National Security

Meet the Microsoft Billionaire Who's Trying to Reboot U.S. Counterterrorism

Nathan Myhrvold's a king of computer science, intellectual property, and extreme food. Can he teach Washington how to fight bad guys too?

Add to Nathan Myhrvold's already eclectic résumé -- which includes ex-chief technology officer of Microsoft, co-founder of one of the world's largest patent-holding firms, and author of a $625 cookbook -- a new credit: terrorism expert.

Myhrvold, a famous autodidact, recently published a 33-page paper that he rousingly calls, "Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action." The core of his argument is easy enough to understand, and probably true: The United States is more focused on stopping a guy who blows up an airplane and kills 300 people than on a guy who intentionally spreads smallpox and kills 300,000.

"In my estimation, the U.S. government, although well-meaning, is unable to protect us from the greatest threats we face," Myhrvold writes. "[M]odern technology can provide small groups of people with much greater lethality than ever before. We now have to worry that private parties might gain access to weapons that are as destructive as -- or possibly even more destructive than -- those held by any nation-state."

Myhrvold to Washington: National security … you're doin' it wrong.

The paper is accessible to a layman, which is what Myhrvold was when he started thinking about the strategic aspects of terrorism not long after the 9/11 attacks. He wrote the piece in his spare time -- apparently he does have some -- and it was mostly finished in 2006. Myhrvold had no intention of publishing it until recently, when he met Benjamin Wittes, the editor of the influential national security and legal site Lawfare. Wittes thought that parts of the paper accurately described the threat posed by small actors with big weapons, and he decided that Myhrvold's analysis deserved a wider audience. Lawfare published the paper in July.

Since then, the document has made the rounds. It has been discussed in military and intelligence circles. Law professors are reading it and talking about it at symposia. Members of Congress and their staffs have reviewed Myhrvold's findings. Chances are that if you ask a national security expert, he either has read the paper or will tell you he plans to right away. As these kinds of things go in wonkland, Myhrvold's paper has buzz.

And last week, Myhrvold started making the rounds too. He was in Washington meeting with senior officials in the intelligence agencies and committee members and staff on Capitol Hill. He was hesitant to tell Foreign Policy, when we sat down for a chat, precisely whom he has been talking to. But he was clear that it was a large number. And they weren't all meetings that Myhrvold had set up. A lot of people in government were calling him, asking if he'd stop by to talk about the paper and how he thinks the United States could improve its security policy.

This is all profoundly strange. Not strange that Myhrvold -- who is probably best known for talking about pistachio ice cream on The Colbert Report and for an unflattering profile of his company that aired on This American Life -- would be chatting up spooks and congressional committee chiefs about his views. Washington is full of rich and important guys pushing their passion projects, and Myhrvold is a very rich and important guy.

What's strange is that so many in the national security establishment are apparently surprised, even unnerved, by Myhrvold's findings. As Myhrvold will be the first to tell you, the paper contains few new insights or warnings about how terrorists could use a biological weapon to kill millions of people. And it's central "call to action," for the United States to shore up its woefully weak defenses against such an attack, have echoed around Washington in the 12 years since the 9/11 attacks. A lot of people with more official expertise on terrorism have already written these warnings. They show up repeatedly in the 9/11 Commission report. There are books on the subject. The Homeland Security Department was established in part to defend against this stuff.

The enthusiastic reception that Myhrvold is getting in Washington is a measure of how much this town seems to have forgotten about potentially catastrophic terrorism -- and specifically about what security experts call "low-probability, high-impact" events like turning a virus into a weapon or detonating a small nuclear bomb.

"Big things actually matter a ridiculous amount, even if they're not probable," Myhrvold told Foreign Policy. He points out that a bioterrorist attack is at least as likely as, and probably more likely than, a nuclear weapons strike was by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States devoted enormous resources and manpower to managing that threat -- and it still does -- and there is nothing comparable to preventing bioterrorism.

Myhrvold says that not everyone he talks to is surprised by what he wrote. (And it should be said that the paper is well written, concise, and thoughtful, which helps explain why it's catching on.) But when he does find out that an agency or department has a resident expert on bioterrorism or portable nukes, that expert is not working in the front office. He's not part of the strategic discussion. Myhrvold's broad complaint is that there's no one person in charge of thinking about those unlikely but potentially awful doomsday scenarios.

