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 The U.S. Failed to Restore Deterrence with Iran, But That’s Not Its Job

Scaring off threatening actors in far-flung parts of the world has little to do with American interests.


The world is at war, and it is Washington’s fault. At least, that is the opinion of many U.S. pundits.

For instance, Iran’s attack on Israel triggered a spate of articles calling it a failure of American deterrence. The Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker described the major escalation in the two governments’ long-running geopolitical contest as a decision “to ignore the warning from Joe Biden.” The Journal editorialized that deterrence failed not just once, but “again.”


By similar logic, Liam Collins of New America and Frank Sobchak of West Point argued that “deterrence failed in Ukraine.” At fault, they contend, were President George W. Bush in 2008 and President Barack Obama in 2014 for failing to respond to Moscow sooner. The Atlantic Council’s Mercedes Sapuppo also blamed the latter for not going to war over Crimea. Arizona’s ever-truculent Sen. John McCain condemned Obama for encouraging Russia by failing to bomb Syria. 

John Bolton similarly faulted President Donald Trump for wanting to withdraw from Syria and President Joe Biden for withdrawing from Afghanistan. Rep. Michael McCaul, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also held the latter responsible for Russia’s invasion. Fiona Hill added “the withdrawal from Iraq, withdrawal from Syria, and the whole fraught history of United States interventions in the last two decades” as causes. Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts even blamed Biden’s “fold” on the Nord Stream II pipeline and “steadfast refusal to secure America’s borders.” 

Other policymakers worry that the U.S. is similarly encouraging China to attack Taiwan. McCain’s go-to culprit was Obama, again for not doing more against Russia over Crimea: “That has emboldened other aggressive actors—from Chinese nationalists to Al Qaeda terrorists and Iranian theocrats.” The Washington Times’ Bill Gertz cited Biden’s failure to prevent both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Iran’s assault on Israel: “Fears are growing that China’s leaders will calculate that American power has declined to a point where Beijing’s military can act with impunity and launch a major regional conflict.” Baker warned that “If we continue to defer to rather than deter our adversaries, Beijing will surely respond like Iran, Russia and terrorists worldwide when this president says ‘Don’t’.”

Moreover, “The Taliban ignored his warnings,” complained Baker, and took control of Afghanistan. Indeed, Baker charged Biden’s “failure to deter” as causing many of the world’s troubles: “Under this president so many lines have been crossed that the world is running out of red paint. His failure to deter can be measured in the terrifying number of historic geopolitical firsts recorded in the past three years: the first major ground war in Europe in nearly 80 years, the deadliest attack on Israel in its 75-year history, the first time in its 45-year history that Iran’s revolutionary regime has directly attacked the Jewish state.” 

Yet current policy evidently has protected America. Since Pearl Harbor, U.S. territory has been attacked only by terrorists, most dramatically on 9/11. Deterrence worked when it was most needed—to safeguard America. 


So, whom else should America deter, and from doing what?

To start, the Israel–Iran contretemps was not Washington’s fault. Rather, Iran failed to deter the Israeli bombing of Tehran’s diplomatic facility and Israel failed to deter an Iranian response. Israel routinely targets Iranian interests in Syria and even mounts operations in Iran, including the assassination of nuclear scientists. Most recent was the Damascus strike, called “an unprecedented escalation.” Even the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who suffered years in Iranian captivity, pointed out that Tehran’s assault “was not a simple act of unprovoked aggression.” 

Iranian officials apparently decided that Jerusalem had overstepped, requiring a serious response. Their objective, argued Sina Toossi of the Center for International Policy, was “to establish strategic deterrence.” The New York Times discussed how Jerusalem missed Iran’s new willingness to retaliate. 

In turn, Israel, not the U.S., failed to deter Iran. With the region’s strongest military, including nuclear weapons and abundant support from Washington, Jerusalem long has threatened to do whatever it takes to protect itself. Yet Tehran struck back. Although the latter’s response appeared choreographed to allow the U.S. and allied states to shoot down most of the incoming warheads, Tehran demonstrated that it could do more in the future. 

In fact, Iran and Israel both moderated their retaliatory attacks to preclude serious action by the other. Which leaves the status of mutual deterrence unclear. Complained the Daily Telegraph’s Jake Wallis Simons: “If the price for such a major assault is one ‘limited’ jab at an air base, then that is extremely favourable [sic] to Iran.”

More fantastic is the claim that the U.S. failed to deter Russia. Despite Washington’s deep involvement in a proxy war against Moscow, the latter has taken no military action against the U.S.—even after American officials claimed responsibility for sinking the Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea fleet flagship, and killing Russian generals. To that can be added ongoing arms transfers responsible for the deaths of thousands of Russian personnel. 

