Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel over 30 years ago—an

agreement that withstood the test of such rocky times as Israel’s

1982 invasion of Lebanon and both Palestinian intifadas.

While “only” 15 years old, Israel’s peace with the Hashemite

Kingdom of Jordan proved equally resilient.

Specific Deterrence

Conceptually, general deterrence is a fairly simple proposition:

it rests on the capacity to promise a country’s adversaries

that attempts to destroy it would result in these adversaries

paying unacceptable costs. Not so with specific deterrence: a

country’s capacity to deter specific threats is derived from a

much more complex set of variables. Indeed, in the latter case,

the importance of the relative capacity to inflict pain is matched—

and often superseded—by the relative willingness to sustain

punishment. As a result, a country possessing superior capacity

to inflict pain may still find itself defeated in a deterrencefocused

confrontation if its adversary happens to care more

about the specific issue at stake, and, as a result, is more willing

to sustain the costs entailed.

From Israel’s standpoint, Egypt’s launching of the 1969–70

War of Attrition, despite the IDF’s superior capacity to inflict

punishment, was precisely such a failure of specific deterrence.

Israel failed because Egypt cared more about the issue at

stake—liberating the Sinai Peninsula—and was willing to sustain

high costs in pursuit of this objective. For the same reason,

Israel also failed to deter Egypt and Syria from attacking on 5

October 1973.

Specific deterrence is much more prone to failure not only

because it involves twice the number of variables associated

with general deterrence but also because the additional variable—relative

determination, which translates to the relative

willingness to sustain punishment—is difficult to assess before

a confrontation has taken place.

For example, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Dayan, was

surprised both in 1969–70 and in 1973 because he believed

that Egypt would not care enough to sustain the heavy costs

entailed in challenging Israel’s conquest of the Sinai Peninsula.

Instead, Dayan seems to have believed that Egypt would “get


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