Cumulative deterrence and the war on terrorism

Cumulative deterrence and the war on terrorism

Doron Almog

In early 2003 an Israeli agent in the Gaza Strip telephoned Mustafa, a wealthy Palestinian merchant in Gaza, to inform him that over the previous three months his son Ahmad had been preparing for a suicide bombing mission in Israel. Mustafa was told that if his son followed through with his plans, he and his family would suffer severe consequences: their home would be demolished, and Israel would cut off all commercial ties with Mustafa’s company. Neither he nor the members of his family would ever be permitted to enter Israel again. (1) Faced with this ultimatum, Mustafa confronted his son and convinced him that the cost to his family would far outweigh any possible benefits his sacrifice might have for the Palestinian people.

Since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Israeli authorities have prevented more than 340 suicide bombings from advancing beyond the planning stages. In addition, they have intercepted 142 would-be bombers, most of whom were en route to destinations deep within Israel. (2) The war against Palestinian terrorism, like the war on terrorism more broadly, aims to prevent terrorists, including suicide bombers, from achieving their objectives. Suicide bombers are the most sophisticated smart bombs ever devised. They are well integrated into their communities, they are mobile, and they often can choose the best moment in which to wreak the greatest havoc and produce the highest number of casualties. Yet as the case of Mustafa and his son illustrates, the right mix of threats in at least some instances challenges the conventional wisdom that suicide bombers are undeterrable.

In the war on terrorism, in which suicide bombers have repeatedly demonstrated their deadly efficiency, the United States and its friends and allies confront challenges similar to those Israel has dealt with for years. To meet these challenges, the United States and other opponents of terrorism will need a strategy that can more effectively address this threat.

Classical deterrence theory, which emerged after World War II with the buildup of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union and the subsequent concern over the possibility of total annihilation, is inapplicable to the war on terrorism. The Cold War divided the world into two opposing camps. The United States and the Soviet Union, with more than enough destructive power to wipe out humanity several times over, relied on their burgeoning arsenals to maintain the peace between them.

The literature on classical deterrence inspired by the Cold War typically characterizes the deterrent threat posed by the United States and the Soviet Union as a dichotomy: nuclear deterrence would be successful so long as the price for launching a nuclear war was mutual assured destruction. Although classical deterrence, as articulated and practiced during the Cold War, did not prevent conventional conflicts such as the Korean War and the war in Vietnam, in neither case did the United States or the Soviet Union resort to the use of nuclear weapons to bring them to an end.

In some situations, however, the logic of classical deterrence theory has proved hugely irrelevant. One particularly notable case is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following defeat in three full-scale wars in 1948, 1956, and 1967, Israel’s committed enemies responded by gradually shifting their main objective from the total destruction of Israel to a strategy of limited war to achieve limited objectives. Another effect of these defeats (including the war in 1973) was a noticeable increase in moderation among Arab leaders, including Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat, Syria’s Hafiz al-Assad, Jordan’s King Hussein, and even the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat vis-a-vis their Israeli neighbor.

A second significant exception to the usefulness of classical deterrence theory is the current war on global terrorism. Classical deterrence had no relevance for the 19 al Qaeda operatives who took control of four commercial jetliners on 11 September 2001, slamming two into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. Only the bravery and determination of several passengers on the fourth plane, whose struggle with the hijackers caused it to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania, prevented even greater catastrophe. Classical deterrence also has little salience for al Qaeda more generally or militant groups linked to it. In the war on terrorism, the United States and its friends and allies need a strategy that does not test on the same dichotomous, all-or-nothing conceptualization of deterrence that prevailed during the Cold War.

This article presents a different conceptualization of deterrence, one best described as cumulative deterrence. Cumulative deterrence illuminates the reasons why Israel, in its more than 50-year history, not only has managed to survive in an exceedingly hostile neighborhood but also has made tremendous strides in improving its overall strategic situation. It has done so through the considered application of threats and military force on the one hand and assorted incentives on the other.

The war on terrorism will not be decided with a single, overwhelming blow. It is a war that will demand extreme patience, unshakable resolve, international cooperation, and a creative, harmonized mix of defensive and offensive measures. It will require policies that seek to improve the political, economic, and social conditions of those living in places where terrorism is allowed to flourish and martyrdom is encouraged. It also will require inducements that steer would-be terrorists (including potential suicide bombers) away from their destructive impulses and toward the creation of free, prosperous, and secure societies.

