HIRO MIYAZAKI: Welcome to the Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series. I am Hiro Miyazaki, director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and also professor of anthropology. Since 2006, the Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series has welcomed over 40 distinguished leaders, scholars, and thinkers of international politics. The series is part of the Einaudi Center's initiative focusing on foreign policy and effort to bring interdisciplinary international studies into conversation with global policy debates. The initiative is funded with general support from the San Giacomo Charitable Foundation, Judy Biggs, and the Bartels family.
Today it is my tremendous honor to introduce David Sanger. David Sanger is national security correspondent for the New York Times and one of the newspaper's senior writers. David has authored two bestsellers on foreign policy and national security, The Inheritance-- The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, published in 2009, and Confront and Conceal-- Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, published in 2012. David served as a New York Times Tokyo bureau chief, Washington economic correspondent, White House correspondent during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and chief Washington correspondent.
In his 32-year career, David has twice been a member of the New York Times teams that won the Pulitzer Prize, first of all the investigation into the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and later for investigations into the struggles within the Clinton administration over controlling technology exports to China. He has also won the Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting for his coverage of the Iraq and North Korea crises, the Aldo Beckman Prize for coverage of the presidency, and, in two separate years, the Merriman Smith Memorial Award for coverage of national security issues. Nuclear Jihad, the documentary that Mr. Sanger reported for Discovery/Times Television, won the DuPont Award for its explanation of the working of the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network.
As many of you know, David's work on nuclear proliferation issues and on cyberwarfare has been enormously influential. As a student of Japan, however, I also would like to note that David's work on Japan has long been deeply appreciated by many scholars and observers of Japan. While he was a Times Tokyo bureau chief, he wrote on a broad range of topics, from the US-Japan trade war to Japanese baseball.
More recently, David was also part of a New York Times team selected as a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for International Reporting for its reporting of the earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011. I was in Tokyo at that time, and I personally benefited from the team's careful and courageous reporting when local media was simply reproducing misleading information provided by the Japanese government.
A 1982 graduate of Harvard College, Mr. Sanger was the first senior fellow for National Security and the Press at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He's also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and Aspen Strategy Group. The title of his lecture today is "What Happened to the 'Light Footprint' Strategy? President Obama and the Interventions Around the World." Please join me in welcoming David Sanger.
DAVID SANGER: Well, Miyazaki-sensei, thank you very much. It's great to be back at Cornell. I think I was last here in October of 2008. I was giving the Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture across campus.
But when I think back at this, the timing was sort of an interesting bookmark for today. Barack Obama was running for president. The election was just weeks away when I came to the campus, but it was pretty clear by then that he was going to win and probably win big.
We all had a sense of foreboding about the economy. Lehman Brothers had just gone down. We knew this was a moment of huge economic peril. There were all kinds of predictions of both economic calamity and a sort of "this too shall pass." Both turned out to be not quite right.
More importantly for what we're discussing today, we were really stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan at that time, and while casualties were down from the high, there were still hundreds of Americans dying each year in both theaters. And the Bush administration, which I had been covering as the White House correspondent and then as chief Washington correspondent, was clearly out of gas by that time, exhausted by two wars, unpopular because the wars had dragged on, distrusted because of the false pretenses under which the Iraq invasion was justified. And they were leaving President Obama with a huge array of problems around the world, some of which bear some resemblance to what he's facing today and some of which we couldn't have imagined at that time. I wrote a book that had been finished by the time I came here to Cornell but was just going to be published just as President Obama was coming in. It was called The Inheritance, and when you go back and look at it today, that inheritance, apart from Iraq, was pretty daunting.
So a little bit has happened in the interim, most of it good, some of it bad, all of it chaotic-- some of it unpredictable, most of it unpredicted, which is different than unpredictable. And so perhaps before we plunge into the horrors of the current day, including Syria and the tragedy playing out there, I think it's worth thinking for just a moment about the first category, what's gone right, before we get to the main subject of the discussion, which is what strategies are working and which ones are not.
So what's gone right? We do have some good news. There are no big global wars underway today of the kind that we faced twice in the last century, wars that have killed tens of millions of people. In fact, if you take the world outside of the Middle East and parts of North Africa, the globe is largely more peaceful and stable today than it has been in many, many decades. For all of the other worries that it triggers, China has actually run of the most successful anti-poverty program in the history of humankind, and it has come as China's rise has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into a new Chinese middle class.
