The Higher the Cost? Ideology, Asymmetric Warfare, and Deterrence

by July 2021
Hamas recruits at a police academy in Gaza City. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas (with Iran’s proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, added to the mix) brought into focus the elusive nature of the concept of deterrence. As the Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi readily conceded, this will always remain subject to the cruel and retroactive judgment of history. It is a slippery psychological and political construct in the mind of an adversary and not a mathematical proposition, although it is commonly spoken of in terms of a “deterrence equation.” It is rendered even more elusive when the adversary is driven by a profound ideological commitment—wrapped up, as happens to be the case, in aspects of religious identity.

>> Grand Strategy and Identity Politics: Read more from Eran Lerman

At the core of all so-called deterrence “equations” lies the familiar notion of cost/benefit analysis: namely, the idea that rational decision makers would seek to avoid actions that are going to cost them dearly but will produce meager benefits. It is this notion of exacting a high price that makes deterrence such an abhorrent concept to many around the globe: A happy country is one that does not need to think about deterring its enemies. Yet it should not be forgotten by well-meaning Europeans, for example, that for almost two generations their liberty and prosperity were guaranteed and secured by the willingness and intent of the United States to kill many millions of Russians in the first few hours of World War III.

At the end of the day, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) did work. And mad it was: At the height of the US–USSR arms race, both had amassed a yield sufficient to obliterate all life on Earth several times over. Despite this “overkill,” we are still alive—although the number of close calls well exceeds those made famous by films such as 13 Days. The cost side of the equation was simply too heavy to be balanced by anything.

For groups seeking to control the societies they live in by demonstrating an ever-greater willingness to pay the price—from the Tamil Tigers to ISIS to Hezbollah and Hamas—the higher the cost, the stronger the claim to be the true representatives of values worth dying for.

But what happens on a somewhat lower rung of potential destruction, when identity politics—questions of “being” rather than “doing”—warp the cost side? To use a trite but pertinent image, the reasons that determine the choice when a hiker buys a backpack (best, most durable product for the lowest price) are quite different from those that drive a socialite’s pick of a Hermes handbag (a status symbol). In the latter case, the higher the cost, the more powerful the statement. The same goes, one assumes, for pickup trucks vs. Lamborghinis.

Transferred into the realm of politics, the willingness of individuals, movements, and governments driven by ideological fervor to make immense sacrifices can be explained in similar terms: “Being” what they seek to represent becomes all the more ennobled the higher the price paid for it. The most extreme example, perhaps, is that of the suicide bomber, willing to pay the ultimate price with utter certainty of physical destruction so as to win posthumous promotion to the rank of martyr. The religious comfort of the hereafter helps, but such self-sacrifice for a cause has not been rare even for non-religious ideologies. This is not simply the equivalent of a soldier risking their life in the battlefield to help their comrades and bring victory or save their side from defeat. The logic here has to do with the cost of sustaining an identity, not just with the recognition that some results cannot be achieved without sacrifice. The higher the cost, the stronger the claim to be the true representatives of values worth dying for.

This raises doubts about the utility of the deterrent model in the case of groups and organizations seeking to gain control of the societies in which they live—from the Tamil Tigers to ISIS to Hezbollah and Hamas—by demonstrating an ever-greater willingness to pay the price. To this can be added the “side benefit” of civilian casualties, which tarnish the image of the other side—as Pnina Shuker explains in her column. In this respect, those who recently set the front page of the New York Times with pictures of the children who died in the Gaza conflict should be held accountable for bringing ever greater harm upon the suffering Palestinian population—about whom they presume to care. They have made this kind of public outcome highly desirable for the leadership of organizations such as Hamas.

Clearly, deterrence under these conditions becomes a far more complex challenge. It needs to involve, down the road, a viable threat not to the individual lives of members and leaders but rather to the survival of the organization or movement as such. The demonstrated ability to do them harm must encompass the capacity to go over to other methods, which would put their very existence at risk (and as we saw in the drama that unfolded in Germany in 1945, even that might not be enough).

There is a growing importance of defensive action at all levels.
Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, in May. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Meanwhile, when faced with this type of challenge, it is equally important to alter the “benefit” side of the equation. Historically, Israeli leaders such as David Ben-Gurion were extremely averse to defensive measures. Their concept of deterrence rested upon the proven ability to destroy regular enemy forces in maneuver warfare. But in the face of asymmetrical challenges, a new need arises as part of the concept of deterrence. In order to dissuade an organization such as Hezbollah or Hamas from using their arsenal, it is necessary to deny the enemy the physical and symbolic outcomes that their rocket barrage are designed to cause. Hence, there is a growing importance of defensive action at all levels: the erection of physical barriers, above and under the ground, reliance upon the Iron Dome and other missile defense systems, the provision of good shelter for Israel’s civilian population, and an alert system combined with clear instructions for safe conduct under attack. When 4,500 rockets result in just 10 lives lost (not counting a soldier killed by anti-tank fire and two citizens killed during urban riots), legitimate questions may be raised as to the actual utility of the rocket effort.

Equally important is the need to deny political effect. When Spain abandoned the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein soon after the Madrid train station bombing in 2004, the overall global deterrence against terror was badly eroded. In Israel’s case, the decision to annul the Flag March in Jerusalem, when the city came under rocket fire on May 10, came to be seen as a powerful reward for Hamas; hence, the country’s new cabinet decided to let this march go forward again, this time on June 15, despite the risk of another flare-up. The fiery threats failed to materialize in the event, indicating that some measure of deterrence was, indeed, at work.

But beyond all such symbols and significant actions, what ultimately decides the legitimacy and utility of such asymmetrical campaigns is the sheer resilience of target societies—the United States after 9/11, Israel in the face of terror, the 2014 round with Hamas, and the recent fighting. Denying the adversary the pleasure of disrupting normal life is, at times, more effective as a deterrent than any punishment brought to bear upon its personnel or materiel. It is the task of leadership, worldwide, to instill this insight among their constituents.

>> Grand Strategy and Identity Politics: Read more from Eran Lerman

Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a former senior intelligence officer. He served as Israel’s deputy national security adviser (2009–2015), and prior to that as director, AJC Israel and ME office (2001–2009). He is currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a lecturer at Shalem College. @EranLerman
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