A cumulative deterrence strategy designed for the war on terrorism would build on victories achieved over the short, medium, and long terms that gradually wear down the enemy. It would involve a multilayered, highly orchestrated effort to inflict the greatest damage possible on the terrorists and their weapon systems, infrastructure, support networks, financial flows, and other means of support. It would demand excellent intelligence, a broad coalition, and a globalized network that would facilitate the exchange of vital information and encourage transparency. Finally, it would require cutting-edge technology and highly trained military forces. The ultimate goal should always be 100 percent enemy inaction.

The next section describes the key differences between classical and cumulative deterrence. The following section considers the application of the cumulative deterrence model to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The usefulness of cumulative deterrence for the global war on terrorism is the subject of the penultimate section. The conclusion summarizes the article’s main findings.

Classical Deterrence vs. Cumulative Deterrence

Classical deterrence and cumulative deterrence differ in fundamental ways: from conceptualization to implementation to desired results.

Classical Deterrence

Classical deterrence theory emerged in the aftermath of World War II in response to the growing hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as their NATO and Warsaw Pact allies. The threat of mutual assured destruction made the notion of a nuclear first strike unthinkable. Thus, confronted with horrific images of a “nuclear winter,” the superpowers, while nevertheless continuing to build up their nuclear arsenals to staggering heights over the next half century, stopped short of giving the order to unleash even one of these fearsome weapons. Although both the United States and the Soviet Union would engage in proxy wars throughout the Cold War, the threat that any of these could escalate into a nuclear exchange was a constant reminder of the awesome destructive power of these two formidable adversaries.

Scholars frequently define deterrence in dichotomous terms. For Patrick Morgan, deterrence is “the use of threats of harm to prevent someone from doing something you do not want him to.” (3) Yehoshaphat Harkabi defines deterrence as the “threat of heavy punishment for an act by the enemy in order to persuade him to desist from that act.” (4) Zeev Maoz sees deterrence as “a policy through which one attempts to scare off a would-be attacker by holding out a drawn sword. It works as long as the sword is not being used. When the sword becomes covered with blood, deterrence is said to have failed, no matter whose blood was spilled.” (5) These and other standard definitions of deterrence share a common assumption: deterrence is successful so long as aggression does not take place; failure is the occurrence of a single violent act.

In writing about the effectiveness of the threat of nuclear retaliation during the Cold War, two other highly respected scholars, Alexander George and Richard Smoke, assert that although “‘massive retaliation’ was one enormously potent threat, it often lacked enough credibility and relevance to deter some types of challenges to deterrence commitments made by the United States on behalf of its foreign policy interests.” (6) In some cases, a weaker adversary might adopt what George and Smoke refer to as the “designing around” approach. (7) According to this approach, an enemy that recognizes its operational limitations vis-a-vis a militarily superior opponent will adjust its tactics and operations to play to its strengths. (8) Examples include the use of guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, the 1968-70 War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel along the Suez Canal, and Hezbollah’s operational shift against Israel following the latter’s pullout from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

The cumulative deterrence model, discussed in the next section, posits an explanation of enduring conventional conflicts that do not fit within the classical deterrence model for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most significant reason is that it assumes from the beginning that there will be repeated breaches of the first line of security. (9) The model builds on the work of George and Smoke, among others. (10)

Cumulative Deterrence

Unlike classical deterrence as practiced during the Cold War, and whose success hinged on a bipolar standoff that held in check any impulse to launch a nuclear first strike, cumulative deterrence is based on the simultaneous use of threats and military force over the course of an extended conflict. Some scholars argue that such a strategy is not deterrence at all–that the sword is bloodied–and therefore oppose the notion that deterrence can be cumulative. One such scholar is Jack Levy, who criticizes Zeev Maoz’s methodology for measuring the effectiveness of deterrence: “Maoz’s definition of success and failure,” according to Levy, “is not appropriate for the analysis of the success or failure of deterrent threats. A dispute which escalates to war is coded as a success for that side which wins the war militarily. This may be useful for the theoretical questions he is asking, but from the perspective of deterrence, such an outcome should be treated as failure.” (11) Thus, Levy employs the same all-or-nothing criteria for assessing the effectiveness of deterrence as scholars writing about classical deterrence.