And so while you wouldn't know it to listen to the presidential campaign-- and you'll have another opportunity tonight with the next debate-- economically, we're in a far stronger position than I think most people thought possible six years ago when President Obama was first coming in. Unemployment the other day finally reached down to 5%, the place the Obama administration thought it would be in year two of the administration. It actually happened somewhere between six and seven. 13 million more Americans are now insured under what we've come to know as Obamacare than were before that was passed.
That isn't to say we don't have a big number of problems. Income inequality is one of them. Bernie Sanders is right about that. And for Hillary Clinton, leap on that bandwagon. There are problems with a permanent class of the unemployed and underemployed. Ferguson last year and tragedies like its since have exposed the fact that electing the first black president is very different than erasing the inbred biases of a society.
But if you believe that national strength begins at home-- and I certainly am a believer in that-- we're looking a lot stronger than we were six or seven years ago. More importantly, comparatively we are doing pretty well. I'd take our chances here over Europe's in the next decade. I'd take our long-term demographic, energy, and environmental problems any day over China's. I'd take our life expectancy, our innovation, our economic and demographic diversity over Russia's. I think when historians look back at this moment in history, I'm betting that they're going to say that it was a period of low growth, but comparatively it was a pretty good time for America and a good time to be in America.
That said, we're looking at facing a world whose pace of change is pretty mind-boggling. So again, let me take you back to 2008, the very end of the Bush years, when I was last here. If the subject of the Cold War came up during that visit, you were probably thinking about some very good Cornell courses on the history of the Cold War, maybe books by one of your most famous professors, Walter LaFeber, whose America, Russia and the Cold War, which I read as a student, I saw recently is in its 10th edition, and I have a funny feeling that Vladimir Putin is going to make sure that there's an 11th, 12th and 13th.
Seven years ago, it seemed to us that mindless competition with Russia, with soft invasions of neighboring states and submarine runs off the coast of England and bombers running off of Europe-- that must be all from the old movies. In fact, you knew things were changing when James Bond needed a new set of villains for his movies, and they weren't Russian. Putin has solved that problem as well.
China at the time seemed so immersed in its own problems, in keeping economic growth going, that as late as the end of President Obama's first term in 2012, I remember talking to his top aides, who believed that the Chinese would go along with the writings of one of their most senior advisers, who had just published what seemed to be a very influential essay urging China to bide its time, not challenge the West, not challenge the United States in particular, not get into disputes over territory or over cyber but instead to focus on the domestic economy and create jobs. That was just three years ago. Xi Jinping has come in, immediately dispensed with that advice, and we are where we are in the South China Sea and in cyberspace.
The European Union, when President Obama came in in 2008, seemed so on the rise that an old friend of mine, Tom Reed, once of the Washington Post-- also served in Japan at the time that I was there-- had just published a book with the wonderful title The United States of Europe, and it posited greater and greater European unity behind a single currency. Alas, Tom didn't count on Greece operating its economy the way it did, a country that got into the monetary union but never read the rule book about that monetary union.
And while it no longer looks like Portugal, Italy, and Spain are going to go follow the same path that the Greeks did, I don't think we're going to see a powerful, growing Europe for some time. It was consumed by currency crisis just six or eight months ago. It's consumed by a migrant crisis today. There's a lot to be admired about how the Europeans have handled recent times, particularly how the Germans have handled the migrant issue and have allowed in so many displaced Syrians. But to those who were suggesting a decade ago that the United States might as well just move over and allow a united Europe to begin to take the place or at least practice equally the art of being a global superpower, I think we can wait on that one a little bit longer.
And the Middle East, of course, was roiling back then. It was a mess. It's usually a mess. We did our part, of course, in 2003 to make it even messier, but at least we knew one thing as President Obama came in, which is that the national boundaries that the British grew sometimes over cocktail napkins 100 years ago, defining Syria and Iraq, Kuwait, many of the other states-- at least we knew that those boundaries weren't going to move anytime soon.
Then we've discovered in more recent times that those boundaries were not only drawn over cocktail napkins. They were frequently drawn over cocktails-- and that the boundaries simply don't fit the kind of ethnic and religious divisions that we've seen. And I think the chances are that we're going to see a good number of those wiped away in the next few years.
