Former President Barack Obama, Former Secretary of State John Kerry and their European fellow travelers are apoplectic that President Donald Trump would dare cancel their hard-won deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. Never mind that it appears that the theocratic state has been violating the terms since Day One. If only Obama and Kerry would appreciate that the old Cold War strategies that defeated the Soviets still have currency today.
The Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) seems absurd. How could anyone contemplate total nuclear devastation regardless of the provocation? For many, MAD itself was a criminal policy. But MAD was really just deterrence, introducing fear into your opponent. Effective deterrence requires two things: first, it must involve intolerably high costs and, second, the threat must be credible.
And, for all the hand-wringing, MAD worked.
For the first time in human history, a weapon (the hydrogen bomb) has never been used in combat. And, at 73 years and counting, the world is experiencing the longest period without direct armed conflict between major powers.
Despite its powerful track record, President Obama and his foreign policy team turned their backs on deterrence. Instead, they embraced a combination of grand speeches and “proportionate response,” which is the imposition of penalties upon an aggressor, carefully calibrated by some undefined ratio. Proportionate response does away with the simplistic reaction of deterrence, casting aside a relic policy used by old white Europeanists. There is no room for deterrence in the new multi-lateral, multi-cultural world.
In the view of Obama and his band of pseudo-intellectuals, proportionate response is not only fair and just, but is very modern, sophisticated and — best of all — smart. That’s the true goal of progressives, isn’t it? Not to get results, but to be viewed as very, very smart.
But it turns out, the proportionate response is not smart at all. It is foolish. Very, very foolish.
The first problem with proportionate response is that it cedes control to geopolitical opponents of the United States. By signaling the type and level of penalties you will impose, an opponent can calculate the estimated costs of any action and either raise the level of conflict or reduce it depending on their preferences.
The second problem is that calculating the correct fair and smart proportion is practically impossible. What is the right “proportionate response” to Syrian genocide? Or shooting down a commercial airliner? In addition, if your opponent does not consider the penalties imposed real or significant costs, you have only encouraged more bad behavior. For an Obama team focused exclusively on economic sanctions, this was a serious problem as everything became an economic calculation against offenses that defy financial quantification.
Russia, Iran and North Korea, as non-democratic regimes, are able to transfer the costs of sanctions to marginalized groups within their country. As long as the regime’s security services are protected as well as important groups within a regime’s power base, then proportionate response sanctions are practically meaningless.
After all, does anyone think Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are hurt by American sanctions? Hardly. The costs have been transferred to the Iranian regime’s opponents: the educated elites and the urban middle class. This ability and willingness to transfer costs is why Obama’s responses to Russia, Iran, and North Korea failed completely. While the sanctions have imposed costs, they have affected the people in power only marginally at best, and thus actual behavior has not changed at all.
The only way to rein in aggressive international regimes is via disproportional response and to do so with dispatch. Only when the threat of disproportional response exists and is credible, will bad countries end their mischief. The calculation should be to impose costs to the exercises of power that are intolerable. Arming the Ukrainians to a level where they could defeat and humiliate Russia’s proxy army would is the kind of cost Putin could not bear. Financial sanctions, while difficult at times, can be dealt with.
Unfortunately, Obama and his smart team walked away from deterrence. In doing so, they threw away American credibility and gave Putin, the ayatollahs, and Kim Jong Un a green light for aggression.
The Trump Administration has been stuck with the unpleasant and expensive task of restoring credible American deterrence. This is not an easy job and cannot be done overnight. But the alternative, continuing with the worst foreign policy concept since appeasement, is simply unacceptable.
Keith Naughton is a political consultant.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.