The New Deterrence: Overwhelming and Searching Retaliation


(Weekly Standard)

by Elbridge A. Colby

April 10, 2008

In a little noticed speech on February 8, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley announced that the United States had recently adopted "a new declaratory policy to help deter terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States, our friends, and allies." This policy would threaten with retaliation "those states, organizations, or individuals who might enable or facilitate terrorists in obtaining or using weapons of mass destruction."

This new policy is a major step forward for U.S. counterterrorism policy. Contrary to the mantra that deterrence is irrelevant to addressing the terrorism problem, the truth is that deterrent threats can and should play a central role in preventing attacks, especially catastrophic attacks. Perhaps the attackers themselves cannot always be deterred, but terrorist attacks are not the work of bombers alone. They are the result of coordinated actions by groups of people. The key is therefore to expand deterrent threats beyond the core members themselves to encompass those who support, enable, facilitate, finance, provide expertise, and in other respects are complicit in WMD strikes.

Of course such threats are no silver bullet; they are only part of a properly integrated, comprehensive strategy against WMD terrorism. But by imposing serious costs on those who participate at any step along the trajectory of a terrorist attack, from inception through planning to execution, they should make such strikes significantly less likely by making them more difficult to mount. If every passport forger, courier, corrupt border guard, and so forth has good reason to think he will be held accountable for complicity in a catastrophic attack against the United States or our allies, many will be far more chary about cooperating in such a venture.

Instead of merely threatening that states that support terror attacks will be held responsible--already a staple of U.S. policy--Hadley goes further, threatening non-state actors who "enabl[e]" terrorists to strike with WMD. This careful choice of words would seem to expand our retaliatory standard to encompass complicity and perhaps even negligence. Not only states, but groups and individuals as well, should now be on notice that they will be held accountable for participation in, support for, complicity in, or even negligence in the face of WMD strikes against the United States or its allies. This strategy makes a great deal of sense; catastrophic terrorism is a threat that both justifies and requires a more exacting standard of behavior. When the consequences are so grave and traditional approaches so insufficient, society may reasonably call for higher standards of behavior, as in the cases of quarantines, third-party liability statutes, and European "Good Samaritan" laws.

The new policy remains commendably ambiguous regarding the nature and extent of U.S. retaliation, except to reserve the right to respond with "overwhelming force." Thus any and all thinking of participation, complicity, or negligence in the face of a catastrophic attack against the United States or its allies should have reason to worry about the retaliation that would follow. Even those who have the opportunity to frustrate such a strike should find the idea of taking steps to stop it less daunting than the prospect of the retaliation that might follow from their negligence. That said, an expanded deterrent policy is not a call for unrestrained retaliation. Instead, it is a proportionate and reasonable effort in response to a great peril.

The new policy is thus to be applauded. But its execution so far has been flawed. To be effective, deterrent threats must be known, especially to those who are supposed to be deterred. And Hadley's speech, which was given to a closed meeting hosted by the Center for International Security and Cooperation, probably did not make its way to those who most need to hear it, whether they be along the Pakistan-Afghan border or in Iraq or even in a European city like Hamburg. According to an NSC spokesman, there has been no further public pronouncement or communication by the administration, though private signals may have been sent outside the public eye.

The United States should seek to spread this message widely, not only through state-to-state contacts, but as a matter of public diplomacy directly, through U.S. statements, and indirectly, through intermediaries and the press. Naturally, such a hard, even fearsome, message must be integrated into a counterterrorism policy that emphasizes carrots as well. But the point is that the United States should leave no one in doubt: participation or complicity in a WMD attack will trigger "overwhelming" and searching retaliation.

Elbridge Colby, an adjunct staff member at the RAND Corporation, served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and on the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

This commentary originally appeared in Weekly Standard on April 10, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.