Beyond Deterrence by David Ellenson: New York Sun, March 14

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Later this week, the United Nations Security Council will take up the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, and prospects are not good for an agreement among the five veto-wielding members. As a result, the world may soon be confronted with the question of what to do absent a united front at Turtle Bay. While some will argue for the use of force to prevent Iran from completing a nuclear weapon even absent a U.N. imprimatur, others are already arguing that the Iranian nuclear threat can be contained in the same way they say the Soviet threat was controlled in its day. Such thinking, however, is a mistake.

To see why, consider how some are already trying to apply the “logic” of Cold War-style mutually assured destruction to twenty-first century Iran. For example, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Barry R. Posen, recently penned an op-ed for the New York Times entitled “We Can Live With A Nuclear Iran.” Mr. Posen maintains that it is not “beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to defuse” the threat a nuclear Iran would pose without literally defusing Iran’s program. Indeed, he writes, “there is reason to believe we could readily manage a nuclear Iran.” Any reckless action on the part of Iran such as arming terrorists with nuclear weapons or blackmailing neighboring states would be forestalled by the specter of revenge and annihilation that the United States and its allies would wreak upon the Iranian nation should they act in such a way. Mr. Posen therefore concludes that before America and its allies contemplate actions, “including war,” that they “might take to forestall a nuclear Iran,” that there is a “need to coolly assess whether and how such a specter might be deterred and contained.”

“Cool assessment” is always called for. But, pace Mr. Posen, cool assessment in this instance leads to a somewhat different conclusion. The prospect of a mutually assured destruction strategy hardly makes one confident that a nuclear Iran could be “deterred and contained.”

A complete assessment might start with a refresher course on human nature. Consider the correspondence Sigmund Freud had with Albert Einstein in 1932. On July 30th of that year, Einstein asked Freud, “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?” Freud, in response, stated, “There is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies. The ideal conditions would obviously be found in a community where every man subordinated his instinctive life to the dictates of reason. Nothing less than this could bring about so thorough and durable a union between men. But surely such a hope is utopian.”

Proponents of containment might well agree with this Freudian assessment of human nature, but, as the Iranian example demonstrates, they err when they suggest that the instinct for survival can keep this impulse in check. The thinking goes that Iran would not employ its stockpile of nuclear weapons, should it ever have them, because it would lead to Iran’s own obliteration, and no rational power would act with such reckless disregard for its own existence. This is a variant of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that has been with us since the days of the Cold War.

However, this argument is not compelling in our day because it fails to take into account the religious and ideological motives that inform the Iranian leadership. Indeed, there is little reason to believe that a policy of deterrence would dissuade a nuclear Iran from launching or fomenting a nuclear attack against its opponents. Yet reliance on deterrence as an adequate means for insuring peace is based upon the premise that the human desire for survival is so great that no one would knowingly prefer a nuclear conflagration to continued existence. Is that actually the case in a country where thousands of young Iranian Shiite Muslims were willing in the 1980s to sacrifice their lives at the behest of an Ayatollah Khomeni in order to earn a martyr’s death in the landmines of a Middle Eastern desert, and where the numbers of people willing to follow their example has only grown in the years since?

Deterrence is effective so long as one’s opponents fear death for themselves, their families, their nations, or the world. In the case of persons who possess no such fear – in fact, who are convinced that such destruction would lead to a place in Paradise – the prospect of annihilation hardly provides an obstacle to war. Deterrence as a credible guarantee of non-aggression presupposes rational actors who prefer life to death.

The one “virtue” of deterrence is that, even if it holds large numbers of innocent citizens hostage to the rationality of their leaders, it at least spares those citizens the horrors of a “hot” war. But is avoiding violence in such a situation really always a virtue? Consider a 1938 exchange of letters between Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Buber. In their correspondence, Buber pointed out to Gandhi – who had urged the Jews of Germany to employ non-violent forms of resistance as a weapon against Hitler – that the world we inhabit is an imperfect one. Violence, evil, and destruction exist. As a Jew, Buber said that he could never “desire to use force.” However, Judaism does not proclaim, “as did Jesus, the son of our people, and as you do, the teaching of non-violence, because we believe that sometimes a man must use force to save himself or even more his children.”

While hardly desirable, or even the first recourse in a confrontation with evil, force must still remain available as a final option in our dealings in a world where aggression against the innocent exists. One employs such force with a great deal of hesitancy, but its use, real or perceived, may be the only just course a community can adopt when confronting a particular situation. While one should strive always to abjure force, “if there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself into God’s hands.”

A policy based upon deterrence alone will not be sufficient to resolve the Iranian problem because the fundamental assumption of deterrence – that both sides value their lives – doesn’t hold here. Policymakers would be better off, then, considering the words of Martin Buber, when he said to Gandhi, that while we would only employ force “with fear and trembling,” we nevertheless must “weigh exactly how much [force] is necessary to preserve the community.”

Rabbi Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His most recent book, “After Emancipation,” has just won the 2005 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought and Experience.