We missed a few other things. We didn't see the Arab Spring coming. We didn't bet that Bashar Assad, a man the Bush administration thought it might be able to work with and peel away from the Iranians, would decide that it was better to kill a quarter million people of his own population than to leave office. And I'm not sure that we can see in the next few years what's going to force him to get out and get out of the way. So in short, the world that we looked at just in 2008 when I was last here bears only partial resemblance to the world we see today. It's a reminder of the warning of my favorite political scientist, Yogi Berra, that predictions are dangerous, especially about the future.
I reminded a friend of mine at the CIA not long ago of that very quote because we were talking about the briefing that President Obama got in the early days of the Arab Spring, when Tunisia was aflame but nothing had spread. And the president asked his morning briefer at the presidential morning brief, so what are the chances that this revolution underway in Tunisia is going to spread across the border to Egypt? This was Christmastime 2010. And the briefer said to him-- I swear this is true. It's in Confront and Conceal, book I published a few years ago. The briefer said to him, well, sir, we assess that it's less than a 20% chance it will spread across to Egypt. Three weeks later, it did exactly that. So it gives you a little bit of a sense of how the pace of change has undercut our predictive abilities.
At the same time, we find ourselves facing an array of seemingly familiar threats from the past 15 years. Violent jihadism has grown only more violent. We have super-empowered terrorists who fortunately have not figured out how to get their hands on a nuclear weapon, but we fear one day they may. We have a cyber-technology that has now resulted in more state-sponsored attacks-- and I'll come back to this at the end of the talk-- than we thought possible in 2010 when we, of course, were launching the biggest state-sponsored attack.
We're all war-weary, so we don't want to do that longtime American thing and solve any of these problems by basing tens of thousands of people overseas. We've just brought 180,000 troops back home in recent years, and if I'm hearing things right on the campaign trail, even the most hawkish of the Republican candidates and the most hawkish of the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton, have no interest in talking about sending them back again. It's actually a remarkable moment that "no boots on the ground" is the only bipartisan call that you hear.
Yet we know in our hearts that every past American effort to lock the doors, cover our eyes, build walls along one border or another, stop immigration, basically declare "Not my problem"-- every one of those efforts has usually failed. We can ignore the world, but unfortunately we haven't figured out a way for the world to ignore us. We're Americans, and we know that means we don't need to go out and find problems. The problems will find us.
And so all of this raises the question-- do we have a strategy to keep the world under control, to confront this chaos, without living in the fantasy that we had a decade ago that we could send in troops, change societies, some core of Jeffersonian Democrats would emerge from countries that never had them before-- and that somehow we would then be able to retreat, and those countries would be on the glide path to democracy and prosperity? Is there a single strategy that can make that happen?
Well, the Bush administration certainly didn't find it. In the Obama administration, there was a policy to contain this chaos, if not change it. And in the first term, it had a name. It was called the "light footprint" strategy, and the name really said it all. "Dumb wars of occupation"-- that was President Obama's phrase, "dumb wars"-- we're out. The key was not to go park your troops into a country for eight or nine years and then discover to your amazement that their very being there has triggered enormous resentments among the local population.
And the White House thought it's all what the future looked like, three big elements of the light footprint-- drone strikes, cyberattacks, and the use of special forces. These were the new sort of quick and dirty expressions of American power and of covert power, and frankly when you talk to Pentagon planners these days, they think they are the future of American power. Not tanks, not bombers, not carrier groups-- except, perhaps, in the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea-- but rather these sort of quick in and quick out, "no boots on the ground" technologies. Those were the elements of the light footprint, new technologies that allowed us to extend our power without getting deeply involved on the ground, without trying to convert societies.
The light footprint gave up one element of the American ambition for the past decade-- you would not use a drone to convince people to go farm a crop or take it to market. You would not use one to train them how to run an economy, build a central bank, irrigate a field. Instead, these light footprint technologies were defined as defensive technologies. They were there to keep the chaos of the rest of the world from spilling over into us.
So what did this policy come from? Well, in part-- to give full credit, they came in part from George W. Bush, and they came in part from Barack Obama's determination not to repeat George W. Bush's biggest mistakes. There was a moment just a few weeks after I was last at Cornell when that great American tradition took place-- early 2009-- where the President-elect, a week away from taking office, goes over the White House and sits down one-on-one with the sitting president to have a conversation without any witnesses about things that the outgoing president thinks the incoming president really ought to know.
