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Goodbye, Cold War, Welcome to the Cool War

By Toby Harnden - March 3, 2013

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Cool war is designed to avoid hot conflict. But will it work?

Critics argue that at the core of the “cool war” concept is a complacent belief that America can have its cake and eat it by pulling back from the world while still waging a war without getting its hands dirty. As such, it risks becoming a cloak for a new isolationism.

Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford academic whose “end of history” thesis won him fame in the early 1990s, is among those who considers the strategy to be fraught with risk.

“A lot of countries around the world depend on American power,” he says. “A lot of regional security situations are stabilised by having an America that’s predictable, that has a force presence, and has a willingness to back up key allies. Once you can’t take that for granted, a lot of things start coming unravelled.”

This is especially the case in East Asia, which he sees as having become the real centre of gravity of potential conflict.

“This is a really, really dangerous situation, especially the one between Japan and China,” Fukuyama warns. “We could wake up tomorrow and a couple of Japanese destroyers will have been sunk off the Senkakus [islands controlled by Japan and claimed by China and Taiwan], global stock markets will plunge 2,000 points and everybody's going to turn around and say ‘Oh why didn’t anyone warn us about this?’

“The whole post-war settlement, the San Francisco Treaty, is based on Japan giving up its sovereignty because of the American military guarantee.

“That’s why they don’t have nuclear weapons, that’s why they don’t have a full-scale military and so forth. If they decide that we’re not going to back them up, then the whole thing is going to go out the window.”

Thiessen says: “The idea that all this is behind us and we’re now in this new era of a cool war in which we can use these fun tools is a huge mistake. It’s a familiar trap to say the old ways of war are over — and then humanity finds a way to become even more violent.”

Indeed, the backlash among American elites over China’s cyberactivities and building public concern over the lack of accountability for drone strikes suggests it may not be possible for the “cool war” to maintain its thermal equilibrium even domestically.

After the military inventions of the Bush years, a cool war is a comforting thought, but the world remains a dangerous, complicated and unpredictable place. Ultimately, any chill-out is likely to be a brief phase rather than an enduring phenomenon.

Drones — America has 20,000 of them — have become such an integral part of the way the country now wages war that a new decoration, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, has been instituted for troops who never serve in a war zone but launch attacks from thousands of miles away.

A recent report revealed that some drone operators were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

America, of course, has carried out its own cyberattacks. The Stuxnet computer worm that infected Iran’s nuclear programme in 2009 destroyed about 1,000 centrifuges at the underground uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in the centre of the country.

This set back Tehran’s nuclear project by several years and probably averted the need for Israel, which assisted the US in the Stuxnet attack, to carry out pre-emptive air strikes.

In a recent speech in Washington, General Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, declined, with a glint in his eye, to say who was behind Stuxnet. Although he praised the attack, he also acknowledged that it had profound implications for the nature of war.

“Crashing 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz — almost unalloyed good,” Hayden said. “But someone — probably a nation state because this is too complicated to be done from your garage — just used a cyberweapon in a time of peace to destroy what another nation could only describe as their critical infrastructure.”

This act, he acknowledged, had changed the nature of war — much as did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “It has the whiff of August 1945,” he said. “It’s a new class of weapon, a weapon never before used.”

Harlan Ullman, who developed the doctrine of “shock and awe” in the mid-1990s that laid down the need for rapid dominance over an enemy, says the US is prosecuting drone and cyberwars without adequate rules and underestimating the dangers of unintended consequences.

“In the maritime realm, we developed the rules of the road to avoid collisions. There is an international monetary system to regulate global finance. But there are no equivalent rules for cyber.” Ullman, chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises governments and businesses, adds: “We are killing American citizens [the US-born al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki] with questionable due process at best. . . The collateral damage caused by drones also leads to a growing hostile reaction, which creates more enemies.”

Interviewed by Foreign Affairs magazine, General Stanley McChrystal, former special forces commander in Iraq and overall Nato commander in Afghanistan, agreed that drones were not the “easy button” that many politicians considered them to be.

“Although to the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end it feels like war,” he said. “Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly — I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will — then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.”

According to Marc Thiessen, a senior Pentagon and White House official during the Bush administration, drone strikes could prove counterproductive in another way, too.

“We’ve captured and interrogated one high-value target in the last five years. The aversion to boots on the ground and the aversion to capturing people or detaining them under the laws of war is costing us valuable intelligence every day,” he says. “When you vaporise a terrorist, you vaporise all the intelligence in their brain. You can’t actually effectively carry out a drone campaign unless you have intelligence.”

Obama is avoiding the controversial programmes he denounced high-mindedly before he was elected in 2008 — CIA black sites, extraordinary renditions and “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, widely regarded as torture. He ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison camp within a year of his taking office; it remains open but he seems determined to send no one else there.

In some respects, Thiessen adds, there is something rather old-fashioned about Obama’s reliance on unmanned planes.

“Drones are just a more effective and precise version of Clinton’s cruise missile policy against al-Qaeda. We spent the 1990s, leading up to 9/11, firing missiles at these people. And now we’re back firing missiles at these people again.”

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. 

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