Paul Huth and Bruce Russett, the first scholars to offer a definition of long-term, regional conflict, measure the volume of conflict using statistical methods. (12) In their study, Huth and Russett adopted Patrick Morgan’s basic conceptualization of deterrence, which has two components: general deterrence and immediate deterrence. General deterrence characterizes relations between states that view each other’s motives with suspicion and hostility over an extended period of time. Immediate deterrence involves specific crises that threaten to erupt into full-scale war. According to Huth and Russett, such crises can result from the breakdown of general deterrence; this breakdown occurs over the following five stages: (1) adoption by the defender of a strategy of general deterrence; (2) emergence of a challenge by a rival that threatens the status quo; (3) adoption by the defender of a strategy of immediate deterrence; (4) continued threats from the rival; and (5) the failure of immediate deterrence, which causes the defender to consider a military response. (13)

Using Morgan’s definitions of general deterrence and immediate deterrence, Huth and Russett regard a continuing conflict as one that has lasted at least 20 years, during which the adversaries engage in no fewer than five battles. Examples include Israel and Egypt from 1948 to 1979, Israel and Lebanon from 1948 to 2000, and Israel and Syria from 1948 to the present. Maoz defines a continuing conflict as one that extends beyond 25 years, with a maximum gap of ten years between clashes; if this period is longer than ten years, the conflict is considered continuous only if the territorial issue at stake re mains unresolved and there is at least one military exchange within a 25-year period. (14) Examples include Israel and Jordan from 1948 to 1994, Israel and Lebanon from 1976 to 2000, and Israel and Syria from 1974 to the present.

Cumulative deterrence works on two levels. On the macro level, it seeks to create an image of overwhelming military supremacy. On the micro level, it relies on specific military responses to specific threats or hostile acts. Cumulative deterrence has several key features. First, its effectiveness is measured in terms of the number of victories accumulated over the duration of the conflict, which we can think of as “assets in a victory bank.” Second, over time these victories produce increasingly moderate behavior on the part of the adversary and a shift in his strategic, operational, and tactical goals until there is a near-absence of direct conflict. Third, this moderation may eventually result in political negotiations and perhaps even a peace agreement. Figure 1 summarizes the main differences between classical and cumulative deterrence.

The next section offers evidence of the success of cumulative deterrence in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Through a string of Israeli victories and recognition among Arab states of their growing inability to counter Israel’s ever-increasing military capabilities, Israel’s cumulative deterrence strategy has succeeded in fostering Arab moderation and improving Israel’s overall strategic position in the region. One particularly noteworthy reflection of this change is the dramatic reduction in calls from Arab leaders for Israel’s destruction, which for so long served as one of the most powerful rallying cries within the Arab world.

Cumulative Deterrence and the Israeli Experience

Some Israeli experts claim that Israeli deterrence is a mere myth. After all, in its relatively short history, Israel has engaged in numerous wars and border conflicts, not to mention its involvement in the first Palestinian intifada from 1987 to 1993 and the ongoing second intifada. (15)

In contrast, I argue that Israel has essentially followed a cumulative deterrent strategy with three key components. The first component consists of the impressive array of military victories that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have accrued against Arab adversaries since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The second factor is Israel’s huge technological-doctrinal advantage over its Arab neighbors, which among other things has allowed Israel not only to produce sophisticated weapon systems but also to improve their integration at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. This same technological-doctrinal advantage also has made possible targeted operations against Israel’s adversaries. The third feature is Israel’s image as a nuclear power, which the Israeli government has continued to hone while avoiding an official declaration of the country’s nuclear capability. Figure 2 provides a graphic representation of these military dimensions of Israeli deterrence.


Mounting IDF victories between 1948 and 1988 resulted in a drastic reduction of violence involving Israel’s principal adversaries, Egypt and Syria. (16) During this period, Israel engaged in six major wars: the 1948 war of independence, the 1956 Suez War, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1968-70 War of Attrition along the Suez Canal, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 war in Lebanon, as well as numerous border clashes that at times threatened to produce yet another full-scale regional war.