And when that moment came for George Bush and Barack Obama, President Bush told his successor that despite whatever had been said on the campaign trail, where, as we know and have been reminded in recent weeks, an extremely complicated world gets boiled down to some extremely simplistic solutions-- and instead, President Bush said there were a few programs that President Obama might want to think about retaining. Special forces was the obvious one. They had become President Bush's favorite unit of the military for their speed, their stealthiness, their effectiveness. And in time, they became President Obama's.
The second one was drones. Just to get a sense from all of you, how many drone strikes do you think that President Bush authorized in Pakistan, where almost all of them happened during the entirety of his presidency? Any guesses? Shout out a number if you think you know one.
SPEAKER 1: 200.
DAVID SANGER: 200 over here. Any--
SPEAKER 2: Less than 1,000.
DAVID SANGER: Less than 1,000.
SPEAKER 3: 40.
DAVID SANGER: Somebody said 40? Did I hear 40? 40. Yup. 40 to the man up in the corner.
40 is the closest one to right. It was 48. 48 drone strikes in Pakistan in the entire time of the Bush presidency. Now, there probably would have been more had there been more drones available during the early years of the Bush presidency, but there weren't.
Now, first four years of the Obama presidency, just the first term-- any guesses?
SPEAKER 4: 400.
DAVID SANGER: 400? You want to try for a double here?
SPEAKER 5: 800.
DAVID SANGER: 800? Anybody else?
SPEAKER 6: 1,000.
DAVID SANGER: 1,000. Well, it was about 300. It was a sixfold increase on President Bush's total number of strikes, not a statistic that you heard during the 2012 campaign because President Obama's base didn't want to advertise that he had done sixfold increase in drone strikes from his predecessor. And the Republicans didn't find that this fit in terribly well with their narrative of a community organizer who wasn't a tough enough commander in chief. Didn't fit either party's perception of themselves or the other, so it simply wasn't discussed, but what it tells you is that this element of a light footprint President Obama really embraced.
Now you could say that drones are the least covert covert program in America, because every time there's a drone strike, you read about it in Small Wars Journal, Long War Journal, the New York Times. You see it on Pakistani TV. I mean, really, if you're going to run a covert program, please do one that doesn't get on the evening news most nights.
But there was a third thing that President Bush talked to President Obama about that day in the Oval Office, and it was the most covert covert program in the United States at that time. It was called Olympic Games, and it had nothing to do with what was coming up in London or the Winter Olympics. It was the code name for a remarkable American effort to stop Iran's nuclear program by attacking it with the first cyberweapon that was intended not to just bring down another nation's computers but bring down part of their infrastructure.
President Obama had talked about cyber during the campaign, but he had talked about protecting your bank account, your email accounts, making sure that the Chinese weren't coming in and stealing your intellectual property the way they came in and cleaned out documents from his 2008 campaign-- and for good measure they then turned around and cleaned out John McCain's, showing that the Chinese in American politics are extremely nonpartisan. They were perfectly happy to steal from both campaigns.
But he had never really focused on the question of offensive cyber until he went down into the situation room in his first weeks as president and had laid out before him something that was called the "horse blanket." It was a giant schematic of the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant showing each grouping of centrifuges, those floor-to-ceiling, big silvery devices that spin at supersonic speeds to enrich uranium. President Bush was fearful that if you did nothing about those centrifuges, there would be a nuclear-armed Iran either on his watch or shortly into his successor's watch. President Obama was certain that if you did nothing about it, it would happen on his watch and he would go down in history as the man who let Iran get the bomb.
And so while there was all the discussion in public about sanctions and all the things that you could do diplomatically to persuade the Iranians to give it up, he accelerated Olympic Games and every few weeks, down in the situation room, would approve a new set of targets as they put this remarkable new cyberweapon into effect. This program ran very well for the first two years of the Obama presidency until the summer of 2010, when somebody tweaked the code.
And you all know what happens when someone messes around with the software on your computer. Something deeply unintended takes place. In this case, the code got out all around the world. The Iranians finally realized that those centrifuges they had weren't blowing up down in the basement because they were making manufacturing errors but because someone was mucking with it, and they had a pretty good idea who it was. It took us two years of investigation to come up with a convincing case that it was, in fact, the United States and Israel operating with this most incredibly effective cyberweapon, most sophisticated cyberweapon we have ever seen.
