Deterrence Theory 101?

Apropos my earlier post about the decline in Israel’s strategic thinking, here’s Yossi Klein Halevi of the Adelson Institute of Strategic Studies explaining his peculiar view of deterrence theory: The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses," he said. "Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they’ve won or lost." No, this is ...

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Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Apropos my earlier post about the decline in Israel's strategic thinking, here's Yossi Klein Halevi of the Adelson Institute of Strategic Studies explaining his peculiar view of deterrence theory:

The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses," he said. "Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they've won or lost."

No, this is not what deterrence is about. Deterrence is not about how you feel; it's about about how your adversary feels, and about how they calculate the potential gains or losses of whatever actions you are trying to deter. If you think you've won the last round and that this proves that you're stronger and more resolved and yet I still think otherwise, your deterrent threats aren't going to work.

Apropos my earlier post about the decline in Israel’s strategic thinking, here’s Yossi Klein Halevi of the Adelson Institute of Strategic Studies explaining his peculiar view of deterrence theory:

The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses," he said. "Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they’ve won or lost."

No, this is not what deterrence is about. Deterrence is not about how you feel; it’s about about how your adversary feels, and about how they calculate the potential gains or losses of whatever actions you are trying to deter. If you think you’ve won the last round and that this proves that you’re stronger and more resolved and yet I still think otherwise, your deterrent threats aren’t going to work.

Furthermore, because deterrence depends on both capability and resolve, it might actually be weakened if Israelis feel they’ve won and say so too loudly. Why? Because Hamas might decide it has to take more aggressive actions to demonstrate that the Israelis are wrong and that it is still capable of resistance.

Finally, there’s little reason to think that Israeli perceptions of victory or defeat play a very big role in Hamas’ longer-term calculations. At this point in the conflict, I doubt there are very many Palestinians who question whether Israel is both willing and able to deal with them harshly. In addition to imposing a crippling economic blockade on Gaza, Israelis killed over 5,000 Palestinians in the 2nd Intifada (2000-2008), compared with about 1,000 Israeli deaths in that same period. And this was before the Gaza operation began. Given that background, it is hard to believe that proclamations of victory now (which will be made by both sides) will have much effect on their future conduct.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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