OpinionWorld News

America’s deterrence deficit

While the storm clouds of global war accumulate, the Biden administration is telegraphing weakness on nearly every front.

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Henry Kopel
Henry Kopel is a former federal prosecutor and the author of War on Hate: How to Stop Genocide, Fight Terrorism and Defend Freedom (Lexington Books, 2021).

Why do strong, prosperous countries decline?

Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Islamic historian, offered a compelling answer. He observed that imperial powers in the Middle East followed a common historical cycle, starting with hardened desert warriors conquering advanced but softer urban empires. But within a few generations, the conquerors themselves become habituated to comfort, extravagance and leisure. They then fall prey to the next wave of hardened desert warriors.

A central driver of this cycle is the tendency of prosperous civilizations to underinvest in deterrence, which is needed to contain threats posed by powerful bad actors. Maintaining deterrence is both burdensome and costly. Amid peace and prosperity, many forget that this state of affairs cannot be sustained without the firm deterrence of those arrayed against the peace.

This pattern persists in our own time. For some years now, America has been underinvesting in deterrence, inviting chaos and violence both on our own streets and throughout the world at large.

Domestically, this pattern has repeatedly stymied our criminal justice system. Amid the postwar abundance of the 1950s and 1960s, several Supreme Court decisions and policy reforms brought reduced rates of arrests and prosecutions. By the late 1960s, violent crime rates were spiking upward.

It took nearly a generation, into the early 1990s, for innovative policing to bring crime rates back down. New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton led the way, through such reforms as “broken windows policing,” i.e., increased enforcement of quality-of-life offenses, and COMPSTAT, i.e., statistical identification of crime “hot spots,” to which police units are promptly deployed.

By the early 2000s, urban crime rates were greatly reduced, and fears of crime correspondingly diminished. But the cycle began to repeat, with attention now shifting away from how to stop crime and instead toward demands to soften the harder edges of police conduct. The latter movement went into overdrive after the police killings of Michael Brown in 2014 and George Floyd in 2020.

While the Floyd killing was brutal and reprehensible, the broader reality was quite different from what many critics alleged. Police killings of civilians had been dropping for decades. Between the 1970s and the late 2010s, surveys of 18 major cities revealed “a 69% drop in fatal police shootings.” A comprehensive study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer did find racial disparities in police use of non-lethal force; still, it turned up no racial difference in the rates of police-on-civilian shootings.

Given such data, efforts to reduce non-lethal force disparities through better conflict de-escalation methods would have been helpful. But demands for reform went far beyond that, resulting in many city governments cutting police budgets and imposing overbroad use-of-force limits. Simultaneously, well-funded “Soros” District Attorney candidates won office on promises to end the prosecution of whole categories of crimes.

This dismantling of domestic crime deterrence brought predictable results. As reported by political scientist Wilfred Reilly, arrests “plunged by 38 per cent in New York City, [and] homicides rose 58 per cent. … In Chicago, the equivalent figures were 53 per cent [fewer arrests] and 65 per cent [more homicides]. In Louisville, Kentucky, [police] stops dropped by 35 per cent, arrests dropped by 42 per cent and murders rose 87 per cent.” This weakening of deterrence resulted in “1,000 to 6,000 more annual homicides nationally.”

The reluctance to police and prosecute also has turned large swaths of cities like San Francisco into lawless hellscapes, colonized by homeless drug addicts openly shooting up, urinating, defecating and harassing passers-by.

America also has dismantled its deterrent posture in the global arena. Prior to the Biden presidency, our deterrent policies included sanctions against Russia’s Nordstream II pipeline; a residual Afghanistan troop presence to hold the line against the Taliban; sanctions and targeted strikes against Iran’s machinery of global terror; and supplying Ukraine with antitank missiles to deter further Soviet incursions. It also included strong support for Israel, which yielded the first-ever warm peace between Israel and Arab countries.

But the Biden administration undid every one of those deterrents. In May 2021, it lifted sanctions against Nordstream II. Then, in August of that year, it recklessly withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, surrendering the country to a swift and brutal Taliban takeover. In January 2022, as Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s border, U.S. President Joe Biden signaled further weakness by publicly stating that NATO might not respond to a “minor incursion.” The next month, Russia launched its war to swallow up Ukraine.

Also in 2021, the Biden administration delisted Yemen’s Iranian-armed Houthis as a terror group and stopped enforcing U.S. sanctions against Iran’s oil exports in a futile bid for a U.S.-Iran entente. Since then, Iran’s well-funded proxies have proliferated a whirlwind of terror across the region—from attacks on U.S. troops; Hezbollah’s constant missile salvos against Israel; the Houthis’ efforts to disable Western shipping; and Hamas’s horrific mass rapes and murders in southern Israel.

Far more so than America, Israel stands directly in the crosshairs of these horrifically bad actors and well understands the existential importance of restoring deterrence. Unfortunately, while Biden has so far resupplied Israeli weapons stocks, he has publicly issued several negative signals about the actions needed to accomplish that restoration.

Both Biden and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have repeatedly warned Israel not to finish off Hamas in its Rafah redoubt and have actively discouraged a much-needed Israeli retaliation for Iran’s launching hundreds of suicide drones and ballistic missiles at Israel—a direct and brazen act of war.

This not only further emboldens the Iranian terror axis but also tells Russia and China that American support of even critical allies is at best lukewarm. This dangerously reinforces Chinese President Xi Jinping’s oft-stated intent to invade Taiwan, especially so after Biden’s having permitted a sophisticated China surveillance balloon to traverse the entire American continent before belatedly shooting it down.

In sum, while the storm clouds of global war accumulate, America telegraphs weakness on nearly every front. For the sake of both the United States and the world, we must restore deterrence as soon as possible. Here’s a good place to start: Back Israel’s finishing off Hamas and tighten the sanction screws on Iran.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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