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Argument: The U.S. Can Deter Iran but Not Its Proxies The U.S. Can Deter Iran but Not Its Proxie...
The assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani met with widespread concern that U.S. foreign-policy decisions are devoid of any overarching strategic vision. As former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in a critique of President Donald Trump’s handling of the Middle East, “Clearly he doesn’t do strategies, period.”
Yet the administration has articulated at least some strategy. In addition to justifying the assassination on the grounds of preventing an imminent attack, the president and his allies argue that it will deter what they describe as increasing Iranian aggressiveness. “[T]he Suleimani strike,” according to Sen. Tom Cotton, “has already restored deterrence.” In support of this deterrent strategy, Trump threatened, via his preferred medium of Twitter, massive further attacks should Iran choose to escalate the conflict. While his initial suggestion that the United States would target cultural sites has been walked back, the underlying threat of escalation in support of deterrence stands.
The problem with this bellicose posture is not that it is inherently unstrategic. The problem is that it is a strategy designed for a very different kind of conflict than the one the United States faces with Iran. To adapt former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, you go to war against the adversary you have, not the adversary you want. Iran is not the Soviet Union. It has pursued a decades-long policy of cultivating alliances with armed proxy groups—and that means there’s a real risk this attempted deterrence will backfire, forcing an escalation sought by neither side.
In its most straightforward form, the logic of deterrence is simple: If an adversary believes the costs of an attack are high enough, it will prefer not to engage in that attack in the first place. Thus, the administration’s argument goes, if the United States threatens a massive response to Iranian aggression, they are likely to stand down.
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