Uri Bar-Yosef is among the scholars who have recently noted the salience of the cumulative deterrence model. Bar-Yosef supports the argument that Israel’s cumulative deterrence approach has succeeded in persuading Arab states that the use of military force to defeat Israel is, in the long run, either operationally impossible or prohibitively expensive. According to Bar-Yosef, “Cumulative deterrence is a long-term policy designed to persuade the Arab side that conclusion of the conflict through the destruction of Israel is impossible or that it entails a cost greater than the value of the benefit contained in such a move.” (17)

Bar-Yosef considers the 1967 Six-Day War to be a critical turning point in Arab perceptions of Israel’s growing military might and the inability of Arab states to effectively counter it. Following their humiliating defeat in 1967 (including the loss of the Golan Heights and the West Bank and Gaza Strip), Arab states shifted to a strategy of limited war to achieve limited military goals. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for example, President Sadat announced the recapture of a short strip along the bank of the Suez Canal as Egypt’s principal motive for going to war, while President Assad declared the retaking of the Golan Heights as Syria’s foremost ambition.

Indeed, successive defeats over several decades eventually forced both Egypt and Syria to shift their operational strategies against Israel. (18) By 1975 Egypt had begun to exhibit marked moderation in its operational strategy toward Israel. Tangible proof of this trend is the agreement on a framework for peace reached by Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt at Camp David, Maryland, in 1978, which was followed by the signing of a peace treaty in 1979. Two years earlier, in a speech before the Israeli parliament on 22 November 1977, Sadat publicly acknowledged Israel’s military superiority and the country’s right to exist. He asserted, “We agree to live with you in just and lasting peace; we don’t want to attack you or to be attacked by Israeli long-range missiles that might destroy us.” (19)

From 1976 to 1988, Syria also began to moderate its operational stance vis-a-vis Israel. With Egypt’s signing of the Camp David peace treaty, Syria lost its key strategic partner and thus was left on its own to confront Israel. Even earlier, however, shortly after the 1973 war, Syria forfeited interest in launching a full-scale war against Israel, choosing instead to open up a secondary front in southern Lebanon using Hezbollah as its proxy. (Although Hezbollah remains a serious concern, Israel nonetheless occupies a better strategic position than it did before 1973.) Moreover, when Israel invaded southern Lebanon in Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, Syria showed significant restraint in using military power against Israel from the Golan Heights, largely by adhering to a cease-fire agreement that had been drawn up in 1974.

Further compounding Syria’s difficulties, as well as diminishing the Syrians’ capability to launch a surprise attack, was the demise of the Soviet Union, which for years had been Syria’s primary military supplier. In 1995 Syria’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Hikmat Shiaby, declared, “Israel is the strongest state in the region. The Israeli air force is able to reach Damascus in four minutes. Israel has everything: nuclear weapons and conventional weapons…. Israel has got everything, including America.” (20)

Notably, other Arab leaders, including King Hussein of Jordan and Palestinian Chairman Arafat, eventually came to share the Egyptian and Syrian assessments of Israel’s overwhelming capabilities and their growing inability to counter them effectively. (21) In recognition of this insurmountable disadvantage, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, despite not having reestablished control over the West Bank, which it had lost in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Thus, after more than 40 years of conflict, the cumulative effect of Israel’s multiple victories was to vastly improve Israel’s overall strategic position in the Middle East. And through a combination of threatened retaliation and military superiority, Israel has been able to shape and reinforce its deterrent image in the Middle East. As a result, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states alike no longer call for–or continue to prepare militarily for–the destruction of Israel.

The use of threats and force, however, make up only the operational layer of Israel’s cumulative deterrence strategy. Two other sets of factors-one internal and the other external–also have been crucial to the success of this strategy. Internal factors include Israel’s highly productive economy (especially in the field of high technology (22)), as well as its advanced infrastructure, well-regarded educational system, and superior qualitative manpower system–not to mention intangibles such as unwavering resolve–and the internal cohesiveness among all of these elements.

External factors consist of Israel’s numerous alliances, contracts, and agreements with other countries, as well as its strategic relationship with the United States, a regional alliance with Turkey, and peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Also falling into this category are Arab perceptions of Israel’s image of power, in addition to the role of the media and public opinion. Figure 3 shows these key strategic and operational dimensions of Israel’s cumulative deterrence strategy.

