Toby Harnden, in The Australian, 26 April 2013, courtesy of The Sunday Times
IT is nearly a quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall fell, bringing the Cold War to a close. The triumph of liberal democracy briefly seemed to herald “the end of history” before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, triggered what the Pentagon called the global war on terrorism and a clash between the West and militant Islam. Just over a decade later, this conflict is drawing to a close. Much of al-Qa’ida has been dismantled; US President Barack Obama has declared “the tide of war is receding” and it is time to conduct nation-building at home. America’s imperial ambitions are over, for the foreseeable future at least. The world is no longer uni-polar.
Although chastened by its “hot” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is anxious to limit the spread of al-Qa’ida and is alarmed by the rise of its strategic rival and banker, China, whose economy is growing four times as fast as that of the US and is on track to overtake it in terms of GDP by 2017.
Welcome to what is known as the “cool war”: a conflict in which death is delivered by distant drones and the undeclared battlefield with China is cyberspace, where every virtual thrust is met with counterthrust as the nations probe each other’s defences. The term was coined in February by David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor-at-large of the authoritative magazine Foreign Policy. He used it to characterise a war that “is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defences”.
The second definition of “cool” taken on by this new mode of war, Rothkopf argued, was that it involved cutting-edge technologies that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War. Rothkopf’s ruminations were prompted by the revelation in The New York Times that the Chinese army’s unit 61398 was behind a wave of cyberattacks on US institutions. The existence of such attacks was nothing new. Nearly three years ago, William Lynn, then No 2 at the Pentagon, spoke about the threat faced by US defence networks he said were “scanned millions of times a day and probed thousands of times a day”.
Lynn argued that a “new technological age” was just beginning. “Essentially, in the cyberworld, it’s 1929. We are still in the era of dirigibles and biplanes,” he said. Leon Panetta, who recently stepped down as US defence secretary, has been more specific, raising the prospect last October of a “cyber Pearl Harbor”. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cybertools to gain control of critical switches,” Panetta said. “They could derail passenger trains . . . loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.” He spoke of “a pre-9/11 moment” in which there were plots for cyberattacks that “could paralyse the nation”.
Much of China’s cyberactivity is corporate espionage on an industrial scale. But its activities have also included penetrating infrastructure networks that could plunge the US into chaos at the click of a mouse.
“We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets,” Obama warned in his State of the Union address. “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air-traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing.”
The Pentagon has announced it will be quintupling its cyberwarfare workforce from 900 to about 4500. IF the keyboard is China’s new weapon of choice — though no one should discount its growing conventional military power — then the US’s favourite is the drone missile, which can dispatch a human target in Yemen or Pakistan to oblivion on secret orders of Obama, carried out by an air force officer operating a joystick in a trailer on a base in Nevada.
Since he came to office, Obama has approved nearly 300 drone strikes in Pakistan alone, compared with fewer than 50 during the Bush administration. The strikes are carried out in secret with no congressional oversight and an elastic, almost Orwellian, definition of “imminent threat”. Drones (the US has 20,000 of them) have become such an integral part of the way the country now wages war that a new decoration, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, has been instituted for troops who never serve in a war zone but launch attacks from thousands of kilometres away.
The US, of course, has carried out its own cyberattacks. The Stuxnet computer worm that infected Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 destroyed about 1000 centrifuges at the underground uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in the centre of the country. This set back Tehran’s nuclear project by several years and probably averted the need for Israel, which assisted the US in the Stuxnet attack, to carry out pre-emptive air strikes.
Harlan Ullman, who developed the doctrine of “shock and awe” in the mid-1990s that laid down the need for rapid dominance over an enemy, says the US is prosecuting drone and cyberwars without adequate rules and underestimating the unintended consequences. “In the maritime realm, we developed the rules of the road to avoid collisions. There is an international monetary system to regulate global finance. But there are no equivalent rules for cyber.” Ullman, chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises governments and businesses, adds: “We are killing American citizens (the US-born al-Qa’ida preacher Anwar al-Awlaki) with questionable due process at best . . . The collateral damage caused by drones also leads to a growing hostile reaction, which creates more enemies.”
