Why the U.N. vote on Libya means almost as much for Obama as for Qaddafi

Late Thursday the U.N. Security Council voted on how the world would ultimately view Barack Obama.  Yes, the vote came in the guise of a decision about whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. But every aspect of the decision from the process leading up to the vote to the eventual effectiveness of the actions it triggers will weigh heavily on how the American president is ultimately viewed.

This is not because Libya is such a vital issue.  It's significant to be sure and certainly the plight of the rebels combating Muammar Qaddafi warranted strong action.  But the Libya vote may someday be seen as especially important to perceptions of Obama and his effectiveness as an international leader because it is so emblematic of how he would like to handle world affairs.  This was Obama the multilateralist, willing to trade fast, decisive action for the support and legitimacy of working within the U.N. system.  This was Obama the president of a nation fighting too many wars and with limited means seeking to let others lead, take risks and share in the burdens of keeping the world safe.  This was Obama, the un-Bush, out from under the complications of inherited wars that frankly have made him sometimes look like W 2.0, showing in effect, how he personally would like to handle the use of force going forward.

If the intervention is seen as timely, the rebels are effectively supported and Qaddafi's gains of the past few days are reversed, it will be hailed as successfully demonstrating that there is an alternative to unilateralism and that there may be an alternative to America playing the role the Council on Foreign Relations' Richard Haass described as being that of "the reluctant sheriff."  If it works, the fact that the U.S. and its allies managed to turn five likely "no" votes into abstentions thus clearing the way for action will be seen as masterful diplomacy and a feather in the cap of Hillary Clinton who faced down considerable head-winds not just overseas but within in the Administration to make it happen.  

However, if the action is seen as too little too late and Qaddafi is able to consolidate his victories and remain in power, then Obama strategy and tactics will certainly be questioned and characterized as too deferential, hesitant and a signal to brutal governments that getting tough on opponents pays off.  The American declinists will have a field day as will both international bad guys and Obama's political opponents back home.  

In either case, with America and its president less inclined to act alone and ever seeking ways to shift the job of keeping the peace globally to others, this Libya case should be viewed both in terms of what it means to the situation on the ground in that warn torn country and as a possible test-case of a new approach to world affairs, one that Barack Obama would ultimately like to be able to take credit for leading.

David Rothkopf

Where Fukushima meets Stuxnet: The growing threat of cyber war

The Japanese nuclear crisis, though still unfolding, may, in a way, already be yesterday's news. For a peek at tomorrow's, review the testimony of General Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command. Testifying before Congress this week and seeking support to pump up his agency budget, the general argued that all future conflicts would involve cyber warfare tactics and that the U.S. was ill-equipped to defend itself against them.

Alexander said, "We are finding that we do not have the capacity to do everything we need to accomplish. To put it bluntly, we are very thin, and a crisis would quickly stress our cyber forces. ... This is not a hypothetical danger."

The way to look at this story is to link in your mind the Stuxnet revelations about the reportedly U.S. and Israeli-led cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and the calamities at the Fukushima power facilities over the past week. While seemingly unconnected, the stories together speak to the before and after of what cyber conflict may look like. Enemies will be able to target one another's critical infrastructure as was done by the U.S. and Israeli team (likely working with British and German assistance) targeting the Iranian program and burrowing into their operating systems, they will seek to produce malfunctions that bring economies to their knees, put societies in the dark, or undercut national defenses.

Those infrastructures might well be nuclear power systems and the results could be akin to what we are seeing in Japan. (Although one power company executive yesterday joked to me that many plants in the U.S. would be safe because the technology they use is so old that software hardly plays any role in it at all. This hints at a bit of a blessing and a curse in the fractured U.S. power system: it's decentralized which makes it hard to target overall but security is left to many power companies that lack the sophistication or resources to anticipate, prepare for or manage the growing threats.)

Importantly, not only does the apparent success of the Stuxnet worm demonstrate that such approaches are now in play but it may just be the tip of the iceberg. I remember over a decade ago speaking to one of the top U.S. cyber defenders who noted that even during the late 90s banks were losing millions and millions every year to cyber theft -- only they didn't want to report it because they felt it would spook customers. (Yes.) Recently, we have seen significant market glitches worldwide that could easily have been caused by interventions rather than just malfunctions. A couple years back I participated in a scenario at Davos in which just such a manipulation of market data was simulated and the conclusion was it wouldn't take much to undermine confidence in the markets and perhaps even force traders to move to paper trading or other venues until it was restored. It wouldn't even have to be a real cyber intrusion -- just the perception that one might have happened.

What makes the nuclear threat so unsettling to many is that it is invisible. It shares this with the cyber threat. But the cyber attacks have other dimensions that suggest that General Alexander is not just trying to beef up his agency's bank accounts with his description of how future warfare will always involve a cyber component. Not only are they invisible but it is hard to detect who has launched them, so hard, in fact, that one can imagine future tense international relationships in which opposing sides were constantly, quietly, engaging in an undeclared but damaging "non-war," something cooler than a Cold War because it is stripped of rhetoric and cloaked in deniability, but which might be much more damaging. While there is still ongoing debate about the exact definition of cyber warfare there is a growing consensus that the threats posed by both state-sponsored and non-state actors to power grids, telecom systems, water supplies, transport systems and computer networks are reaching critical levels.

This is the deeply unsettling situation effectively framed by General Alexander in his testimony and rather than having been obscured by this week's news it should only have been amplified by it.