The Cool War

Cold War technology made war unthinkable. Cool War technology makes it irresistible.

We are now in the midst of what could be called the Cool War. This successor to the Cold War shares the trait that it does not involve hot conflict on the battlefield, but is different in the nature and expectations surrounding the sub-rosa thrusts and parries by which it is conducted.

This new war is "cool" rather than "cold" for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of "cool," in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War -- which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare.

The Cool War is largely different not only because of the participants or the nature of the conflict, but also because it can be conducted indefinitely -- permanently, even -- without triggering a shooting war. At least that is the theory.

The latest sign that this war is on-going is Tuesday's New York Times story focusing on the revelations produced by a U.S. cyber-security firm called Mandiant regarding China's People Liberation Army Unit 61398, a Shanghai-based operation that has allegedly been conducting "an overwhelming percentage" of recent attacks on U.S. companies and government agencies, according to the Times account.

What is striking about the story is that it has such a "dog bites man" feel to it. Everyone who is paying attention knows the Chinese are doing this -- as are other countries from Russia to Iran and beyond -- and no one has any sense that such attacks will cause the kind of rupture to the U.S.-China relationship that might have been expected in the era of spy scandals past. This feeling is pervasive, damaging, and, save for periodic demarches and statements of outrage from high officials, likely only to produce more business for companies like Mandiant and more resources for cyber-units in the U.S. Department of Defense to counter the nerd armies of our adversaries and rivals.

Via these attacks, the Chinese gain access to valuable U.S. intellectual property, insights into how the U.S. economy works, and an increasing ability to interrupt the functions of individual companies, important elements of our critical infrastructure and significant sources of America's strength and security. And while we will publicly denounce them, we are tempered in our criticism because we know we are doing the same thing worldwide. The most famous illustration of these is the "Olympic Games" initiative against the Iran nuclear program -- better known as Stuxnet -- which was designed by the U.S. and our allies to do via streams of electrons what did not wish to do with commandos or bombers and that is disrupt Iran's progress toward creating an atom bomb. Almost certainly, the successor to Olympic Games is now in play or will be ratcheted up as we seek to find ways to both "engage" and pressure the Iranians simultaneously.

And as we do that to them, they will also seek to do it back to us. When you drop a bomb on a country, it not only devastates its target -- it also disintegrates. But when you launch a worm against a facility, that worm or its elements remain intact and discoverable and thus re-usable by the victim of the attack. In other words, while cyber conflict may avoid "hot" exchanges, it has to date produced almost constant escalation.

It should also be noted that cyber intrusions will become ever more effective and difficult to defend against in the world of big data and "the Internet of things" that we are entering. With the combination of ubiquitous sensors and data-gathering mechanisms, unlimited memory and massive processing capabilities, the planet's ocean of bits and bytes is growing ever larger and each and every company is becoming a data company. Each will have ever-greater data assets to protect, and each will face ever-greater data liabilities should it fail to protect them. That is why so many companies that have never been engaged in these issues are now not only looking to hire companies like Mandiant, they are becoming deeply interested in the future of cyber policies -- from the White House's recent executive order to issues like Internet governance and privacy protection.

The Cool War is of course, not just limited to the possibility of permanent phantom warfare via cyber attacks. It goes further, to the ongoing discussion of the use of unmanned agents of surveillance and destruction, such as drones. All these new technologies make it easier for the technologically empowered to strike out against and dominate adversaries without putting human lives or hard military assets at risk -- or to give their traditional forces special advantages when they do enter conflict, thus reducing risk. The purpose of the Cold War was to gain an advantage come the next hot war or, possibly, to forestall it. The purpose of Cool War is to be able to strike out constantly without triggering hot war while also making hot wars less desirable (much as did nuclear technology during Cold War days) or even necessary.

That's not to say there will be no hot wars. But it does suggest that in the world of Cool War, they will be fewer and they will take place against a backdrop of a new, different, constant kind of warfare. Instead of killing adversaries, the new technologies allow for the possibility of just giving them a nasty fever, of reducing their capacity, of confusing them, of depriving them of key assets when necessary. It also, of course, gives technologically advanced countries a great edge over those without the same resources.

It's early days. It's a new game. Undoubtedly, it is one that will involve many twists and turns and may undercut some of the assumptions that have led Chinese and U.S. planners to think that playing at this new game is indeed safer than old approaches. But it is impossible to read stories like the one in Tuesday's Times without concluding that we are in the midst of a sea change in the way nations project force.

Peter Parks-Pool

David Rothkopf

If Obama Were a Truth-Teller

Here’s what he would say on Tuesday night.

The White House has teed up this year's State of the Union address in the usual ways. It has leaked bits and pieces of its content to key news organizations, hinted at themes. It has invited guests to sit in the balcony with the first lady and be used to as political props. It has set up the president's schedule so that he flies out of town immediately afterward and takes his message, campaign-style, to the people -- and thus draws out the coverage the speech gets and, with any luck, steps on whatever news might be created by the twin Republican responses, one from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the other, for the Tea Party faction, from his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul.

With the goal of setting an agenda focused not just on economics but specifically on restoring opportunity for the middle class, the president has picked a central theme that seems logical and unlikely to stir up debate. That said, to achieve his goals will require investment in infrastructure and education that will be contentious, particularly in the cut-oriented and obstructionist House of Representatives. And some issues that he will bring up, such as immigration, gun control, and climate are sure to be hotly debated, parsed, and divisive.