Although Israel’s cumulative deterrence strategy has shown extraordinarily good results in deterring states from launching direct attacks against Israel, it is too early to judge its level of success against guerrilla and terrorist operations, including heightened Palestinian terrorism since the start of the second intifada. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that Israel’s cumulative deterrence approach appears to have successfully harmonized and integrated many of the most important operational components required for success. These include:

* The strengthening of territorial defensive shields through the establishment of multilayered systems (including electronic fences, high-technology sensors, special rules of engagement, security buffer zones, and various delaying obstacles that slow would-be terrorists from reaching their targets) and an increasing number of professional units trained specifically to oppose the terrorist threat.

* Ongoing improvements in intelligence capabilities as a major force multiplier.

* Consistent emphasis on infrastructure operations, such as demolishing the homes of terrorists’ families; destroying the terrorists’ weapon factories, storage facilities, and tunnels; and eliminating the terrorists’ financial networks.

* Continued application of high technology to maintain Israel’s relative advantage.

* Increased focus on special offensive capabilities: for example, seizing the initiative, engaging in surprise raids, and undertaking clandestine targeted operations–such as those against Sheikh Yassin, the operational and spiritual leader of Hamas; his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi; and lower-level operatives–all of which would be impossible without accurate intelligence and highly specialized equipment.

* A well-balanced offensive and defensive doctrine.

* Heightened efforts to improve political, economic, and social conditions to complement military measures.

Cumulative Deterrence and the War on Terrorism

Does the Israeli experience with cumulative deterrence yield lessons for the United States and its friends and allies in the global fight against terrorism? If so, what would such a strategy look like? What would be its essential components? And how would success be measured?

As late as 1997, the military doctrine of the United States embraced an essentially dichotomous approach to the country’s security and deterrent posture. In that year, US military doctrine defined deterrence as “the prevention from action by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction.” (23) The statement further asserted that if deterrence failed, the main objective was to achieve victory: “Deterrence is our first line of security. If deterrence fails, our objective is winning the nation’s wars.” (24) This approach is ill-suited to dealing with terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization, when the first line of security will be repeatedly breached in any number of ways. As US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has asserted, “The [war on terrorism] is a marathon, not a sprint.” (25)

Indeed, in describing a meeting of President George W. Bush and his top advisers shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bob Woodward wrote, “It was a somewhat obvious but an important point that got to the heart of the problems they [Bush and his advisers] were facing–lack of good targets, lack of inside intelligence sources, the worthlessness of deterrence strategy.” All of which prompted President Bush to conclude, “Our strategy is more like that of the Israelis.” (26)

Soon thereafter, President Bush ordered the Department of Defense to devise a new strategy to address the increasingly deadly terrorist threat. In response, the Defense Department assembled the National Defense University Task Force on Combating Terrorism. The task force proposed a “3-D strategy” that had three principal goals: to defeat, deter, and diminish the enemy. (27) By the time the strategy was officially adopted, the word “deter” had been replaced with two others: “deny” and “defend.” The final document, issued in February 2003, thus put forth a “4D strategy” that rests on four pillars: to defeat, deny, diminish, and defend against the adversary. (28) With this new statement of purpose, the United States effectively jettisoned the doctrine of classical deterrence that essentially became irrelevant with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. This more nuanced doctrine relies in part on the selective use of military force to achieve US objectives. In this regard, the United States, at least implicitly, appears to have adopted elements common to Israel’s cumulative deterrence approach.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, not to mention the 1999 strike against USS Cole and other terrorist actions, raises a knotty question that Israel has grappled with for years: is it possible to deter suicide bombers who are motivated by a radical Islamist ideology and promises of martyrdom? The power of deterrence derives from the message it sends to would-be attackers: you will pay an intolerable price for your actions. This threat would seem to have nothing to offer an adversary driven by an extremist ideology whose main tenet is destruction of “the infidel,” and whose operatives expect to die in the effort.

Yet as illustrated by the case of the Palestinian merchant and his son described at the beginning of this article, it is possible in at least some instances to deter a suicide bomber by threatening those close to him with extremely harsh consequences if they fail to stop him from carrying out his mission. In other words, even in societies that nurture support for suicide bombers, there are rational actors who can exert influence over these seemingly undeterable individuals.