At the time, it was very hard to find other state-sponsored cyberattacks around the world, attacks in which one government was attacking another. Today it's pretty easy. All you have to do is pick up the newspaper, and about once a week you'll find one. The Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia's Saudi Aramco, big oil producer. The North Korean attack on Sony-- we remember it for Angelina Jolie's emails, but what was really notable about the Sony attack was that it melted down 70% of Sony Pictures Entertainment's computer systems.
That is, in fact, what the light footprint is all about, and we're not the only ones who own it. It's about the ability to conduct short-of-war operations to try to set back an enemy. And in the first term, it worked pretty well against al-Qaeda, worked really well against Osama bin Laden with the special forces raid, and it worked pretty well against the Iranians. It helped drive them to the bargaining table.
But what's happened more recently? What's happened in the second term? In the second term, the light footprint has kind of run out of gas for us. We've done sanctions on the Syrians, but that didn't halt the slaughter. We've tried to use a variety of different tools against the Islamic State, but you've seen the amount of territory that they've taken over. We've tried to displace President Assad. That hasn't worked.
Why is this? Why was this approach that seemed so successful in the first term-- what happened in the second? Well, the first thing is there are some technological solutions that simply don't lend themselves to the problem in front of you. Drones are great out in the wide open northwest territories of Pakistan, where you can identify a single living room in a single house separated out from many other places and wipe out a group of terrorists. They don't work terribly in a civil war in a crowded city in Syria where you're not sure whether that missile is going to hit the rebels who you want to get or the rebels who are working with you or a family living downstairs.
Cyberattacks work really well against a sophisticated target like the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, full of electronics. Don't help you much in a conflict like Syria, a country they can barely build a light bulb, and certainly can't keep the lights on. That's one of the remarkable things about cyber. It's why we're so vulnerable to attack but the North Koreans aren't. How are you going to cyberattack a country that's got about 12 IP addresses?
And even special forces were of somewhat limited value. For one thing, we weren't sure once we put them inside Syria or a place like it we could extract them. We've now, just in the past couple of weeks, seen President Obama authorize sending 50 special forces up to help the Kurds, but they're not going up there to do raids in the bin Laden style. Nothing anybody will ever make a movie about. They're up there to train, help teach them how to do more effective attacks against the Islamic State. It may work. It may not. Our history with training nations in the past five or six years is, as you know, not great.
And what about the theory of using these light footprint techniques to support your diplomacy to drive a country to the negotiating table the way Iran was driven to the negotiating table by the cyberattacks and the sanctions? Well, that's exactly what John Kerry is trying to do right now in the Syria case. I was with him last week or a week and a half ago in his first meeting in Vienna, where he gathered 17 countries to try to begin to come up with a common approach to a political solution in Syria.
Now, if you think about the 17 countries that were at the table together-- the Saudis and Iranians, who hate each other, us and the Russians, who don't have a great record, a lot of Gulf allies, who also can't deal with Iran and frequently can't deal with each other-- it's amazing to me that they were able to agree on the menu for lunch. But he did get a few common principles out of them, and this weekend he's going back to try to see if he can get an operational plan so that we begin to at least bomb a common enemy rather than have the Russians bombing our guys while we're bombing ISIS.
But the fact of matter is that this is typical of what we have seen in Obama's second term-- a complex problem with cross-cutting interests, way too many players, too many old grudges, too few coordinated strategies. We've had a few successes. We had a brief few days when we, the Arab League, and the Europeans all got together to really bomb Libya and force Muammar Gaddafi to be on the run. And a few months later, he came to his own demise. That was light footprint working pretty well, although you might say the bombing part was a little heavier footprint.
But then we didn't follow up. We then put anybody on the ground because we were not going to repeat the mistakes that we made in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Libya, we said, here's a society that if not rich certainly can have plenty of money because they can pump their own oil and certainly doesn't need our help in putting a government together.
Where are we three years later? We have as much chaos in Libya as we had in Iraq and Afghanistan after we pulled out. So if you're President Obama, you're looking at example A, America goes in, inserts forces, tries to change country, fails, pulls out, gets a chaotic government. Then we have Libya, example B. We only go in at the beginning. We help them topple a dictator. We put people on the path, say OK, he's out of your way. You guys go take care of it. And President Obama himself told my colleague Tom Friedman a year ago in an interview, in retrospect we should have done more to help on the ground.
