In a recent Huffington Post Op-Ed (29 August 2012), Alan Dershowitz had opined that although President Obama is committed to the “preventive military option” he faces a credibility gap between his declaratory statements and what the Iranian regime believes will transpire. The “faction” within the Obama camp that sees little use for military action sustains this gap, according to Dershowitz. In their view, “saber rattling” is an impediment to peace. Intuitively, they are correct. In reality, they are not. Here is why: credibility hinges on demonstrable force factors.
If Iran (and even Israel) believe that the force of the American President’s bellicose words are sapped by domestic ideological opposition, both are inclined to disbelieve what they hear. The only way to mend such a fissure is to act with more credibility than one’s target state is hearing in one’s rhetoric. To supplement words with deeds grants one’s opponent the opportunity to reassess their own message decoder. If, however, words and deeds are in stark contradiction then the ambiguity (whether accidental or intentional) may be perceived as domestic dissonance, consequently revealing a potential noncommittal posture.
So, what is the United States actually doing (or failing to do)? Perhaps it is best to view purely military actions as either helpful or unhelpful in reinforcing the credibility of one’s attendant verbal expression. On the former, it has recently been reported that the American Navy is increasing its presence in both the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. This fact would be a clear example of American resolve. The Iranian response of an intent to deploy its own naval forces to the Atlantic is not (“Iran Reiterates Resolve to Anchor Off US Coasts.” FARS News Agency 5 September 2012).
On the other side of the U.S. credibility ledger, a recent U.S.-Israeli joint naval operation, Reliant Mermaid (reported by the BBC and Jerusalem Post 20 August 2012), was focused on “search and rescue.” As this was not specifically geared in the direction of offensive action, it should not be counted as credibility enhancing. Another recent American-Israeli venture, Operation Austere Challenge 12, might have been a more credibility-boosting maneuver if the American headcount hadn’t been severely reduced by the U.S. Pentagon (as reported on 31 August 2012 in Time online, “Exclusive: U.S. Scales Back Military Exercise with Israel, Affecting Potential Iran Strike”). This is an unfortunate exercise in credibility diminution.
Perhaps the disparity between word and deed are part of a conscious effort to de-couple American and Israeli action versus Iran. Whatever the merits of such a policy preference, there are sure to be signals and indices that suggest that a chasm between allies is open for exploitation. Further, a degraded U.S. commitment is tantamount to wavering. For deterrence to work the Iranian regime must conclude that the cost of developing nuclear weapons far outweighs their purported benefits. In order to influence their calculus the regime’s survival must be in jeopardy.
Kenneth Waltz believes that deterrence would stick if Iran became a nuclear state in his recent article, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” (Foreign Affairs, Jul/Aug2012, Vol. 91 Issue 4, p2-5). His assertion rests on a history of U.S.-Soviet nuclear peace. Unfortunately, he conflates the logic of states that already possess the doomsday weapons with that of those who are fixated on procuring them for messianic and annihilative purposes.
The most plausible American fear likely consists of a nuclear-armed Iran forcing the U.S. to remove its military from the region, thus having the effect of Iranian regional domination. The impact of this potentiality does not rest well with Iran’s Arab adversaries. For Israel, this scenario presents a palpable existential threat, as they are a ‘one-bomb country’ (as Charles Krauthammer has recently pointed out in his 30 August 2012 Washington Post opinion article, “The ‘Deterrence Works’ Fantasy”).
In order to deter an Israeli preemptive/preventive attack, the Obama administration must combine both words and deeds in an effort to convince both friend and foe of American steadfastness. To fail in this regard is to welcome misinterpretation, misperception and possibly grave misfortune.