Other rational actors include Osama bin Laden and others who seek to replace Arab regimes they view as corrupt, including the House of Saud, with Islamic theocracies guided by the law of the Sharia and the early Caliphate. (29) Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s top leaders see the use of suicide bombers as a means toward their ultimate end: a Middle East free from the supposed corrupting influence of so-called infidels. Seen in this light, bin Laden may have believed that the 9/11 terrorist attacks would provoke the United States into invading an Arab state, which in turn might create regional instability and chaos that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups could exploit to further their own ends.

The global war on terrorism is similar to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war against Palestinian terrorism in several respects: it pits two opposing ideologies against each other; it is an asymmetric conflict that will endure for many years; and it is a war that will not be won with a single, decisive blow. It requires the simultaneous use of threats, hard power, and incentives designed to give societies in which extremist ideologies flourish an alternative vision of their future. The war on terrorism is, in other words, a war in need of a strategy of cumulative deterrence. In this war, the United States and its partners not only will have to accumulate individual victories (i.e., “assets in a victory bank”), they also will have to diminish the enemy’s material capabilities to a degree that weakens the enemy’s resolve and makes clear the increasingly unacceptable price it will pay for its actions.

As mentioned earlier, at the core of the US strategy for combating terrorism that was articulated in February 2003 is a model for success that implicitly draws on the model of cumulative deterrence that has guided Israel’s strategy toward its Arab neighbors for decades. At the heart of the United States’ 4D strategy is the notion that victory is achievable only through a synergistic, multidimensional approach that utilizes “every instrument of national power–diplomatic, economic, law enforcement, financial, information, intelligence, and military. Progress will come through the persistent accumulation of successes–some seen, some unseen.” (30)

The United States clearly appreciates the magnitude of the task ahead:

There will be no quick or easy end to this conflict…. Ours is a

strategy of direct and continuous action against terrorist groups,

the cumulative effect of which will initially disrupt, over time

degrade, and ultimately destroy the terrorist organizations.

The more frequently and relentlessly we strike the terrorists across

all fronts, using all the tools of statecraft, the more effective

we will be. (31)

The 4D strategy recognizes the need for a two-pronged effort that marshals both internal and external forces to combat and perhaps eventually eliminate the terrorist threat. Internal forces include factors such as the power of political, economic, and social values; an overwhelming technological advantage; and an enormous infrastructure. External forces involve efforts to enlist other countries in the fight by building partnerships and coalitions. As the national strategy document on combating terrorism affirms, “Success will not come by always acting alone, but through a powerful coalition of nations maintaining a strong, united international front against terrorism.” (32)

The US strategy for combating terrorism is similar to Israel’s cumulative deterrence strategy not only with regard to its methodology and objectives but also with regard to the targets involved. There are two types of targets against which the United States and its allies must continue to mount offensive operations. The first target consists of the terrorist organizations themselves, including their leaders, operatives, and supporters, in addition to the organizations’ infrastructure and financial and military resources. The second target comprises states that harbor, sponsor, or otherwise support terrorists and sanction their violent acts.

The results of a strategy based on cumulative deterrence will need to be measured over the short, medium, and long terms. Below are some of the key indicators that should be carefully monitored:

* Enemy intentions: movements toward more moderate declarations, statements, and doctrine.

* Enemy capabilities and resources: reductions in numbers of followers, financial assets, weapon systems, infrastructure, and communications.

* Frequency of terrorist attacks: daily monitoring of such attacks that shows a downward trend.

* Number of daily early-intelligence alerts: the lower this number, the greater the success of cumulative deterrence.

As in the Israeli war against Palestinian terrorists, the goal in the war on terrorism more generally is the total absence of terrorist attacks (i.e., a 100-percent success rate). But is this goal realistic? And what if the enemy’s objective is world destruction? One terrorist act with a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) could cause unimaginable devastation, and there is no guarantee in a world of proliferating WMD that such an operation could not be mounted. Nevertheless, 100-percent deterrence must remain the ultimate objective.


To achieve success in the war on terrorism, the United States and its friends and allies need a cumulative deterrence strategy similar to that pursued by Israel since its founding in 1948. The accumulation of Israeli victories against its principal Arab adversaries in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, in parallel with Israel’s vast military and technological superiority, have fundamentally shifted the dynamics in the Middle East. No longer do Arab states call for Israel’s total destruction. Indeed, two of these states, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties with their former adversary. Thus, Israel’s overall strategic position in the region has greatly improved.

Although it is too early to determine the overall success of Israel’s cumulative deterrence strategy against Palestinian terrorists, there are indications that Israeli responses to Palestinian suicide attacks since the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000 have begun to take their toll. IDF statistics show that in March 2002, more suicide bombers–17 in all–succeeded in carrying out their missions than in any other month since the start of the second intifada. Since April 2002, the IDF has undertaken a number of actions that have produced a decline in terrorist attempts. In October 2003, for example, the IDF thwarted the efforts of 22 would-be suicide bombers, the most in any one-month period. (33) Nevertheless, although Israeli intelligence alerts suggest a weakening of Palestinian terrorist capabilities, more time is needed before Israel’s cumulative deterrent strategy can be judged a complete success.

Meanwhile, in the war on terrorism, the United States, in addition to marshaling its vast military capabilities, must strive to win the war of ideas. In this ideological conflict, the stakes could not be higher. As Fareed Zakaria writes, “The Arab world today is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither of them fertile ground for liberal democracy. The dangerous dynamic between these two forces has produced a political climate filled with religious extremism and violence.” (34)

Among the most deadly products of this poisonous mix are Islamic extremists who become suicide bombers, as well as those who support them. The United States and its friends and allies must therefore offer an acceptable alternative to these extremists by helping to strengthen the position of moderates in the Islamic world. (Efforts to bring US-style democracy, however, are only likely to elevate Islamic fundamentalists to power.) The United States and others should work with local governments to establish parallel secular social services, which would serve as an alternative to Islamic extremist-run schools, hospitals, and mosques. Efforts should also be made to encourage more open economies and political systems.

Only through the gradual implementation of such a holistic approach can the United States and others hope to win the hearts and minds of those whose help is crucial in turning the tide against Islamic terrorists and other extremists.

Figure 1. Classical Deterrence versus Cumulative Deterrence.

Classical Deterrence Cumulative Deterrence

Logic Dichotomous approach Nondichotomous approach

Related threat Nuclear Conventional

Measurements of Total prevention of Tactical: scoring

success conflict success by accumulating


Operational: shaping

new conditions

Strategic: creating the

basis for an improved

strategic situation

Main weaknesses Irrelevant to conventional Accelerates the

and limited conflicts “designing around”


Requires a complemen-

tary strategy that

includes efforts to

transform the

adversary’s political,

economic, and social


Main strengths Could prevent nuclear war Enriches the conceptual

(between rational rivals basis of deterrence


Enables reuse of

deterrence strategy

with regard to national


Figure 3. The Strategic and Operational Components of Israel’s

Cumulative Deterrence Strategy.

Strategic External Factors


* Strategic Allies, Agreements, and Alliances

* Public Opinion

Internal Factors

* Political, Economic, Social, and Educational Systems

* Infrastructure

* Determination and Endurance

Operational Military Power


* Military Strength, Real and Perceived


(1.) Personal account by the author. Although the names have been changed, this is a true story.

(2.) Israel Defense Forces website, statistics chapter, 29374.doc.

(3.) Patrick M. Morgan, Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis (London: Sage, 1977), p. 17.

(4.) Yehoshaphat Harkabi, War and Strategy (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Israel Ministry of Defense, 1990), p. 221.

(5.) Zeev Maoz, Paradoxes of War: On the Art National Self-Entrapment (Boston: Unwin Hyman 1990), p. 65.

(6.) Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, “Deterrence and Foreign Policy,” World Politics, 41 (January 1989), 177.

(7.) Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 38-45, 519-22. See also Doron Almog, “The West Bank Fence: A Vital Component in Israel’s Strategy of Defense.” Special Studies on Palestinian Politics and the Peace Process, Research Memorandum no. 47 (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004), pp. 13-15. See a so http//, pp. 9-10.

(8). Almog, “The West Bank Fence,” and

(9.) US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, Joint Doctrine, Capstone and Keystone Primer, 30 May 1995, p. 1.

(10.) For more on the designing-around phenomenon, see Janice Gross Stein, “Calculation, Miscalculation, and Convention Deterrence I: The View from Cairo,” in Psychology and Deterrence, ed. Robert Jervis Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 34-59; and Elli Lieberman, “Deterrence Theory: Success or Failure in Arab-Israeli Wars?” McNair Paper No. 45 (Washington: National Defense University, October 1995).