The president will also reintroduce his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons, a goal that is both vitally important and one on which we will make little progress over the next four years. And he will go down a foreign-policy checklist that will reassert our friendship with Israel, our desire to get out of the Middle East, probably our desire to make new progress on trade and exports, and so on. The usual.

But here's what the president won't do that would be welcome: He won't tell the real truth to the American people. It's not that he is a liar. It's not that he doesn't mean well. It's because he no doubt believes -- and he is probably right -- that the American people can't handle the truth. But frankly, whether they can handle it or not, they need to hear it. So here are 10 of the key truths he'll sidestep, talk around, or consciously ignore -- and the segments of the American population and people around the world who need to hear them.

 1. To Americans under 18: Kids, we love you, but you need to know a few things. First, you will not be retiring at 65. Your Social Security benefits will not be kicking in until you are 70; possibly until you are 72. We won't have the courage to make this change now, so it is going to come a little later in your lives -- but plan accordingly. We can't afford to do otherwise.

2. To gun owners: You guys are absolutely right. There's precious little new regulations are going to do to reduce crime if there are already 300 million guns in circulation. That's why we have to take those guns out of circulation. We're probably not going to come into your homes to get them -- although we should. So here's what we're going to have to do: We're going to outlaw your carrying them in public, trafficking them, and using them in a crime. Again, we're not going to do this now. It'll take a few more horrific tragedies to get there. But rest assured, we'll get there. Guns really are the problem and getting rid of guns is the only way to solve it.

3. To his fellow politicians: We need to clean up our act. Money is the problem. I have made things worse. I led the way in 2008 by opting out of federal matching funds. I have paid off donors with political appointments like an old time Tammany Hall pol. I have also watched as K Street money has bought and sold legislation, whole legislators, and big chunks of America's future. The only way to stop this is getting money out of politics. That's why we're going to move to 100 percent federally funded elections and 90-day campaigns, and if it takes a constitutional amendment to get it done, then so be it. (But I'll also work on rebalancing the Supreme Court every chance I get.) 

4. To Congress: Incivility and obstruction aren't just ugly, they are a violation of our oaths of office. So here's what we're going to do. I'm going to invite congressional leaders to my house once a month for the remainder of my term for dinner. We're going to spend three hours in a room together. If we sit there in silence, so be it. But we owe it to the voters to make it a priority. And we're going to start by discussing how to undo those rules and procedures that exacerbate our differences -- from gerrymandering to the filibuster -- and make obstruction all too easy.

5. To the top brass in the Pentagon: The phony debate over cuts has to end. It is no longer possible to continue spending what we do on defense and to neglect not only our fiscal plight but the investments in infrastructure, education, technology, and health care that we so desperately need. Something has got to give, and the biggest discretionary pool of spending we have is defense. In organizations in trouble, 10 to 15 percent cuts in spending are normal, 20 percent not unheard of. That means you need to find me $100 billion a year for the next 10 years just to prove you understand the problem. It's there. We're creative enough to do it and maintain our national security. It is actually by pretending we can maintain the status quo that we put ourselves at greatest risk.

6. To the energy community: This is a moment of great opportunity and challenges. A new energy paradigm will make us energy independent and safer. It can help move us toward a healthier climate. But it will also require some candor and some big changes from all parties. Shale gas is a boon, but it also presents real environmental challenges that we must acknowledge and address. The gas boon should allow us to switch away from coal. The time to start is now. The coal can be exported but, to be honest, that doesn't help the planet very much in the long run. We need to phase out its use and, in the interim, embrace the cleanest available technologies. Efficiency is as big a part of this revolution as shale. We need to create new incentives to achieve it. And we are going to need to pay for it with a carbon tax. Even big energy companies realize this is coming. Let's stop pretending it's not and start leading the world again.

7. To American taxpayers: While we're being honest about taxes, take a deep breath and accept the inevitable. The only way to fix our fiscal problem is to cut defense and entitlements and raise taxes. And the most significant change to our tax policy that is coming almost certainly will be a value-added tax. Let's plan on it and use it to initiate a process by which we drastically simplify our ridiculous, loophole-ridden tax code. And let's throw in that carbon tax while we're at it, too.

8. To our allies in Israel: We are your friends. Friends tell the truth. Your world has been rocked by big changes, and since roughly the early 1980s you have been doing nothing to help yourselves adapt. Demographics now pose the ultimate challenge to the idea of a democratic Jewish state in the Middle East. You need to stop with the ridiculous, inflammatory settlement policies and recognize that the greatest guarantor of Israel's security is not the United States but a prospering Palestinian economy. Focus on making that happen -- on creating jobs and opportunities in the Palestinian territories -- and progress is possible. Oh, and we're going to be ramping down our involvement in the Middle East for a while. Like forever. Our rhetoric won't change. We won't completely disappear. But you've already seen the changes start to happen. We simply have neither the appetite nor the budget for more wars.

9. To our friends in the Palestinian territories, and to our enemies there: Clean up your act.  Until you have a single government, a single agenda, and are willing to be serious, we're not getting involved.

10. To our terrorist enemies: We're going to keep coming for you. With drones. With Special Forces. With whatever it takes. We don't care about international law. We don't even care about our own law. You scared us. You scarred us. And no American leader can afford to drop his guard.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images