Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Restoring Deterrence, One Bomb at a Time?

 by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review
The only thing more dangerous than losing deterrent power is trying to put it back together again.
The Tomahawk volley attack, for all its ostentatious symbolism, served larger strategic purposes. It reminded a world without morality that there is still a shred of a rule or two: Do not use nerve gas on the battlefield or against civilians. The past faux redline from Obama, the systematic use of chlorine gas by Syria, and its contextualization by the Obama administration had insidiously eroded that old battlefield prohibition. Trump was right to seek to revive it.
The subsequent MOAB bomb strike in Afghanistan is useful against ISIS’s subterranean nests, and in signaling the Taliban and ISIS that the U.S. too can be unpredictable and has not quite written off its 16-year commitment. But as in the case of the Tomahawk strikes against Syria, it also fulfilled the larger purpose of reminding enemies, such as Islamic terrorists, North Korea, and Iran (which all stash weapons of destruction in caves and the like) that the U.S. is capable of anything.
In other words, apparently anywhere Trump thinks that he can make a point about deterrence, with good odds of not getting Americans killed or starting a war (he used Tomahawks not pilots where Russian planes were in the vicinity), he will probably drop a bomb or shoot off a missile or send in an iconic carrier fleet.

The message reminds the world that the Obama administration’s “lead from behind,” “don’t do stupid sh**,” plastic red-button reset, Cairo Speech foreign policy followed no historical arc that bent anywhere. And the U.S. was previously on the wrong, not the right, side of both history and the traditions of U.S. bipartisan foreign policy — an aberration from the past, not a blueprint of the future.
Like Ronald Reagan, who, after Jimmy Carter’s managed declinism, shelled Lebanon, bombed Gaddafi, and invaded Grenada, Trump is trying to thread the needle between becoming bogged down somewhere and doing nothing.
No president in recent memory also has outsourced such responsibility to his military advisers, whom Trump refers to as “our” or “my” “generals.” He can afford to for now, because he has made excellent appointments at Defense, State, National Security, and Homeland Security.
These are men who justifiably have won broad bipartisan support and who believe in the ancient ways of military and spiritual deterrence, balance of power, and alliances rather than the U.N., presidential sonorousness, or soft power to keep the peace. These opportunistic deterrent expressions are likewise intended to remind several parties in particular that the Obama hiatus is over.
Apparently, Trump will not necessarily reset the Obama reset of the Bush reset with Russia. Instead, he probably believes that Putin will soon agree that the 2009–16 era was an abnormal condition in which a far weaker Russia bullied friends and connived against almost everything the U.S. was for. And such asymmetry could not be expected to go on. A return to normal relations is not brinkmanship; it should settle down to tense competition, some cooperation, and grudging respect among two powerful rivals. Who knows, Putin may come to respect (and even prefer) an American leader who is unpredictable and unapologetically tough without being sanctimonious, sermonizing — and weak.
The old canard is largely true: Russia has no natural interests in seeing a radical Islamic and nuclear Iran on its border, other than the fact that this change would irritate and aggravate the U.S., which might satisfy Putin. But if Russia no longer felt a need to automatically oppose everything America sought (or if it feared to do so), then many of its unsavory alliances might no longer may seem all that useful.
Trump’s strikes and displays of naval power, and the reactions to them, also remind North Korea that it has no friends and could prove a liability to China (as Syria could to Russia) rather than a useful rabid animal to be occasionally unleashed so that it might bark and nip at Westernized Asia and the U.S. If North Korea’s antics imperil China’s commercial buccaneering or lead to a nuclear Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan on China’s borders, or to U.S. commercial restrictionism, then China could see North Korea’s insanity as not worth the cost. Additionally, if tensions rise, North Korea’s own military elite could remove the unhinged Kim Jong-un after concluding that he’s expendable. Or regional powers, despite differences, might collectively conclude that they can’t live with daily threats of nuclear launchings.
Again, Trump is trying to act unpredictably and forcefully against Pyongyang, the world’s most detested government — on the logic that without war, he can prompt greater containment before the unsustainable status quo leads to a conflagration. This is a sort of post–Cold War brinkmanship.
By now, Iran knows that it cannot send another missile toward an American carrier, hijack an American boat, or cheat flagrantly on the Iran Deal without earning some response from a man who dislikes both the revolutionary government and what Iran has done to the U.S. over the past eight years.
The general aims of these iconic acts are to remind the world of U.S. strength and that the new president has the willingness to use it to prevent some weaker entity from doing something stupid on the misapprehension that the U.S. is in decline rather than reemerging from a temporarily and self-imposed recessional. Once deterrence is reestablished (and only once it is achieved), then the U.S. will be able to appeal to Russia and China to find areas of mutual concern (radical Islam, nuclear proliferation in Asia, rogue nations that threaten the international order, etc.).
Are there risks in seeking to reestablish U.S. deterrence?
Of course.
1) Even dropping a huge bomb or sending in a flock of missiles or deploying the fleet near hostile shores at some point can lose its luster and lead to escalation to ensure that enemies remain impressed. In a cycle of escalation, then, America could leapfrog into an unintended war. It is vital to play out each demonstration of strength to the subsequent third and fourth degree, to guarantee that shows of deterrent force do not lead to unintended involvement or become habitual and thus banal.
2) Trump ran as a Jacksonian — not as a neoconservative or an isolationist. His electoral base must see his use of force as a) long overdue, b) at some point soon, no longer required, c) not leading to but rather preventing a major intervention, and d) undertaken for American not global interests. Otherwise, Trump will stumble into what he ran against.
3) When Trump righteously hits back at nerve-gassing dictators or head-chopping radical Islamists, his polls climb, his press improves, and more Americans think him a sober and judicious centrist — a fine and useful thing. But such political concerns can take on a logic of their own, in that the more Trump is praised by the Council of Foreign Relations or the Brookings Institution, the more likely he might be to fall into a pattern prescribed by an entrenched establishment. For a populist, doing necessary things that political opponents like is a paradox whose political consequences are still not quite fully appreciated.
4) Soon the low-hanging fruit of sending carriers around the globe and bombing Assad or ISIS will be picked, and Trump may find himself in an “incident” with a nuclear-armed Russia or China. Both adversaries have their own deterrent considerations and will bristle that they really do have to back down from what has been (since 2009) a rare period of opportunism at U.S. expense. The best solution, obviously, is to persuade Russia and China to curb their clients so that they will receive credit for their belated maturity.

Losing deterrence and seeking to recapture it are among the most dangerous moments for a great power, and we will be reminded of just that peril over the next year. There’s only one thing more dangerous in the short term than allowing North Korea to advance to launching intercontinental nuclear missiles, or letting China build an artificial island base in international waters of the South China Sea, or permitting the Iranians to haze U.S. ships in the Gulf of Hormuz, or backing down from Assad as he gasses civilians: trying to put an end to such things, and reminding the world that what was once normal was always in the long term a sure way to war.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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