It's perhaps discouraging but not that surprising that it takes a relatively famous outsider to focus the mind on what countless white papers and task force reports have been saying for more than a decade. Call it the Myhrvold effect. But now that the entrepreneur has people's attention, what does he intend to do with it?

That's not so clear. Myhrvold said he has no intention to profit from his new influence. He's not starting a consulting company. He's not selling anti-terrorism devices. He says he wants to keep the conversation going. But he seemed genuinely surprised it has languished in recent years.

He's not especially optimistic that much will change.

"[W]e will most likely continue to lumber along on our current path, addressing some issues and ignoring others," he writes in his paper. "Then the terrorists will launch the next attack. With luck, we will detect it in time to prevent a major disaster, but a more likely scenario is that a strategic-terror attack in the next decade or so will kill between 100,000 and one million Americans. Then we will surely get serious about strategic terrorism. Or we could start now."

This has been the thrust of the conversations that Myhrvold has been having with Washington heavies and policy leaders. Now, if they invite him to come back, we'll really know they're starting to take him seriously.

Photo courtesy Intellectual Ventures


Bad Manners

The seven-decade-old slight that still poisons U.S.-China relations.

Last Monday, U.S. and Chinese naval ships met in a joint exercise at that most historically freighted of marine destinations, Pearl Harbor. In the first such visit to U.S. waters since 2006, three Chinese ships took part in a simulated search-and-rescue mission alongside American warships. The stated aim of the exercise was to foster better understanding between the two militaries, a welcome gesture when military and diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing sometimes seems to move from antagonism to warmth and back again with alarming speed. It was only on Aug. 29 that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that he was concerned about Chinese military actions in the South China Sea, which "increase the risk of confrontation, undermine regional stability and dim the prospects for diplomacy."

The uneven relationship between the U.S. and Chinese militaries is no surprise in an era when China's influence is rising. However, there is an increasing disparity in the way that the two sides view each other's actions. American interests are more and more tied to an unstated "containment" of China's presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the Pearl Harbor exercise has a historical aptness for a different reason: In China, there is a growing sense that American actions are tied to an unjust regional settlement that dates from the end of World War II.

After a significant Chinese contribution to the Allied victory in Asia, many in China argue, the United States has failed to recognize an unpaid debt. And just as America sought to contain China taking its rightful place in the world in the 1940s, so it seeks to do so again. At the start of the joint exercise, Rear Adm. Rick Williams, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, declared to his Chinese visitors, "We are linked with you together in history, and we will be linked together in the future." For China, which is rediscovering its historical relationship with the United States, Williams's statement rings true, but in ways that may not be comfortable for America ears.

For years, it has been well-known that Chinese and American military priorities clashed in wartime China. The conflict was crystallized in the confrontation between China's leader Chiang Kai-shek and the American chief of staff sent to China after Pearl Harbor, Gen. Joseph Stilwell, whose brusque manner led to his nickname "Vinegar Joe." Stilwell's diaries showed his contempt for Chiang, whom he nicknamed "the Peanut." Disgusted by the corruption endemic in the wartime capital of Chongqing and the poor state of the Chinese armies, Stilwell launched himself on a collision course with Chiang. Eventually, in 1944, the Chinese leader demanded that Roosevelt recall Stilwell. This moment signaled a fundamental breakdown between the Americans and the Chinese. The view of Chiang as a corrupt and incompetent fool became widespread in a postwar America: Chiang's nickname had become "Cash-my-Check."

Yet in recent years, this version of events has been subject to serious historical revisionism in China and the West. There has been a wider recognition that China went to war with Japan in hugely difficult circumstances and with little foreign support. The early 20th century saw a growing confrontation between rising nationalism in China and an ever-more aggressive Japanese imperialism, with the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 the clear signal that Tokyo had aggressive designs on China. On July 7, 1937, fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, and within weeks, China and Japan were locked in full-scale conflict. Over the next eight years, some 14 million Chinese would be killed, some 80 to 100 million would become refugees, and the flawed but real modernization of roads, railways, and industry that had been under way in the 1920s and 1930s would be utterly destroyed.

Today, many Westerners know little or nothing about China's role in the war. Yet China was fighting Japan two years before Britain and France went to war with Germany, and four years before Pearl Harbor. By holding down more than half a million Japanese troops, China made a significant contribution to the overall Allied strategy. By early 1941, the Nationalists and their uneasy Communist allies were the only major forces opposing the Japanese in East Asia. If they had surrendered then -- or even earlier, in 1938 -- China would have become a Japanese colony, and Tokyo could have moved much earlier against Southeast Asia or even British India, making Allied victory in the Pacific far more difficult.

