Wars of the future will be very different from wars of the past. Everyone gets that. What many do not grasp: The present war also is very different from wars of the past.
Among the ways: Those defending the West try hard to abide by the laws of war. Those attacking the West say clearly that they will not be bound by any “infidel” rules. They are committed to what they call a “Koranic concept of war.”
That provides them with an advantage. The West’s advantages include sophisticated and continually advancing technologies. We can now track and kill enemy combatants without boots on the ground or pilots in the skies. Such missions can be accomplished using unmanned aerial vehicles: drones, of course, but there’s also a kind of blimp that can achieve dominance on a battlefield — if we’d only deploy it. (More on that in a moment.)
Meanwhile, the “age of cyberwar” is not ahead of us — it is “upon us,” as former foreign correspondent and Pentagon official David Jackson recently wrote. Curiously, these historic changes are causing confusion, not least among those tasked with understanding them.
For example, last week, I found myself on an al-Jazeera television show defending President Obama’s use of drones to eliminate al-Qaeda commanders. Both Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and a man of the Left, and Shihab Rattansi, the show’s BBC-style host, took the view that the use of such weapons in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia violates international law and fundamental morality. They presented no evidence, much less proof: They simply asserted that those killed — most recently Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s number two — are entitled to more “due process” than a Hellfire missile delivers.
Meanwhile, TheDiane Rehm Show on NPR last week featured Matt Frei of Britain’s Channel 4 News who said that most Europeans find it “quite appalling, actually” that President Obama maintains a “kill list.” He did not say what policy most Europeans would prefer when it comes to such terrorists as al-Libi. Should Obama be sending strongly worded letters instead?
Cyber warfare was discussed, too. Indira Lakshmanan, a generally sensible Bloomberg reporter, argued that if Americans use cyber weapons, “let’s not think that the Iranians themselves won’t learn from what we’ve done to them and couldn’t release similar bugs on us with potentially devastating consequences. So that’s something we really need to think about.” Yes, and let’s start by considering whether it is remotely plausible that Iran’s rulers, the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, would conclude that it’s not quite cricket to use such weapons — if only Americans would refrain from using them first.
Lakshmanan’s thinking was befuddled on another score as well: “If we’re sitting at the table with [Iranians] in Moscow next week, how are they going to believe that we’re actually trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with them if at the same time we’re admitting openly that we’re engaged in outright cyber warfare with them?”
Maybe because that cyber warfare is aimed at preventing Iran’s rulers — who openly proclaim it their sacred duty to rid the world of such “evils” as Israel and America — from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability. And maybe because what we’re offering, in exchange for a halt to their nuclear-weapons program, is an end to such cyber warfare, as well as the lifting of economic sanctions, a form of economic warfare. What other deal (a) has not been offered and (b) could have the slightest chance of appealing to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?