Will Cyberspace be the Next Battleground?

When a grand jury in the Western District of Pennsylvania indicted six Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers on May 19, 2014 on 31 counts of hacking and cyber espionage against American companies, there was a flurry of media coverage of the incident. The indictment charged that the six PLA officers, all associated with China’s infamous Cyber Unit 61398, conspired to hack into the files of six American companies in order to steal trade secrets and give Chinese state-owned companies an unfair trade advantage.

As might be expected, most of the post-indictment coverage emphasized the economic aspects of hacking. The economic cost of hacking is truly staggering – in a PBS Frontline show in 2000, for instance, it was estimated that a disrupted denial of service attack could cost publishing giant Amazon as much as $600,000 an hour. Seemingly ignored in all this, however, are the social and political costs of cyber-crime, particularly the state-sponsored variety.

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Option Out

Is effectively backing Assad against the Islamic State in the United States’ long-term best interest?

A valid question Dominic Tierney asks in his recent article featured in The Atlantic, highlighting the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation the U.S. currently finds itself in with Syria.

Noted author and strategy theorist Edward Luttwak says there are two alternatives to this option. Option 1: a U.S. invasion and occupation of Syria – impossible to countenance. He believes the correct alternative is Option 2: the status quo – do nothing to help either side win, and from time to time intervene to make sure one of the sides doesn’t lose. Luttwak argues that critics of the Obama administration’s supposed lack of direction on Syria, like American critics of the World Cup, just don’t understand what they’re looking at.

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Who’s Responsible for the Mess in Syria-Iraq-Egypt?

We seem to be experiencing the quiet return of the “who lost Iraq?” monologue. Myself, I blame Mustafa Kemal Atatürk for causing the ideological and political fragmentation of Islamic society underlying recent Middle East violence, chaos and endemic instability. To be fair, the French, British and Americans have done their bit too. But, no Western entity lost anything in the region – except occasionally balance, humanity and common sense.

Islam is, from its earliest days, both a belief system and a life-living philosophical prescription. Mohammed himself became a city-ruler as well as the prophet and spiritual guide. This duality continued down through the centuries until Atatürk ended the Ottoman Empire, removing the sultan (civil governance)/caliph (spiritual leader). The colonels mounted a military coup to overthrow the hopelessly corrupt, inert and regressive monarchy, which they did. They quickly replaced the Sublime Porte with a secular, dictatorial, modernizing government in Ankara, while the non-Turkic former imperial provinces were set adrift.

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Gently Pushing American Values

In the last few weeks, the chief of Afghan elections resigned under a cloud of alleged corruption. A coalition of militants continued to seize strategic territory as Iraq’s 2003-2008 insurgency continues under another name. And Egypt sentenced three journalists to prison for very dubious crimes after holding what may well have been the last presidential election in Egypt in a generation. Amid these and other apparent setbacks to U.S. foreign policy (as if such things as these can be assessed as successes or failures after such a short time) scholars and pundits have seized the opportunity to lambaste the foreign policies of either the previous or the current administration.

In his Foreign Policy article, “Democracy, Freedom and Apple Pie Aren’t a Foreign Policy,” Stephen M. Walt blames these troubles on Neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists for pursuing a foreign policy almost solely to export American values. To some extent he is right. They are all symptomatic of a failed view that holds elections as the sole definition of Western democracy. But to say that “trying to export American values almost always backfires” is not only factually incorrect but ignores the difference between intent and method.

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Social Media Savvy Extremists

While the observation that social media plays a significant role in contemporary warfare is now old news, the adept use of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, takes manipulation of information and communication technologies to another level.

As reported this week in the Small Wars Journal, Doug Bernard discusses the consensus among analysts that ISIL has raised the bar in terms of successful “outreach.” The article (and the Voice of America interview that spawned it) makes a solid case that extremists around the world have governments on the defensive because they have the upper hand in the new media space.

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Securing Americans Abroad – Taking the Long View

Exploring how security of diplomatic facilities became a top priority for the U.S. and the effects of military involvement 

After the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and several other Americans and Libyan personnel, the reaction on Capitol Hill was swift, and all too predictable. The U.S. Congress demanded better protection of American diplomatic facilities and personnel throughout the world.

In a bipartisan report, “Flashing Red: A Special Report On The Terrorist Attack At Benghazi,” by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Pentagon was given a pass for the incident. Collins said that the tragedy was “not the fault of the Pentagon, but an indication that the Defense Department lacks sufficient resources to mount an adequate response to such situations.”

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The Other Long War

“We have a real global threat. The problems in Africa are going to land on our doorstep if we’re not careful.”

If I didn’t know that the article in my hands was from last Sunday’s New York Times, I would have thought I was reading Thomas P. Barnett circa 2010, or from my own notes during a 2008 tour of the Horn of Africa, where I was examining the evolving mission of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).  It’s been well reported that lawless spaces foster terrorist recruiting, operations and agendas; we’ve been in the Horn for over a decade in a pre-emptive effort to identify and address the needs in such areas.

Like the author of last Sunday’s piece, Eliza Griswold, I was intrigued by the curious mandate of the U.S. military at the time, one that had Seabees and special forces alike working humanitarian and development projects while their colleagues were fighting in the theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to see firsthand how troops were operationalizing the fuzzy mission of simultaneously addressing security and development priorities in weak states; I wanted to hear firsthand from CJFT-HOA leadership whether they believed that humanitarianism would genuinely deter terrorism in ungoverned areas.

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