(11.) Jack S. Levy, “When Do Deterrent Threats Work?” British Journal of Political Science, October 1988, p. 493.

(12.) I employed a similar method in Doron Almog, “Israel’s Deterrence Strategy as a Model for Accumulating Deterrence,” which was awarded the Tshetshik Prize for Strategic Studies on Israel’s Security from Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

(13.) Paul Huth and Bruce Russett, “General Deterrence between Enduring Rivals: Testing Three Competing Models,” American Political Science Review, 87 (March 1993), 61-73.

(14.) Zeev Maoz, “Domestic Norms, Structural Constraints, and Enduring Rivalries in the Middle East, 1948-1988,” in Democracy, War, and Peace in the Middle East, ed. David Garnham and Mark Tessler (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 170-94.

(15.) Ezer Weizman, for example, asserted, “I do not believe we have ever had deterrence. We have never succeeded in deterring our enemies. On the contrary, I suggest using the term ‘decisive force.'” Ezer Weizman, On Eagles’ Wings (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Ma’arive, 1975), p. 186. In an interview with Ronel Fisher of the newspaper Hadashot (Hebrew), on 8 February 1991, p. 18, Major General Mati Peled stated, “Our deterrence is a legend. We’ve never had deterrence. The Six-Day War erupted because we were lacking deterrence. We have never had deterrence, so we never lost it.”

(16.) This study relies on data from a quantitative database that spans 41 years of conflict (1948-88) between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria; the data were collected as part of the Quantitative Historical Project of the Israeli-Arab Conflict at Haifa University.

(17.) Uri Bar-Yosef, “Fifty Years of Israeli Deterrence: Lessons from the Past and Conclusions for the Future” (Hebrew), Ma’rachot, IDF professional magazine, pp. 366-77, October 1999, pp. 12-29.

(18.) Doron Almog, “The Israeli Strategy of Deterrence as a Model of Accumulated Deterrence,” Department of Political Science, University of Haifa, June 1997.

(19.) Quoted in Aluf Hareven, Wars and Peaces (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Dvir, 1989), p. 71.

(20.) Quoted in Barneah Nahum, Yediot Haronot, 30 June 1995.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Israel’s gross domestic product continues to be greater than the combined GDP of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. For details, see Brom Shlomo and Yiftah Shapir, eds., The Middle East Military Balance, 1999-2000 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press), pp. 161-358.

(23.) US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Doctrine Encyclopedia, 16 July 1997, joint_doctrine_encyclopedia.htm.

(24.) US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Doctrine, Capstone, and Keystone Primer, p. 1.

(25.) Quoted in Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), pp. 88-89.

(26.) Ibid.

(27.) The task force comprised 25 individuals drawn from each branch of the military as well as from various governmental agencies. See n02CombatingTerrorism.pdf.

(28.) George W. Bush, National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (Washington: The White House, February 2003), p. 15, 2003/02/counter_terrorism/counter_terrorism_ strategy.pdf. See also US Department of Defense, Transformation Planning Guidance (Washington: GPO, April 2003), transformationplanningapr03.pdf; and “‘Prepared Testimony on the FY 2003 Defense Budget Request to the SAC-D,” testimony of US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz before the US Senate, Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Defense, 27 February 2002, s20020227-depsecdef.html.

(29.) Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), pp. 122-23; and Steven Emerson, American Jihad: The Terrorists Living among Us (New York: Free Press, 2002), pp. 147-48.

(30.) See Bush, National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, p. 2.

(31.) Ibid., pp. 2-3.

(32.) Ibid., pp. 4, 21.

(33.) Israeli Defense Forces official website, “Suicide Bombing Attacks Relative to Thwarted Suicide Bombing Attempts” (Hebrew), site/mainpage.asp?sl=HE&id=22&docid=16703.

(34.) Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, p. 121.

Major General Doron Almog, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has served in the IDF since 1969. He has fought in four wars, served in all command roles from platoon commander to brigade commander in the Para brigade, and participated in numerous combat and special clandestine operations, including the Entebbe rescue operation. In 1996, he was appointed head of the IDF’s Doctrine and Training Division. In 2000-2003, he commanded the IDF’s Southern Command. In 2004, he has been a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, concentrating on comprehensive strategies for managing asymmetrical conflict. He holds an M.B.A. from Tel Aviv University and a master’s degree in international relations from Haifa University.

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