In the now famous scene in Clint Eastwood’s movie (Sudden Impact 1983), an armed thug who is holding a waitress hostage is confronted by Inspector Harry Callahan, who points his outsized service revolver to the miscreant’s head, orders him to surrender or – “Go ahead – make my day.”

Harry’s growled threat was sufficiently unambiguous that even a dull witted thug could discern that this was no bluff. In all thug encounters (and as we will see, in all international ones) it also helps to have Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick”.

But a stick without will and skill is just a stick. The knowledge that Harry was actually going to pull the trigger caused the thug to submit to police authority without a shot being fired. The larger lesson of the “Make my day” vignette is not “Always carry a gun”.

The real lesson is that the threat of force only reliably produces protective results when three conditions are met:

  1. The threatened force is serious enough to make a thug reverse course
  2. The present means to deliver on the threat is obvious.
  3. It is bright line clear that the threat will be carried out.


There is a curiously clueless subset of situational pacifists among the foreign policy elites and political intelligentsia who think that violence is so abhorrent that we should bluff and bluster several times before we finally – if ever – resort to force. These are the people who will support a strongly worded resolution against a thuggish regime, then express outrage when equally strong action follows. These confused minds belong to the “Use a gun, go to your room!” school of diplomacy and social policy. They are dangerous because the world is dangerous.

Civilization can be defined in several ways, but I propose a simple functional definition that should be a wake up call for the naïve. Civilization is a zone of enforced peace that describes any significant geographic area over which a law-based government has been able to subdue thugs and protect the innocent. By this test, whole regions in the world and even parts of our inner cities are not in a state of civilization. Moreover, civilization is often a fragile and reversible state of affairs. And in the realm of nation state interactions, the rules and norms that apply within any one civilization do not apply writ large. Instead, international relations consists of an unstable admixture of thug-thug alliances and conflicts and a series of overlapping trade and exchange systems supported by voluntary sanctions.

Russia is groping its way into civilized status within its borders and vis a vis the rest of the world is acting like a thuggish gang. In this, Russia is hardly alone.


Deadly armed conflicts – especially in the last 80 years or so, tend to fall into three crude categories:

(1) Two or more thugs battling over a prize.

(2) A thug or thug coalition vs. a civilization or a coalition of civilizations.

(3) A complicated and messy mix of the foregoing like two mixed coalitions (thug and non-thug) against each other for mixed motives, i.e., part prize, part self-preservation and part self-aggrandizement.

Moral clarity and sober realism are equally essential to self-preservation in the current environment.

Here are four reality points:

For the last century or so, the US and Great Britain, joined by a small list of other players, all their imperfections accounted for, have been the least thuggish of all the mostly-civilized nation states on the planet.

At the present moment, several nations are both particularly thuggish, if you will, and dangerous to their neighbors and the civilized nations of the world.  This list includes Russia, Iran-Syria, North Korea and China. 

Overt thuggish behavior by any of these countries must be deterred (recalling the Dirty Harry rules and the nuclear qualification to those rules), deflected or civilized (in the larger sense). 

There is a long term world trend favoring the emergence of moderately civilized, partly democratic governments in place of authoritarian thuggish ones. That trend is not robust and can easily be reversed.  Its strength depends on the resolve and capability of the civilized nations to form effective military alliances strong enough to operate as “Dirty Harry” deterrence in the short and mid term and to promote civilizing ideologies in the long term.

The situational pacifists who belong to the “Use a gun, go to your room!” school of diplomacy and social policy are capable of completely undermining the trend favoring the emergence of moderately civilized, partly democratic governments in place of authoritarian thuggish ones.


Russia’s recovery from communist poverty has been shaky. Its nationalist ambitions are being funded by robust oil production see the chart below) and the willingness to withhold oil as political weapon.

In a previous article, I pointed out these current approximate oil production figures in millions of barrels per day:

Russia 12.87

Saudi Arabia 8.91

Iran 3.87

Iraq 2.50

U. A. E. 2.66

Kuwait 2.34

Dirty Harry had a single hostage, one that Harry treated as expendable in the knowledge that more hostages are saved that way (i.e., no bluff, no BS). But when nuclear armed nation states are involved, the tendency to thuggish behavior is harder to restrain because the potential hostage factor increases exponentially. In practice, the possible use of nuclear weapons is deterrence against the possible use of nuclear weapons AND direct territorial invasion, but little else.

Russia is still a formidable military power, especially within driving distance, and is an off-limits target because of its still formidable nuclear weapons capability. Georgia has only been independent from the former Soviet Union since 1990, effectively democratic only since 2003. Its current elected leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, was elected president in 2004 and has aligned himself with the West and free market reforms. His attempt to use military power (miniscule compared to the Russian neighbor) to reassert sovereignty over Abkhazia, a separatist region with a strong pro-Russian presence provided a pretext for a massive Russian invasion of Georgia, the outcome of which – a fragile and unenforceable ‘peace settlement’ notwithstanding – is still in doubt.

Unlike dirty Harry, we don’t have the equivalent his tactical advantage; true, we have a gun at the head of Russia but Russia has one too, aimed at our major cities.

We can’t bluff.

MOREOVER, our threats are limited to peripheral matters that may or may not even affect Russian behavior.


Let’s seriously think for a moment about IRAN. Does anyone really want that regime to get “The Bomb”? Yes, the situation is delicate to say the very least. But there is no escape from the issue. The naïve talking heads and other pundits who think that we can “deter” a nuclear armed Iran have just been given an object lesson in hollow deterrence.

If we allow Iran (with its present hostile regime) to acquire a deliverable nuclear weapons system, our ability to deter Iranian adventurism in the Middle East will be just as ineffective as our ability to deter Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe.

We are not insulated from a conflagration in the Middle East, either morally or as a practical matter.

The situational pacifists among the foreign policy elites and political intelligentsia who think that we should never, ever, ever do anything militarily to forestall Iran’s obvious nuclear ambitions are as accountable for the consequences of the inaction they advocate as those who advocate that we actually do something about it are accountable. At the end of the day, it will come down to this: Thugs or us.

Hamlet said it best.


Leave a Reply