Thursday, October 21, 2010

Michael Chertoff, former US Secretary of Homeland Security, recently emphasized that establishing rules of engagement regarding cyberwar should be a top priority. Dealing with the issue of active defenses is an important component of this initiative.

“Preemption” is a loaded word. The right of a nation to act in self-defense against imminent threats is protected by Article 51 of the UN Charter, but cyberspace adds a different dimension to the issue. If the government discovered potentially malicious code on a computer, code that could disable a US power grid, or shut down military command and control centers, preemptive action to destroy the virus would necessitate a delicate hand.

The code could be on another country’s computers, on a civilian’s computer, or within the government network. Eliminating the code could have unintended effects on target computer or computer system, and accessing it might violate the owner’s civil liberties. In order to respond in "real time" to cyber threats, should the United States develop more automated response systems? If this was the case, cyber threats could be countered without a single human involved. Efficient, but scary.

Sanctioning unchecked cyber preemption is a problem. From a government standpoint it means revealing defense capabilities, as well as the priorities about what assets are important to us. At worst, it means taking a first, possibly aggressive action, that could have inadvertent negative effects on targeted systems, or even provoke an enemy to retaliate. On the other hand, if no preemptive action is taken, one could end up with an "embarrassed executive problem." Somewhere in the aftermath of a cyber attack, an official will have to sit in front of Congress and say the equivalent of "Yes, we knew the oil rig had safety issues, but we didn't fix them." And that, as we all know, is frustrating.

Monday, October 18, 2010

When Robert Pape writes something on terrorism, I pay attention.  He always adds something to the discussion, and usually it's something valuable.  But his recent article on FP.com, "It's the Occupation, Stupid" delivers research results and leads the reader to an uncertain conclusion.  His argument holds that terrorism, especially suicide terrorism, is motivated by foreign occupation.  These findings, based on his research at the University of Chicago, make logical sense: of course people in an occupied territory resort to violence when all other means have been exhausted.  His conclusion from this study, however, is problematic.  Taking these findings to their logical end, Pape says

The research suggests that U.S. interests would be better served through a policy of offshore balancing.
This is true, but interpreted incorrectly can lead to a dangerous isolationism.  Pape is right that the War on Terror is self-defeating, and that having boots on the ground overseas can often be counterproductive.  He is also right that occupying foreign territory provokes deadly blowback.  But there are two important nuances to this argument:

1) Avoiding foreign occupation is not the same as withdrawing into isolation
2) Offshore balancing requires U.S. involvement and action in foreign countries, which could also instigate blowback.

First, it is important to recognize the difference between offshore balancing and isolationism.  It is tempting to extrapolate from Pape's argument that retreating into "Fortress America" is the wisest course.  But withdrawing from the world would not make America safer, and furthermore, in this global age, is impossible. 

Secondly, offshore balancing implies U.S. power projection overseas and involvement in the affairs of other states, and that doing so is in the best interests of Washington.  This could take the form of drone strikes, Special Operations raids, or even 1990's-style cruise missile attacks.  But this involvement could have a similar effect as foreign occupation: motivating terrorists.  This is a hole in Pape's data, and until further investigated remains a concern. 

There is no question that Pape's overall point is correct: foreign occupation is a major driver of terrorism, and removing boots from the ground is preferable.  But he would be wise to avoid leaving open the possibility of interpreting his findings to support isolationism.

      

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