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September 9, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 313

Remembering 9/11 – Time For The U.S. To Play The Whole Field

September 9, 2021 | By Tom Cosentino*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 313

When the United States had a reliable and predictable peer enemy during the Cold War, we played the game of deterrence on a global scale and we were able to cover our flanks with surrogates, intelligence, and surveillance. In the aftermath of catastrophic success, the defeat of Saddam Hussein, and the fall of the Soviet Union, we started a process of myopic focus on one type of threat at a time. Initially it was a shift to preparing for two medium contingencies against rogue states like Iraq and North Korea with a concurrent drawdown of defense and intelligence capabilities to yield a piece dividend. After the attack on 9/11 it turned to a national focus on the "War on Terror." Now in the aftermath of our retreat from Afghanistan in the wake of 20 years of war, we are again shifting to a Chinese competitor that we have effectively ignored until recently, and whom we have let shift the global and regional power dynamic without us really understanding what was happening.

The United States national security enterprise went from a world class global player to a bunch of five-year old kids playing soccer and running in a group chasing the ball. This approach, which was a luxury for a dominant global superpower who could keep making the same mistakes over and over without existential consequences, must end, and quickly, in the multi-polar and multi-threat world we find ourselves in as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century. While China undoubtedly presents the largest existential threat to both our lives and our livelihoods, they are only number one on a hit parade of increasingly complex threats and challenges that the United States must address simultaneously in a lean, focused, and cost-effective way we have become unused to practicing in recent decades.  

Along with China as a peer competitor with malign intent, we have a revanchist Russia who quite effectively use disruptive technologies, gray zone approaches through surrogates that undermine U.S. allies, criminal networks that engage in cyber-crime, assassination of dissidents, and, when able without consequences, conventional and unconventional force to compel submission to Russian national objectives.

Our retreat from Afghanistan has also set the conditions for a resurgent Islamist terrorist threat and has given a morale boost to jihadists the world over. If these concerns were not enough to darken the forecast for global stability, we still have rogue states such as North Korea and Iran who are continuing to grow their nuclear weapons capability and often use their paramilitary and specialized forces to foment unrest in unstable regions and to specifically target U.S. forces, allies, and interests wherever and whenever they are able to do so.

If this grim situation was not daunting enough for U.S. decision makers, then pandemics, environmental challenges, regional and global criminal cartels, and the rise of a domestic terror threat has stretched not only U.S. international capabilities but the will and fabric of our society and our commitment to our fundamental liberties, freedoms, and democratic norms.

Whatever should the United States do when faced with all these simultaneous and overwhelming challenges? The answer is fairly simple, but it has a very hard and complex set of requirements for execution. It is time for the United States to stop chasing the ball of the moment and start playing the game of deterrence again on a global scale.

Deterrence requires investment in capabilities to maintain a competitive edge against China and other state and non-state opponents, to assure our allies, and to respond forcefully when necessary. We also need to invest in the capabilities and the approaches to address and mitigate criminal, environmental, and pandemic challenges while realizing the danger of being spread too thin by too many threats. These investments are also dependent on a global posture that enhances the United States government's ability to work with allies and strengthen multi-lateral action to deal with all manner of threats and challenges. The challenge today is both whether we have the wallet for these investments and the will of a great power to do so, a great power willing to be active on the world stage but disciplined enough to avoid overreach.

A core requirement to address challenges, mitigate risks, and respond forcefully is an investment in surveillance and analysis through active intelligence collection of critical information. These investments include not only covert human intelligence collection, surveillance systems and technologies, and the integration of artificial intelligence for analysis, but also the active collection and processing of open-source intelligence.  More intel content is needed but also the discernment to differentiate the essential from the marginal.

America's open society (and public stumbles and mistakes) and economy is there for all to see, and as a result individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness presents a formidable challenge to state and non-state opponents and presents a powerful threat to those who espouse authoritarian worldviews. To counter this dynamic and inherently American message of individual freedom, the enemies of the United States respond through their own messaging in social media, print media, and through their controlled broadcasting. These efforts present a clear opportunity to understand the strategy, operational approach, and the tactics of our opponents through their own words and messaging. While clandestine collection of intelligence through human and technical means allows us to assess and counter our opponents, the most cost-efficient way to understand our opponents and how they threaten the United States is to listen to what they say in open media.

The United States can better understand the way our opponents think and how they plan to attack and counter us by listening and analyzing their own messaging. This is true for peer competitors such as China, revanchist states like Russia, rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, jihadist groups with both regional and global reach, and subversive and dangerous domestic groups such as white supremacists and neo-Nazis. These opponents must try to counter the message of freedom in the open and we should be actively investing in listening, understanding, and countering the strategies that they openly message through their own words. The challenges that the United States faces are myriad but with robust global intelligence gathering, including in the open-source arena, we can understand our opponents and proactively counter them from a position of strength as befits a still great, if battered, power.

*Tom Cosentino is a retired United States Army Brigadier General and a member of the MEMRI Board of Advisors.

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