Vahid Salemi, Associated Press
In this picture taken on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011, Iranian journalism students use computers in an internet cafe in central Tehran, Iran. Iran calls it the "soft war" with the West: Battles to control, defend and monitor the web and telecommunications. The latest move came from the Revolutionary Guard, launching what they claim is a hack-proof phone network for high-level commanders. Tehran's efforts to build a cyber-fortress have become a priority among leaders fearful of Internet espionage and virus attacks from abroad and seeking to choke off opposition voices at home.
Wars of the future will be very different from wars of the past. Everyone gets that. What many do not grasp: The present war also is very different from past wars.
Among the ways: Those defending the West try hard to abide by the laws of war. Those attacking the West say clearly they will not be bound by any "infidel" rules. They are committed to what they call a "Koranic concept of war."
That provides them an advantage. The West's advantages include sophisticated and continually advancing technologies. We can now track and kill enemy combatants without boots on the ground or pilots in the skies. Meanwhile, the "age of cyberwar" is "upon us," as former foreign correspondent and Pentagon official David Jackson recently wrote. These historic changes are causing confusion, not least among those tasked with understanding them.
For example, last week, I found myself on an al-Jazeera television show defending President Barack Obama's use of drones to eliminate al-Qaida commanders. Both Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and a man of the left, and host Shihab Rattansi, said using such weapons in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia violates international law and fundamental morality. They presented no evidence: They simply asserted that those killed — most recently Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaida's No. 2 — are entitled to more "due process" than a Hellfire missile delivers.
Meanwhile, NPR's "Diane Rehm Show last week featured Matt Frei, a Washington correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News. He said most Europeans find it "quite appalling actually" that Obama maintains a "kill list." He did not say what policy most Europeans would prefer when it comes to such terrorists as al-Libi. Perhaps sending petitions and strongly worded letters instead?
Cyber warfare was discussed, too. Indira Lakshmanan, a generally sensible Bloomberg reporter, argued that if Americans use cyber weapons, "let's not think that the Iranians themselves won't learn from what we've done to them and couldn't release similar bugs on us with potentially devastating consequences. So that's something we really need to think about." Let's start by considering whether Iran's rulers, the world's leading sponsors of terrorism, plausibly would conclude that it's not quite cricket to use such weapons — if only Americans would refrain from using them first.
Lakshmanan's thinking was befuddled on another score: "If we're sitting at the table with (Iranians) in Moscow next week, how are they going to believe that we're actually trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with them if at the same time we're admitting openly that we're engaged in outright cyber warfare with them?"
Maybe because that cyber warfare is aimed at preventing Iran's rulers — who openly proclaim it their sacred duty to rid the world of such "evils" as Israel and America — from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. And maybe because what we're offering, in exchange for a halt to their nuclear weapons program, is an end to such cyber warfare, as well as the lifting of economic sanctions, a form of economic warfare. What other deal (a) has not been offered and (b) could have the slightest chance of appealing to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?
The New York Times' David Sanger, a skilled reporter, chimed in with this dubious analysis: "If a drone is very good at taking out a living room full of terrorists, if a cyber weapon is very good at taking out an underground centrifuge site, over the long term, do you really solve the problem or do you raise such resentments that you drive the Pakistanis to end up supporting al-Qaida more, that you drive the Iranians further underground with their nuclear program?"
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Resentments also arise whenever we speak out against the hangings of homosexuals in Iran, the mass murder of black Muslims in Sudan, and the burning of Christian churches in Egypt; also, whenever we "insult Islam" with a novel or cartoon, or applaud "satanic" performers like Lady Gaga. If we'd repeal the First Amendment and stop defending ourselves, would we then be loved?
There was a time during World War II when Winston Churchill believed the West was close to defeat. For free peoples to prevail against determined despots, he said, would require that they regain their "moral health and martial vigor." In that sense, perhaps the war of the present is not so different from wars of the past.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.