The death of Margaret Thatcher provides a timely object lesson in the practicalities of deterring North Korea, Iran, the Assad regime in Syria and similarly bad actors.
Following our return from Bosnian peacekeeping duties, NATO colleagues were hosting a group of us in a British officers’ mess outside London. One of the club’s few concessions to modernity was a heroic painting of Margaret Thatcher surrounded by her supreme war council. The artist had captured the colorful bevy of impressive uniforms and stern male visages as the group solemnly contemplated a map of the remote Falkland Islands.
“You know, much of that campaign was actually planned right here,” our British host pointed out with an expansive gesture toward the painting. “Oh yeah?” replied a hard-bitten American paratrooper. “Well, then the caption should be: Which one of these people had [guts]? ’Cause that lady had more than most of her generals.”
She did indeed — and more than most of her other male counterparts, too, whether presidents or prime ministers, general secretaries or secretaries-general. The decision to send British armed forces to war in the Falklands now seems Elizabethan, a history that credits Lady Thatcher with first overcoming the well-meant and exquisitely well-articulated objections that arose from every quarter like startled quail. Surely, Madame Prime Minister, you can’t seriously mean to send the pride of Britain not only in harm’s way, but all the way to the ends of the earth? Yes, she did — and then moved decisively to cause her senior staff to mobilize the ships, planes and troops that eventually proved decisive in that most unlikely of all modern conflicts.
Even 30 years later, veterans of that war, but especially British paratroopers and marine commandos, remember the biting sideways wind, their leaky boots and the long, exhausting fight against a larger enemy. British estimates were that no more than 500 Argentines occupied the key terrain of Goose Green; in reality, 1,200 well-entrenched defenders awaited the British attack. One of those British paratroopers later told me, “At the end of the day, we wanted it more than the Argies did.” That spine-steeling resolve at the tactical level inevitably reflected the Iron Lady’s famously iron will, her instinctive refusal to go “all wobbly” when faced with an opponent who placed his own interests before those of the nation she indomitably served.
It is just that sort of sticking point — who deters whom, with what and at what cost — which is seldom resolved during seminars at our great schools of strategic thought. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic formulation underlying nuclear deterrence theory, there is an almost theological faith in cooperation, of voluntarily minimizing one’s own interest so that the game goes on — as if international conflict was a poorly run futures market. As much as game theorists pretend otherwise, “rational calculus” is a concept that varies greatly — meaning vastly different things in different countries and cultures.
History is what happens whenever these hard-edged outlines collide with the comforting parentheses of academic theory and conventional wisdom. The Argentine junta, concluding that Britain was in strategic retreat, persuaded itself that now it was just the right moment to recover its ancestral claims in the Falklands, which they called the Malvinas. Yet the Argentine generals were even more surprised than their British counterparts when Margaret Thatcher inexplicably decided that this was a war she meant to fight and win. She simultaneously created consternation among general staffs separated by two continents and eight thousand 8,000 miles.
But to appreciate fully her life lesson about the practicalities of deterrence, fast-forward to Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang. The regimes in those capitals are currently in a high-stakes confrontation with the United States over matters each considers vital. Yet from their point of view, the American interest in their affairs is at best peripheral and at worst, none of our business. Our endless diplomatic talk has achieved little. The imposition of sanctions mostly recalls the truism that there really are only two kinds: the ones that are ineffective and those that cause wars. Despite our high-flown rhetoric, American strategy in the age of President Obama is “leading from behind” even as troops are mustered out, fleets are mothballed and defense budgets are slashed. So if you were presiding in one of those capitals while struggling for survival, how might you take advantage of “the Great Satan” that incessantly runs its mouth even while cashing in its chips?
We cannot tell if tomorrow the young leader of North Korea means to test a missile harmlessly or to detonate a nuclear weapon high over the peninsula — frying every electronic circuit before sending his million-man army south. Lady Thatcher’s example should remind us of the elegant simplicity that international conflict is not about gamesmanship and moral philosophy: It is instead a street fight with clear winners and losers.
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues.