Belmont Club

Hybrid Warfare

The Washington Post editorial board recently argued it was time to stop asking Hillary Clinton about her email server. “The Hillary Clinton email story is out of control,” it said.  This is not an issue, it’s a distraction.

Judging from the amount of time NBC’s Matt Lauer spent pressing Hillary Clinton on her emails during Wednesday’s national security presidential forum, one would think that her homebrew server was one of the most important issues facing the country this election. It is not. There are a thousand other substantive issues — from China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea to National Security Agency intelligence-gathering to military spending — that would have revealed more about what the candidates know and how they would govern. Instead, these did not even get mentioned in the first of 5½ precious prime-time hours the two candidates will share before Election Day, while emails took up a third of Ms. Clinton’s time.

Yet the same Washington Post published an AP article only the day before describing Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s warning of the danger posed by Russia’s hybrid war. “Hybrid war”, as the AP article suggested is the process by which the political institutions of the West are themselves attacked.

Asked later at his news conference what he meant by Russian interference in “our democratic processes,” Carter said he was referring to what some call Russia’s use of hybrid warfare — “interference in the internal affairs of nations, short of war.”

“This is a concern across all” of Europe, he said.

Asked whether he had been referring specifically to the U.S. presidential election, he said: “It’s not a concern in the United States only; it’s a common concern” throughout Europe.

Octavian Manea and Mark Galeotti in the Small Wars Journal (it’s a PDF) say Putin’s “hybrid war” just is another name for corruption in international politics. “In this context, war is a political instrument … of making the other side do what you want it to do.” The main tools of hybrid warfare are bribery, blackmail and disinformation.

Their [the Russians] concept of the West is one where you really can buy politics. If there is a handful of people that you need to convince, how are we going to convince them? It might be by invading a province of that country, or it might simply be by bribing them. … We live in an era of the insurgency of the mind. This is not about encouraging people to blow up post offices. It is not even about encouraging people to take a particular position. Back in the Cold War period, Soviet propaganda aimed to persuade everyone else about the rightness of their position, of the Soviet way of looking to the world. The interesting thing is that the modern campaign has been flipped around. It is not about convincing anyone else of a Russian point of view so much as to undermine people’s belief in any point of view, to create an environment in which no one can be quite sure about anything.

It is in Ashton Carter’s context that Hillary’s email server and the Clinton Foundation stories takes on significance.  As one commenter put it on Twitter “calling it an email story is smart. It is a corruption/ treason/ coverup / lying story really.”  Whether or not Hillary was actually the target of bribery, extortion or disinformation the existence of unaudited communications channels with foreign politicians and institutions designed to accept donations is significant.  For these must surely represent a point of vulnerability to hybrid warfare. That it’s Hillary’s server and Clinton’s foundation is incidental.  It is the existence of the pathway which is significant because it admits a blade which can cut either way.

It’s an institutional issue, not merely a personal one.

James Heintzen of Yale notes the Soviet archives show Stalin’s regime literally ran on bribery and it remains the dominant form of negotiation between rulers and ruled and among officials themselves in authoritarian societies. Bribery in China — and perhaps the same may be said of American cities — has evolved into a fine art.  One particularly creative mode of disguising payoffs is the faked dispute. “On one occasion, a land developer wished to bribe a Chinese city-level bureau director. To cover up the transaction, the developer sold a house to the director’s family members—the only problem being that the property was already sold. The resulting premeditated ‘dispute,’ played out with a lawsuit against the developer, was ‘settled’ with a cash payment two times the value of the house.”

In the realm of bribery Beijing and the Kremlin are past masters of the art and it is the West which is amateur.  Dispatches from the front of Hybrid Warfare do not consist of divisions moving but of cash being flown in mysterious airplanes in the dead of the night.  Thus reports that the administration paid Iran $33.6 billion in cash and gold to settle disputes between 2014 and 2016 are in their way equivalent to reports that Marines have landed on a hostile beach. Something happened, perhaps someone was influencing the Iranians.  Why not?  After all they are trying to influence us.

But in the context of hybrid warfare who is “us”?  In the politics of corruption who is bribing whom? Paradoxically the answer to this question is clearer in authoritarian societies than it is in constitutional democracies. In Russia as in the age of kings, l’Etat, c’est moi, the head of state and the state are one and the same.  The agent and the principal are identical.  In these situations treason is unambiguous: disloyalty to Russia is disloyalty to Putin.  When Putin acts it is for Putin’s sake.

However in Western constitutional democracies presidents and prime ministers are merely agents of the state, they are not the state themselves.  Treason is a much greater danger in these circumstances because when the agent acts, he does not always act on in the best interests of the principal.  If America is to play the game of hybrid warfare the ability to sanction treason is a sine qua non because without it the loyalty of the agent cannot be ensured.  A situation where traitors to Russia are punished while traitors to America are exalted is unsustainable.

Personal disloyalty is a far more serious crime than treason to an abstract state.  The Rosenbergs are still heroes to some in America since they only betrayed a principle but traitors to Stalin — like Trotsky — and traitors to Putin, like Alexander Litvinenko — are dead by axe or polonium.  This means one way for America to become as ruthless at rooting out traitors as the Kremlin is to reinstate personal rule.   Elect a king or queen — once — and the problem is solved.  Subconsciously we understand that if Hillary became the state then no one could do a Hillary on Hillary.  Personal correspondence by her subordinates with foreign rulers would not be tolerated because it would become a crime not just against America but against Hillary.

Re-establishing the integrity of the state by accepting authoritarian rule would be too high a price to pay for most and the public will want another way to solve it.  Most people intuitively understand that solving corruption is one of the central issues in this election and not the irrelevancy the Washington Post editorial board thinks it is.

The unasked question is who does the future belong to?  Who will America be given over to? To undocumented migrants, foreign interest groups, the highest bidder?  Or will it still belong to the citizens at least for a while. An article at Claremont went so far as to call the 2016 race “the Flight 93 Election”.  The inference is the country is at the point of being hijacked and people don’t even know it. “2016 is the Flight 93 election,” it writes “charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.”

That may be a hyperbole; but if we are to take hybrid warfare seriously — if we are to win it — we must at least be aware of its dangers.  Then if we are on history’s Flight 93 at least America will at least die aware instead of plunging into a field clueless.

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