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How Threats of Military Attack Can Backfire

Paul Pillar comments [1] on the danger of assuming that threatening a military attack usually “works” to intimidate the other government into making concessions:

The situation most often invoked, of course, is Iran and the issue of its nuclear program. The simplistic belief about the supposed universal efficacy of threats of military force thus accentuates an already widely held and mistaken assumption that the more that Iranians fear a military attack the more likely they are to make concessions about their nuclear activities.

The assumption Pillars mentions here is so widely-held because many Americans fail to see how threats of military force are received and understood by the targeted regimes and nations. The Iranian government and most Iranians believe their nuclear program to be entirely within their rights under international law, so it is very unlikely that the government can be coerced into making major concessions to Western demands on this issue. Because the U.S. has been threatening Iran with an attack for years, this has almost certainly made the Iranian government less accommodating and less likely to trust the U.S. to negotiate in good faith. Repeated threats have probably made the acquisition of nuclear weapons appear more attractive than it otherwise would be. While many in the West assume that negotiations won’t succeed unless there is a military option available, this fails to recognize that the threat of attack makes it virtually impossible for a targeted government to reach an agreement without appearing to have surrendered to a hostile foreign power.

Pillar continues:

Among the reasons that threats of armed force often not only do not work but may even be counterproductive—stiffening the resolve of the decision-makers on the other side—is that regimes do not like to be bullied.

One of the many unwelcome side-effects of exaggerating foreign threats to the U.S. is that many Americans sometimes seem to forget how great the disparity in power is between the U.S. and the states that are often held up as major or even “existential” threats. If Iran is mistakenly perceived here as such a great threat to America, many Americans won’t see U.S. actions designed to punish and threaten Iran as aggressive and heavy-handed tactics. However, that is how they appear to most people on the receiving end. The common response of any nation and any government to such tactics is to harden their opposition to foreign demands. Nothing is less likely to persuade Iran to make concessions on the nuclear issue than the threat of attack, but there seems to be nothing that Iran hawks worry about more than making that threat as “credible” as possible. As I’ve said before, Iranians have no trouble believing that the U.S. will sooner or later attack their country. What many of them may have difficulty believing after the last twelve years is that the U.S. might be willing to accept a diplomatic solution.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "How Threats of Military Attack Can Backfire"

#1 Comment By collin On September 16, 2013 @ 10:36 am

Cue the Republican comments in two years that since Obama backed down on Syria, Iran is more confident of their nuclear program. I believe Cruz will be the loudest voice here.

#2 Comment By james On September 16, 2013 @ 10:54 am

Bravo to Mr. Larison—-When we were children, our parents could get us to behave by threatening to smack our behind. Adults do not respond to such threats the same way. This is obvious to all except Neocons…..

#3 Comment By Bill H On September 16, 2013 @ 11:18 am

The “unspoken threat,” when present, is by far more effective.

I was a big kid at an early age and my father adamantly taught me that bullying was unacceptable. My size, he said, was to be used only in defense of those weaker than myself. I didn’t really do much of that, but when I did I never threatened violence. I was big enough, and my reputation on the football field was such, that I didn’t need to. I merely suggested to the bully what I thought of his behavior, and it tended to change.

#4 Comment By Sheldon On September 16, 2013 @ 11:29 am

Yes, threats of military attack MAY not work. Yes, such threats MAY make a country less likely to give up nuclear or chemical weapons. Yes, diplomacy MAY work – though it’s extremely difficult for me to see why a country would give up a strategic weapons program just because we ask nicely. But here’s something that definitely WON’T work: not saying a damn thing when a government gasses its citizens or when a theocratic Islamic country that wishes us and our allies ill develops a nuclear bomb program.

I greatly respect and even largely support your quite justified battle against the kind of interventions that have ruined American foreign policy, not to speak of our finances, in recent decades. But I think it ignores reality to assume that such threats NEVER work – even Pillar implies the threat had an effect on the Syria situation. Furthermore, Iran began its nuclear program well before we threatened to destroy it, and however angry and determined the Iranian leadership becomes as the result of our threats only the most irrational among them will fail to consider our military might in deciding whether to maintain it. My hope is that the diplomatic approach that has emerged in the Syria situation may prove useful in resolving the disagreement with Iran. But I can’t imagine that there would be any hope at all of an agreement if America had no military.

#5 Comment By tbraton On September 16, 2013 @ 11:32 am

There is also the very important point that the threat of force means that sometimes you have to follow through with the actual use of force, which means you wind up getting involved in wars that are not in your national interests. As James Antle states today in the Daily Caller re the Democrats voting to authorize George W. to go to war with Iraq back in 2003:

“If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar to the explanation offered by Democrats who voted for the Iraq war after it became an unmitigated disaster. They would say they voted for the authorization of force not because they wanted to go to war, but because they wanted to give George W. Bush another weapon in his diplomatic arsenal.

This was patent nonsense. George W. Bush had many flaws, but ambiguity about whether he wanted to invade Iraq was not one of them. But Hillary Clinton road-tested this argument even as she prepared to cast her vote for the war.

“I will take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible,” she said. A funny thing to say while one is voting to launch a war, but Clinton did not want us to see it that way.

“Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely, and therefore, war less likely, and because a good faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause, I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation,” Clinton argued.”

“My vote is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of pre-emption, or for unilateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose — all of which carry grave dangers for our nation, for the rule of international law and for the peace and security of people throughout the world,” she added.

I would note that Hillary Clinton was the first one to note after the Russian proposal to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons that the proposal wouldn’t have materialized without Obama’s threat to use force (however “unbelievably small”) against Syria. Clinton was also in favor of getting more deeply involved in Syria when she was SOS, long before the chemical gas attack took place.

#6 Comment By Andrew On September 16, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

Sabre-rattling is a good impetus for Russia to start seriously consider supplying Teheran with modern air-defense and anti-missile weapons systems. Those, not hypothetical nuclear weapons (delivery systems matter), could be a real game changer in the region. Israel, certainly, will not be happy, to say the least.

#7 Comment By James Canning On September 16, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

I agree that threats of force, by the US, against Iran, tend to be counterproductive.

I think Rouhani comprehends that Obama would not allow Iran to build nukes even if Iran wanted to build them – – which it appears it does not want to do.

#8 Comment By Rojo On September 16, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

“This is obvious to all except Neocons…..”

Not to defend the neocons, heaven forfend, but I can think of a few liberals that aren’t very clear on the matter either.

#9 Comment By TimeLine On September 16, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

Sheldon wrote: “Furthermore, Iran began its nuclear program well before we threatened to destroy it, “

True. Iran began its nuclear program back in the 1950s with enthusiastic support from the US and various European countries. US participation in Iran’s nuclear program continued until 1979.

In other words it didn’t start as some kind of sinister secret, and we supported it for a long time before we opposed it.


#10 Comment By Sheldon On September 16, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

Come on, TimeLine. We supported it when our ally the Shah was in charge, not the mullahs. Surely the kind of government that has these weapons is relevant.

#11 Comment By Chanel No. 235 On September 16, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

“Surely the kind of government that has these weapons is relevant.”

… but the WSJ editorial page tells us that changes at the top in Iran are irrelevant. Ahmadinejad, Shah, Rouhani, what’s the difference?

#12 Comment By logical atomist On September 16, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

“Surely the kind of government that has these weapons is relevant.”

Why? Because we are morally outraged by them, and therefore ought to make war on them, or encourage monsters like Saddam Hussein to do so for us, just so we can feel the maximum amount of pleasure from our self-righteousness, and inability to forget about some foolishness that happened at the embassy there over thirty years ago? Because that’s the only actual “benefit” we get from making Iran our enemy.

If you can’t see that the USA is mostly the bad guy in our relationship with Iran, then nationalism has blinded you to the actual facts of our history with them. The whole thing is something Americans ought generally to be ashamed of, rather than trying to do even more aggressive and hateful things to overthrow a government that is mostly popular among its citizens.

#13 Comment By HowDo On September 16, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

@Bill H – “My size, he said, was to be used only in defense of those weaker than myself. I didn’t really do much of that, but when I did I never threatened violence.”

I got the same talk.

Contrast with the lesser of two Clintons threatening to “totally obliterate” Iran.

#14 Comment By tbraton On September 17, 2013 @ 2:20 am

I believe I saw (or heard) the Powell Doctrine make an appearance on Sunday’s Meet the Press, albeit in a simplified, Cliff’s Notes version expressed by our old friend Thomas Friedman. Here is what he said:

“I think the base has concluded something. They’ve done the math in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, now looking to Syria. And I think what they said is, “Okay, every time we face these issues, you ask three questions. ‘Do we have an interest? Can we accomplish what we want to accomplish with a reasonable price and in a reasonable time?'”

I think the American people are saying, “You know, there’s a fourth question we need to start asking. Do we have real partners here? Do we have partners for when we actually bomb or strike or whatever, will actually take ownership of what we’ve done and make it self-sustaining?” And I think a lot of people might not articulate this, you know, exactly that, are asking, “Do we have people there who really share our values?” ” [4]

Of course, this compares to the actual Powell Doctrine which provides as follows:

“The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:
1.Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2.Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3.Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4.Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
5.Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6.Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7.Is the action supported by the American people?
8.Do we have genuine broad international support?[1]”

Notice how Friedman, in his comic book version of a classic, has geatly diluted the very first factor of the Powell Doctrine, “Is a vital national security interest threatened?”, to simply “do we have an interest?” The key word “vital” has been eliminated from Friedman’s version. The exhaustion of non-violent means, the need for an exit strategy and the need to consider the consequences of our action have likewise all disappeared from view. The stripped-down Friedman version of the Powell Doctrine is certainly easier to apply. So simple even a cave man can apply it, so to speak. I especially like the modified Colin Powell “Pottery Barn rule”: we need partners (but with the same values) to assume ownership of everything we have succeeded in breaking with our “bombs or strikes or whatever.” What’s interesting is that Syria fails to meet the terms even of Friedman’s stripped-down version of the Powell Doctrine.

BTW, don’t we have a little philosophical problem when it comes to threats of military force? Even icarusr conceded on September 11 that, “as it happens, I agree entirely about Larison’s – and Millman’s – chief point that breaking international law to enforce it is inconsistent, to say the least. (I discussed that point in one of my classes last week.)” If breaking international law to enforce it is highly questionable, wouldn’t the threat of force that would constitute a breach of international law in order to enforce international law also be highly questionable? That might provide a good topic of discussion for a college class.

#15 Comment By rayan On September 17, 2013 @ 3:58 am

@James Canning

” think Rouhani comprehends that Obama would not allow Iran to build nukes even if Iran wanted to build them – – which it appears it does not want to do”

it’s up to iranians people to say if iran can build a nuke or not.. not to americans people.

if iran wanted to build the bomb the US couldn’t stop it, the best Us can do is to delay a bit…