WASHINGTON -- There are few foreign-policy positions more silly than the assertion without context that "deterrence works." It is like saying air power works. Well, it worked for Kosovo; it didn't work over North Vietnam.
It's like saying city-bombing works. It worked in Japan 1945 (Tokyo through Nagasaki). It didn't in the London blitz.
The idea that some military technique "works" is meaningless. It depends on the time, the circumstances, the nature of the adversaries. The longbow worked for Henry V. At El Alamein, however, Montgomery chose tanks.
Yet a significant school of American "realists" remains absolutist on deterrence and is increasingly annoyed with those troublesome Israelis who are sowing fear, rattling world markets and risking regional war by threatening a pre-emptive strike to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Don't they understand that their fears are grossly exaggerated? After all, didn't deterrence work during 40 years of Cold War?
Indeed, a few months ago, columnist Fareed Zakaria made that case by citing me writing in defense of deterrence in the early 1980s at the time of the nuclear freeze movement. And yet now, writes Zakaria, Krauthammer (and others on the right) "has decided that deterrence is a lie."
Nonsense. What I have decided is that deterring Iran is fundamentally different from deterring the Soviet Union. You could rely on the latter but not on the former.
The reasons are obvious and threefold:
(1) The nature of the regime.
Did the Soviet Union in its 70 years ever deploy a suicide bomber? For Iran, as for other jihadists, suicide bombing is routine. Hence the trail of self-immolation from the 1983 Marine barracks attack in Beirut to the Bulgaria bombing of July 2012. Iran's clerical regime rules in the name of a fundamentalist religion for whom the hereafter offers the ultimate rewards. For Soviet communists -- thoroughly, militantly atheistic -- such thinking was an opiate-laced fairy tale.
For all its global aspirations, the Soviet Union was intensely nationalist. The Islamic Republic sees itself as an instrument of its own brand of Shiite millenarianism -- the messianic return of the "hidden Imam."
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group