Cyberwar for Me but Not for Thee

In my last column, I wrote about how the U.S. has pivoted to Asia (the administration prefers the term “rebalanced”) because of the concern of a rising China. In addition to China’s growing military capabilities [.pdf] — such as modernizing its nuclear forces (including a development of a road mobile intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles), developing an aircraft carrier, and testing a next-generation stealth fighter aircraft — China’s cyber capabilities are also a serious concern. According to Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011 [.pdf]:

In 2010, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, were the target of intrusions, some of which appear to have originated within the PRC. …

Cyberwarfare capabilities could serve PRC military operations in three key areas. First and foremost, they allow data collection through exfiltration. Second, they can be employed to constrain an adversary’s actions or slow response time by targeting network-based logistics, communications, and commercial activities. Third, they can serve as a force multiplier when coupled with kinetic attacks during times of crisis or conflict.

Developing capabilities for cyberwarfare is consistent with authoritative PLA military writings. Two military doctrinal writings, Science of Strategy, and Science of Campaigns identify information warfare (IW) as integral to achieving information superiority and an effective means for countering a stronger foe.

More recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had this to say on ABC’s This Week with Jake Tapper. 

Tapper: The Pentagon has acknowledged recently China is the biggest source of cyber attacks against this country, including stealing our military secrets. Newt Gingrich spoke about this threat on the campaign trail often. He said cyber attacks, cyber spying, are quote, “acts of war.” Do you agree? Are they acts of war, and how would the United States respond?

Panetta: Well, there’s no question that if a cyber attack, you know, crippled our power grid in this country, took down our financial systems, took down our government systems, that that would constitute an act of war. [Emphasis added.]

Just a few days after Panetta’s appearance on This Week a New York Times article by David Sanger provided details about U.S. cyberattacks: 

From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program.

Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet. Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name: Stuxnet

So let’s review. According to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a cyberattack by a foreign power would be considered an act of war. Yet, according to David Sanger, “the United States has repeatedly used cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure.” (Panetta was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency when the Stuxnet worm was developed and used.)

It’s hard to know where to begin unraveling the hypocrisy of U.S. policy. The United States has decided to shift its strategic focus to Asia because it’s worried about China. At least part of that worry stems from China’s cyber capabilities, and we would deem a cyber attack from China an act of war. Yet the United States has been engaged in cyber attacks against Iran, but somehow these should not be construed as acts of war.

Really? You cannot be serious.

Then there’s the reason the U.S. developed and used the Stuxnet worm in the first place: to slow down or close down Iran’s nuclear program. That doesn’t mean that a nuclear Iran would be a good thing or that, all things being equal, Iran should have a nuclear weapon. But all things aren’t equal. To begin, both the U.S. and Israel (which helped develop Stuxnet) both have nuclear weapons. So, from Iran’s perspective, nuclear weapons might be seen as a counterweight to Israel and a way to stave off potential U.S.-imposed regime change. What do Iraq and Afghanistan (Iran’s neighbors on its flanks) have in common? Both were the benefactors of regime change via U.S. military force and neither had nuclear weapons. North Korea, however, is a nuclear power, and regime change there has been Kim Jong-Un succeeding his father, Kim Jong-Il, when he died from a heart attack in December 2011. So Stuxnet or not, the reality is that Iran is more likely than not to continue its quest for nukes.

And — as undesirable as it would be — we could live with a nuclear-armed Iran. North Korea has nukes, and the world as we know it has not come to an end. Unless the mullahs in Tehran are suicidal — and there’s no apparent reason to believe they are — Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon than North Korea. Even if you believe Iran is bent on destroying Israel, you also have to believe that the regime would be willing to pay the price of total self-destruction to achieve that end. The regime in Tehran may be hard-line and fundamentalist, but so were Stalin and Mao — yet we successfully deterred them both.

Moreover, engaging in actions such as Stuxnet — which we would consider an act of war if we were on the receiving end — could ultimately spark a real war. That could actually be worse than a nuclear-armed Iran.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.