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Unilaterally Assured Destruction

Authors: Barry Pavel, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council, and Matthew H. Kroenig, 2011-2012 Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow
September 9, 2011
Foreign Policy


Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker's new book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda, credits our role in developing the first U.S. government-wide strategy for deterring terrorist networks. They write that we "crafted a briefing to make the case that a combination of efforts -- economic, diplomatic, military, political, and psychological ... could in fact establish a new strategy and create a new and effective posture of deterrence against terrorist groups."

While we are flattered by the book's portrayal of our work, it risks overstating our influence. The deterrence approach that we advocated remains a poorly understood and underutilized element of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. It holds, however, great potential for helping to thwart future al Qaeda attacks.

Deterrence is preventing an adversary from taking a threatening action by convincing the adversary that the costs of the action would outweigh any possible benefits. During the Cold War, deterrence was the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy. The threat of massive nuclear retaliation deterred the Soviet Union from directly attacking U.S. interests and helped maintain a tense yet stable peace for nearly half a century.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many senior U.S. government officials and national security experts argued that terrorists were undeterrable. After all, how do you deter people who are irrational or willing to give their life for a cause? How do you retaliate against a terrorist enemy who might be dead, unlocatable, or hiding in a country with which the United States is not at war? Due to these and other complications, early U.S. government counterterrorism efforts focused on capturing and killing terrorists, eschewing deterrence as a viable tool.

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