However, it was the event that Chiang needed to ensure China's survival -- the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor -- that also helped to undermine his regime. There was a fundamental clash between the overall Allied aims, which necessarily prioritized the wars in Europe and the Pacific, and Chiang's aims, which were to preserve China's integrity in the face of Japanese invasion. It was hardly unknown that the Allies had rather different intentions: after all, Winston Churchill sought the preservation of the British Empire when Franklin Delano Roosevelt intended to use the war to dissolve it. But American pressure both in Washington and on the ground meant that China's own war aims were repeatedly and summarily dismissed. The situation was worsened by the repeated attempts by Stilwell to implement strategies at odds with those of Chiang, who was cautious having been forced to fight essentially alone for over four years.

For instance, Stilwell pressured Chiang into taking part in an ill-advised dash to recapture Burma from the Japanese in February 1942. Horrified at the cavalier treatment of his troops under Stilwell's command, Chiang wrote in May 1942 that "the alliance is just empty words." At the Cairo Conference in 1943, Roosevelt made Chiang vague promises of assistance, which were promptly reversed under pressure from Joseph Stalin. In 1944, Chinese troops were pressured into assisting Western troops in the recapture of Burma, even though central China was coming under massive pressure from Japan's Operation Ichigô, to which the Japanese had committed some half a million troops.

In the war years, Chiang's decisions were changeable and often ill-thought-out (as were many other Allied decisions at times). However, he was also the victim of a difficult reality. The Western Allies needed China to remain in the war. But because China was last in the queue for Allied assistance, it was repeatedly asked to bear burdens that would have been hard even for a much better-resourced country, rather than allowances being made for being an impoverished, isolated country that had already resisted Japan on its own for over four years before Pearl Harbor. The price the Nationalists made their people pay to maintain the war effort was the increasing corruption and repressiveness of the regime. Yet the profound effects of the war on China itself, and the increasingly poisonous alliance with the United States and Britain, have not been fully appreciated as a product of the terrible pressures placed on the wartime Chinese regime both by its enemies and by its allies. On Feb. 28, 1943, in a moment of supreme frustration, Chiang wrote of the three other Allies: "It's as if China has met a hooligan, a bully and a kidnapper." Even Clarence Gauss, the U.S. ambassador to wartime China, and no friend of Chiang's, noted in a message to Washington in June 1944 that critics might upbraid the United States because "we have not supplied the Chinese with arms" and "that the excursion into northern Burma was a mistake."

For decades, historical accounts of World War II in the West routinely downplayed the contribution of Chiang and the Nationalists. In the Chinese mainland too, after Mao's victory in 1949, the only politically acceptable historical viewpoint was that the Communist Party had taken the leading role in winning the war against Japan. In recent years, however, the situation has changed radically. Chinese scholars have been given leeway to examine the war with more nuance (in part because politicians thought that being more favorable toward Chiang Kai-shek's memory might aid reunification with Taiwan), and it is now quite common to see praise for Chiang's contribution to the war effort in the mainland.

Yet this more sympathetic attitude within China toward the old Nationalist enemy has had an unexpected effect: the creation of a new sense of resentment about America's record as China's wartime partner. Chinese analysts have begun to link the treatment of Nationalist China with contemporary American attitudes in international society. One Chinese historian described the promotion of China to the U.N. Security Council at the end of the war as a way of creating a U.S. "vassal" state (as it happened, a position shared by Churchill). Agreeing with him, another declared that America had defined its foreign policy simply to "maintain its own national interests."

The narrative being created in China now is based on a particular reading of history in which America has consistently sought to damp down Chinese aspirations. A new version of history in the West, in which China is acknowledged as America's "forgotten ally" during World War II, could be one element in changing the political temperature. By acknowledging that time past -- but not long past -- when China and the United States really were allies in the battle against fascism, a historical injustice might be remedied: the conclusion of the unfinished business of 1945 in which China's contribution to the defeat of Japan is finally given its due. And if such a historical revision helped to create atmosphere of greater goodwill, there might be more space for a measured discussion of how Chinese influence can be used to best effect in a region which the US has no intention of leaving. Pearl Harbor might not be a bad place for that dialogue to begin.

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