The commander of American forces in the Middle East said that recent redeployments of a carrier, additional soldiers, and a bomber group to the Middle East made Iran “step back and recalculate.” This is both good and bad news. The good news of course is that the added forces seemed to act as a deterrent. The bad news is that the threat from Iran remains “very real,” but the successful deterrence in this case will actually make it seem like National Security Adviser John Bolton was needlessly warmongering, and it will make future warnings more like the boy who cried wolf. In short, it will make an Iranian attack in the future more likely to succeed.
Most surprise attacks happen for very specific reasons. The two major causes are usually alert fatigue and the boy who cried wolf syndrome. The French were the victims of alert fatigue in May of 1940. They had been at war with Germany since the previous September but it was so quiet it was labelled the “phony war.” Germany delayed its planned offensive several times. So when they were finally ready to attack most of their forces were already in place. Their minor repositioning didn’t raise alarms and France fell six weeks later.
The Israelis experienced the boy who cried wolf syndrome. In response to movements by Arab forces in the months before the Yom Kippur War, they had mobilized their armed forces. Historical studies show that these mobilizations dissuaded their adversaries from attacking, but to the contemporary public it seemed like a needless and disruptive sabre-rattling. So when the Israelis again received reports of a potential attack, they didn’t mobilize, were surprised, and suffered heavy casualties early in the war.
This is why America might be a victim of its success. The Iran threat remains just as deadly as ever. The escalation of forces worked this time in deterring Iran, but to critics of Bolton this becomes another example of needless warmongering from an aggressive Neocon. Modern-day isolationists will argue this is needless sabre-rattling that is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst. This means that the next warning of imminent attacks is more likely to be attacked by opponents as yet another boy who cried wolf. It is more likely to be ignored by serious analysts who would normally respond like America did in this case, but now have alert fatigue. America has heard about the threat of Iran for so many years that they likely won’t believe the next alert concerning their intentions, or analysts will misread pivotal signs.
The solution to the Iran saga is to remain constantly vigilant, even in the face of being called a warmonger for deterring the enemy. This becomes harder after many years and (non) incidents like this. But the United States must remain vigilant against external enemies and the internal critics that make America’s successful deterrence a stigma against future deterrence.