So, too, for NATO countries. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has not challenged the alliance, even its coverage of the vulnerable Baltic members. Although NATO’s current members now disparage its deterrent value, warning that a victorious Russia might look westward, Putin does not appear to share this view. He sought to prevent Ukraine’s entry into the transatlantic alliance for a reason, the commitment of the U.S. and Europe to go to war on members’ behalf. This was the primary cause of the conflict, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: Putin “went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.” The latter evidently sees alliance membership as a deterrent.

The latest complaint is that Washington failed to deter Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Yet, apart from indistinct sanctions threats issued during the Russian military build-up, neither the U.S. nor Europe actively attempted to deter Moscow then or before. 

First, neither Washington nor NATO intervened when the Soviet Union crushed local uprisings and reform efforts outside the alliance—in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. NATO later waged “out of area” wars against Yugoslavia and Libya, but not against Russia. The Budapest Memorandum was toothless, with the signatories’ remedy for an attack on Ukraine a promise to go to the UN Security Council.

Today, the U.S. and Europe’s primary deterrence mechanism is NATO membership. Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts and former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming contended, “If the United States and its allies cannot prevent and punish war crimes right on NATO’s border, then enemies further afield, big and small, will be emboldened.” Nevertheless, being next to an alliance is not the same as being in an alliance. That is why Kiev wants to join. And is why the allies still refuse to make good on membership commitments from NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit. No one wants to go to war over Ukraine. 

If war erupts in the Taiwan Strait, deterrence by the U.S. will be said to have failed. “Strategic ambiguity” is supposed to present just enough certainty to scare Beijing away from attacking the island state while leaving enough uncertainty to scare Taipei away from provoking war by declaring independence. 

Some American policymakers appear to believe that the mere threat of military action is sufficient to deter Beijing. For instance, Leon Panetta, who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, declared: “I think frankly if China understands that we’re serious about that, China’s not going to do that. They may be a lot of things, they’re not dumb.” Alas, that sentiment reflects the balance of power a couple decades ago, not today. Even those who view war as possible may underestimate the likely cost of combat and the strength of public support

In any case, the threat of war might not be sufficient to deter Beijing. For the PRC the issue is essential, if not existential; for the U.S. it is peripheral. China would be fighting off its coast with the mainland as a massive resource. America would be fighting several thousand miles from home dependent on allies which might choose not to join the fight. Nationalism ensures Chinese popular backing over Taiwan, while public support would be much thinner and more fragile in the U.S. 

Many of the claims of failed deterrence reflect the belief that victory or at least steadfastness in other, usually modest fights of modest importance, will prevent major powers from acting to advance important if not vital objectives. The assumption seems to be that America must be constantly at war to prevent constant war.

Yet this contention makes little sense. Recent examples include Obama’s failure to bomb Syria over its alleged violation of his “red line” on use of chemical weapons and President Joe Biden’s failure to maintain troops in Afghanistan (exacerbated by their chaotic exit). Both cases have been cited as encouraging Putin to invade Ukraine and Chinese President Xi Jinping to swallow Taiwan. 

It beggars belief that either Moscow or Beijing would treat Washington’s willingness to fight war-ravaged Syria or the Medieval Taliban as relevant to U.S. willingness to confront states with significant conventional forces as well as nuclear weapons. Indeed, even hawkish American policymakers who favored endless war in Afghanistan and Syria have not backed war against Russia. (In practice, Moscow and Beijing probably would prefer the U.S. to be bogged down militarily in the Mideast and South Asia.)

Moreover, critics rarely detail what actions following Russia’s 2008 and 2014 military interventions they believe would have deterred Putin. Sanctions have subsequently proved ineffective and additional military aid would not have enabled Georgia or a much weaker Ukraine to defeat Russia. Indeed, earlier and heavier military support for Ukraine, which famously took NATO into Ukraine rather than Ukraine into NATO, might have accelerated Putin’s invasion.

The most important indirect deterrence claim is that the U.S. must underwrite Ukraine, else China will decide to attack Taiwan. This argument is advanced without any evidence. Aggression, like politics, is typically local. Most Chinese desire reunification, but even the Chinese Communist Party is wary of war. Events on the island, including whether Taiwan is perceived as moving toward independence, are likely to be determinative.

Moreover, Ukraine is a useless precedent for Taiwan. Supplying an island off China’s coast would be much more difficult than aiding Kiev. Nor does the support of European governments for Ukraine suggest that they would do the same for Taiwan, since China does not threaten them militarily and is more important to them economically. Anyway, those who today link Ukraine and Taiwan are advocating American military intervention in the latter. Sending money to Kiev is not equivalent to waging conventional and perhaps nuclear war on behalf of Taipei. Indeed, Johns Hopkins’s Hal Brands warns that staying out of Ukraine may “have convinced Beijing that the United States just won’t fight a conventional war against a nuclear-armed rival.”

America has done a good job deterring attack, made easy by its favorable geographic position. It is not Washington’s job to stop military action against every other nation. The U.S. should act only when the interests involved are serious, even vital, for America and important enough to risk war. Protecting the American people from foreign harm should remain Washington’s highest duty.