General Stanley McChrystal, former special forces commander in Iraq and overall Nato commander in Afghanistan, says drones are not the “easy button” many politicians consider them to be. “Although to the US a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end it feels like war,” he told Foreign Affairs magazine. “Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly — I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will — then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.”
According to Marc Thiessen, a senior Pentagon and White House official during the Bush administration, drone strikes could prove counterproductive. “We’ve captured and interrogated one high-value target in the last five years,” he says. “When you vaporise a terrorist, you vaporise all the intelligence in their brain. You can’t actually effectively carry out a drone campaign unless you have intelligence.”
The legitimacy of their use remains a matter of fierce dispute. The White House contends that drones, estimated to have killed more than 3000 people, some 400 of them innocent civilians, since 2008, are more humane than conventional warfare because fewer civilians are killed. Their deployment against suspected al-Qa’ida members, it argues, is justified by the Authorisation for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists statute passed just after 9/11.
Critics are unconvinced. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that the use of lethal force outside conflict zones is strictly limited by international law and can be used only as a last resort when there is an imminent threat to life or against those directly participating in hostilities. If the rules of engagement for drones remain vague, those concerning the development and deployment of cyberweapons are even less defined. What is an act of war in cyberspace? Where are the lines that cannot be crossed? No one really knows.
Last year, an attack believed by Western intelligence services to have been carried out by Iran destroyed 30,000 computers owned by Saudi Aramco, the Saudi government-owned oil company. The malware replaced data with an image of a burning American flag. Russia has been blamed for cyberattacks on Estonia and Georgia.
“We spent 20 years pulling the whole world together in one network, one global economy and now we’re finding out that that brings vulnerability as well as benefits,” says Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “It’s the darker side of integration. It’s also the new normal because there’s no way to undo it.”
AMERICANS have long had a fondness for buzz phrases encapsulating new paradigms to approaches to war. In the 1990s, there was “full-spectrum dominance” that saw the US as having overwhelming military superiority in every sphere, and “network-centric warfare”, based on information-sharing and technological advantage. The Gulf War of 1991 was characterised by the “smart bomb” that could guide itself down a street and supposedly turn left at a traffic light. Once “shock and awe” had been discredited, counterinsurgency (or COIN) became dominant.
With “COINdinistas” such as General David Petraeus and McChrystal in the ascendant, the new doctrine was to flood a war zone with troops who would interact closely with local populations, living among the people and thereby marginalising the insurgent. It was an approach that was central to the success of the Iraq “surge” in 2007, but the results in Afghanistan have been mixed. The notion of a “cool war” is in many ways a reaction to the boots-on-the-ground philosophy of the COINdinistas.
Cool war is designed to avoid hot conflict. But will it work? Critics argue that at the core of the “cool war” concept is a complacent belief that the US can have its cake and eat it by pulling back from the world while still waging a war without getting its hands dirty. As such, it risks becoming a cloak for a new isolationism. Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford academic whose “end of history” thesis won him fame in the early 90s, is among those who considers the strategy to be fraught with risk. “A lot of countries around the world depend on American power,” he says. “A lot of regional security situations are stabilised by having an America that’s predictable, that has a force presence, and has a willingness to back up key allies.
“Once you can’t take that for granted, a lot of things start coming unravelled.” Thiessen says: “The idea that all this is behind us and we’re now in this new era of a cool war in which we can use these fun tools is a huge mistake. It’s a familiar trap to say the old ways of war are over — and then humanity finds a way to become even more violent.”
Indeed, the backlash among American elites over China’s cyberactivities and building public concern over the lack of accountability for drone strikes suggests it may not be possible for the “cool war” to maintain its thermal equilibrium, even domestically.
After the military inventions of the Bush years, a cool war is a comforting thought, but the world remains a dangerous, complicated and unpredictable place. Ultimately, any chill-out is likely to be a brief phase rather than an enduring phenomenon.