Hezbollah flags seen in front of Arab Bank building in Beirut.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The working of deterrence puzzles Israelis. Deterrence has been an important foundational concept in Israel’s grand strategy since the early 1950s, and it was considered a conflict management tool that was supposed to produce stability. Adopting a strategy of cumulative deterrence was believed to persuade Israel’s enemies that they couldn’t defeat Israel, forcing them to seek political accommodation.
Yet deterrence success was at times elusive. Deterrence failed often against Israel’s Arab state neighbors until 1973 when deterrence stability was finally created.
The success of deterrence against terrorist groups and non-state actors is mixed as well. Deterrence stability was not established against Hezbollah until after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and it has yet to be established against Hamas. The fact that much weaker actors are not deterred by Israel’s overwhelming power and resolve, is a state of affairs that contradicts the tenets of deterrence theory, which stipulates that more powerful actors should be able to deter weaker ones. The most disturbing aspect about the working of deterrence is not that it sometimes fails but that it sometimes fails against exceedingly weaker actors.
Some argue that terrorist organizations are difficult to deter because even when they lose a confrontation with more powerful defenders they paradoxically increase the resilience, motivation and organizational appeal of their groups. Nevertheless, we witness cases of success and are puzzled, for example, why deterrence is successful against Hezbollah but not against Hamas. How do we explain that? Most people are familiar with the basic tenets of deterrence, which assert that deterrence holds when a defender is favored by the balance of military power and resolve. Defenders have to have the military capability to ensure that the costs outweigh the benefits of an attack through the use of denial and/or punishment.
If these conditions prevail deterrence holds, otherwise it fails.
Why is deterrence currently stable against Hezbollah? While Israel is clearly stronger than Hezbollah, Hezbollah’s missiles can cause massive casualties and destruction in Israel. The situation is one of mutually assured and costly pain.
Israel is preparing for a major campaign that will destroy the organization in case of a Hezbollah attack.
Knowing this deters Hezbollah from a challenge in the first place. Note that deterrence stability here is not only a function of the balance of military power, the prism through which most Israeli analysts evaluate the prospects for deterrence success, but is also a function of the balance of resolve and its effect on power. A massive Hezbollah challenge, which would create many Israeli casualties, would increase Israel’s resolve to accept further costs entailed in a costly war to destroy Hezbollah. Thus, a relatively more powerful Hezbollah is more, not less deterrable.
The distinction between brute force and coercion as well as denial and punishment is critical here. Israel may not have the denial capability necessary to destroy every Hezbollah missile or rocket but it could “win” the contest of destructive power. The absence of robust denial capabilities enables punishment and lengthens the escalatory ladder available to Israel to dominate the escalation process necessary to reestablish deterrence.
This situation is similar to the Mutual Assured Destruction concept used in nuclear deterrence where a survivable second-strike capability insures that even a relatively weaker actor could deter. Deterrence held during the Cold War even if there was an imbalance of power because it was a world in which a few surviving weapons could inflict unacceptable punishment.
Therefore, no interest was worth the costs involved, and the main concern of antagonists was war avoidance.
In the conventional deterrence situation between Israel and Hezbollah the balance does matter, because winning and losing affects the deterrence calculus, the cost of a war to both sides removes the incentive from challenging deterrence.
Interestingly, and paradoxically, this situation explains why Israel is unable to establish stability against Hamas. Because Hamas’s capabilities are weaker, and Israel’s denial capabilities are more robust, Hamas can’t inflict massive casualties on Israel, and Israel in turn cannot muster the resolve to go to an all out costly war against Hamas. It is difficult to justify such a conflict when casualties are low. Paradoxically, a more powerful Hamas, able to inflict greater casualties on Israel, would be deterrable because challenging Israel would increase Israel’s resolve to retaliate massively even at high cost to itself, which would deter Hamas in the first place.
Thus, while states instinctively desire their adversaries to be very weak, exceedingly weak actors are not deterrable not only because they “win” even when they lose, but because being unable to inflict serious costs on defenders, limits the retaliatory acts defenders can engage in. Put differently, paradoxically, Israel’s robust successful denial capability undermines deterrence by shortening the length of the escalatory ladder available to it. Punishment is limited and escalation dominance is non-existent. Successful, but not perfect, denial undermines the ability of defenders to inflict the punishment necessary to create deterrence stability.
Understanding these dynamics explains many puzzling outcomes in Israel’s experience of deterrence against terrorist and non-state actors. Deterrence holds against Hezbollah because the new strategic equation is one of mutually assured pain. And serial retaliatory campaigns against weaker actors like Hamas are likely to end in failure because as long as Hamas’s arsenal is successfully neutralized, Israel cannot use escalation dominance to establish deterrence success.
Since it could not allow Hamas to become a stronger military force, Israel must increase Hamas’s material assets, upon which it places value – and therefore, susceptible to punishment. Ultimately deterrence succeeds when power is used as bargaining chip, but mostly held in reserve. Were Hamas to be allowed to build an airport and/or seaport, for example, the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, would be sufficient to deter. In the domain of total loss, exceedingly weak adversaries have no incentive to bargain and the expectation of more violence no longer influences behavior, leading to perpetual deterrence failure.
The author is a Lecturer on International Relations and the Middle East at the Missouri State University, Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, and is the author of Reconceptualizing Deterrence: Nudging toward Rationality in Middle Eastern Rivalries.