze — a simple solution that actually doesn’t solve anything. Strikes on Iran would probably delay its program a few years while driving up domestic support for the government in Tehran and providing it with a much stronger rationale for pursuing nuclear weapons. Yet sophisticated conservatives insist that this route is preferable to deterrence.
Deterrence is a difficult concept to accept because it is counterintuitive: The prospect of destruction produces peace. And yet its record is remarkable. Great powers went to war with brutal regularity for hundreds of years. Then came nuclear weapons, and there has not been a war between great powers since 1945 — the longest period of peace between great powers in history. The United States and the Soviet Union had a more intense and far-reaching rivalry than almost any two great powers ever. Each thought the other wanted to destroy its way of life. And yet, this rivalry did not result in war. Both sides were deterred.
In 1989, Margaret Thatcher said in a toast to Mikhail Gorbachev, “Both our countries know from bitter experience that conventional weapons do not deter war in Europe, whereas nuclear weapons have done so for over 40 years. As a deterrent there is no substitute for them.”
If deterrence doesn’t work, then why are we not preparing preventive war against Russia, which still has a fearsome arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles? Or against Pakistan, home to a military-intelligence regime that has been implicated in more major acts of terrorism in the past 10 years than Iran has in the past hundred? The argument that Iran would be deterred does not rest on its reasonableness but on the regime’s desire to survive. “Rulers want to have a country that they can continue to rule,” says Kenneth Waltz, one of the most distinguished theorists of international relations.
To gain credibility with his conservative critics and with the current Israeli government, President Obama has gone along with them, ruled out containment, insisted that he does not bluff and spoken of a “window” of opportunity for negotiations. This might prove a serious error: It boxes in the United States, limits Obama’s options and forces him on a path that could push him into an unnecessary, preventive war.
Anguish over the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon is understandable. It would be better for Israel, the Middle East and the world if Tehran does not acquire such weapons. The U.S. effort, in collaboration with almost the entire international community, to prevent this from happening and to put tremendous pressure on Tehran, is the right policy. But were Tehran to persist, were its regime to accept the global isolation and crippling costs that would come from its decision, a robust policy of containment and deterrence would work toward Iran as it did against Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and the Pakistani military.