Rethinking Defense in the Era of Shadow Wars

The Greater Middle East has been the hobgoblin of Washington's little minds since August 2, 1990, the day Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army blitzed into Kuwait. The UN-approved Coalition effort to expel him months later was precision-geared not to upset the local balance of power, but regardless, the Gulf War deeply affected policy decisions from around the region to Communist Party HQ in Beijing to al Qaeda plotters in the caves of Afghanistan.

We've been fighting in Afghanistan long enough that a young person born on September 12, 2001, is now old enough to serve there. It will take a few more years to shrink our defense posture in the region to something like it was before the Gulf War. The radicalized Arab elements haven't yet grown sick from their own bloodlust, and Iran remains as feisty as ever in its attempts to recreate the Persian Empire. But it isn't too soon to start thinking about our global defense strategy in the post-post-9/11 era.

An interesting place to start might be a recent interview with Sean McFate, published by MIT Technology Review. McFate is a former paratrooper and a professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and the author of the recent book, The New Rules of War. His most important observation is this: "Militaries can no longer kill their way out of problems in a global information age, and this is driving war into the shadows." I don't agree with his notion that we cut the defense budget in half -- hardly. Defense spending is already under 5 percent of GDP, and trending down toward 4 percent. That isn't to say we're spending all those dollars wisely. The Navy is too small, the Army is arguably too big, and the Air Force needs to reexamine its priorities. And none of the services seem to take seriously what happens if Mexico goes full Failed State.

All that aside, simply reducing our operations tempo in the Middle East will mean further spending reductions, as well as less wear and tear on our equipment and our people. Besides, we haven't gotten much return on our investment of three decades of low-level (and sometimes higher-level) warfare in the region.

What does seem to work, however, is shadow warfare. "They’re all doing it," McFate says. "Russia, China, Iran... They’re all fighting these things called shadow wars, and they’re very effective." Simply put, a shadow war is fought primarily by means of covert activity, propaganda (particularly in the digital realm), diplomacy, economics, and the occasional bit of targeted violence -- often with a large dose of plausible deniability.

For further study on how those elements are mixed together in various ways by actors in ongoing wars around the world, I highly recommend Austin Bay's Cocktails from Hell: Five Complex Wars Shaping the 21st Century.

The world's three main Bad Actors on the world stage are the ones McFate just mentioned: China, Iran, and Russia. All three engage in shadow warfare where and when it suits them, although for different reasons. Russia is too weak internally to engage in all-out war, Iran is too weak and too poor, and while China might not be either (although I'd argue that China might be internally weaker than she appears), Beijing has so far preferred to get things done more slowly and with less immediate risk. All three are, to various degrees, threats to American security. And all three threats could be mitigated by means well short of war.

ASIDE: North Korea is essentially an appendage of China, and a useful distraction for Beijing. If we stay focused like a laser on China, the North Korea problem might just solve itself.

In later articles, I'll address China, Iran, and Russia individually. In the meantime, McFate has some intriguing suggestions on how the U.S. could engage in a little shadow warfare of our own:

I would cut away the expensive conventional weapons, and beef up the things that are very effective in modern war: political warfare, strategic influence, lawfare, economic might, and deception. Want to blunt Russian encroachment in the Baltics? Forget shows of force -- military deterrence is obsolete. Instead, start a “color revolution” on their border. Moscow is paranoid and would shift resources to squashing it. Want China out of the South China Sea? Stop throwing carrier groups into the region. Instead, covertly support the Uighur insurgency. Internal regime security will steal Beijing’s attention away.

McFate's thoughts bring to mind a complaint I've had about American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era: Why don't we play more to our strengths? Our three main non-military strengths are our popular culture, our technological innovation, and (last but far from least) the American consumer armed with almighty dollars. Mostly, comparatively ham-fisted military solutions have been our means of first resort.

ASIDE: The only technological innovation that's resonated strategically for us in recent years is the fracking revolution, which more than any other thing allows us to disentangle from the Middle East. Yet even that was by accident rather than by design -- and could be easily reversed by a future Democratic president, eager to "save the environment" at the cost of our economy and strategic position.

What the State Department lacks in imagination -- what McFate calls our low strategic IQ -- we've tried to replace with military force. That hasn't worked out quite as well as we'd hoped, if you'll allow me to indulge in a bit of understatement. What ought to come next will require imagination, patience, something of a devilish attitude, and -- most vitally -- a new set of officials in Washington unwedded to outdated defense models. That change began on Election Day three years ago, but an effective national defense requires much more swamp-draining than we've seen to date. Vote accordingly.

More to come. Stay tuned.