Now you could ask the question, did we over-learn the lessons of the Bush years? Have we pulled back too far? It's tempting to say yes. I'm not entirely sure that's correct because frankly, President Obama's willingness to be extremely hesitant on the use of American force is pretty understandable when you think about our pretty sorry record in being able to hold and maintain territory and change the nature of societies so they will then hold and maintain that themselves. But at the same time, we have all had this overwhelming sense right now that in places like Syria, we have done way too little, that by failing to intervene we allowed a carnage of 250,000 lives to take place, that we helped create the conditions under which millions of people have fled the country.
Was it our fault? No. This was Bashar Assad's fault. Are we in the eyes of history going to be judged as doing enough to help this group of people deal with their own horrific government? I don't think so. I don't think history will treat us all that kindly for that. So what kind of lessons do we draw out of all of this? I think the first is to recognize that the temptation to overreact and over-intervene is a very real one, that in the early days of any conflict, the immediate advantage always goes to the insurgents, to the challenger. It certainly did to ISIS. Look how much territory they took over before we paid any attention.
But just as we learned in Iraq that going in and grabbing territory is a different thing than holding it and administering it, ISIS is learning that bitter lesson right now. As we choke off many of their sources of revenue, they're having a hard time holding the territory they had in mind. It's easy to go talk about a caliphate. It's a lot harder to be responsible for maintaining the cities that you take over. You can do it a while through terror, but eventually there are uprisings against you. And so while that may not be much solace now with tens of thousands of migrants on the road and with winter approaching, I think there is reason to believe that some elements of ISIS will burn themselves out, and the key to good American strategy is to speed up the process by which they burn themselves out.
The second thing to remember is that while the good news is that frequently, order of eventually reestablishes itself over chaos, sometimes order reestablishes itself in ways where we don't like the fact that we're supporting what becomes the restoration of authoritarian governments. Egypt is our great example here. There were dramatic days in the Arab Spring where Barack Obama and his staff threw Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, under the bus. Let me correct myself. Hosni Mubarak threw himself under the bus, the way he ran Egypt. We, however, ran the bus back and forth over him more than a few times.
And we were betting that the group of young people who we saw out in Tahrir Square were going to be able to form a government as well as they formed a demonstration, and boy, were we disappointed. It turns out that Twitter and Facebook are fabulous for gathering a crowd of a million people. They're not so fabulous in organizing that crowd of a million people into a working government, and the young people of Egypt have had to learn that lesson.
Hillary Clinton tells a really interesting story about going to meet the young people of Tahrir Square a few months after the drama of Mubarak being ousted. And she landed in Egypt, ad she goes in, and she's meeting a number of these young people, and she's congratulating them on what they did. And so she said, so what's next? How are you going to form political parties? How are you going to replace what Mubarak built with a working democracy?
And they looked at her and they said, that's not our job. That's not our plan. We got rid of the government. Somehow, others will come in and form a new one. She looked at them in horror, basically thinking, that's not how it works. She described this to me in some interviews I did for Confront and Conceal a few months after this happened.
And her worst fears have come true. The government in Egypt now, the Sisi government, is essentially a military replica of the Mubarak government. We are back to supplying them with the fighter jets they want, the military aid they need because we need them in the fight against ISIS and we need them to go deal with the Sinai, as we've seen in the tragedy of the airplane, the Russian airplane-- or, the Airbus airplane with Russian passengers that was probably blown up as it left the Sinai just a few days ago.
So we have to have a real debate in our country about whether or not we are willing to go back to supporting authoritarian governments in the name of creating some order or whether we're willing to live with what Libya looks like, where we have no authoritarian leader-- good news-- but we also have no operative government. That's why when we look back at the Obama years, we're going to be asking the question-- did the pendulum swing too far? Did we over-learn our lessons? Did we rely too much on the light footprint working?
And this is a problem that is going to confront the next president, whether next president is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Martian, because this is the central question of American influence as we try to intervene around the world. We know what American power can do really well. If we decide to go in and help topple a government, we can get rid of it. We could have gotten rid of Bashar Assad the day after President Obama went out into the Rose Garden in 2011 and said that Assad had to go. The problem is the past 15 years have convinced us we need a plan for the day after they go. And if that plan is simply to let the crowd take over, well, in Syria's case we would be creating a vacuum that ISIS would gladly fill.
Now, have you heard much of this discussion in the presidential debate so far? I haven't, because we get consumed with trying to show how tough one candidate or another would be. This is not a question toughness can solve. Toughness may be able to solve somebody coming in and invading or attacking the United States. Maybe, maybe not. But this is the kind of problem that requires a real debating of our true national interests and our humanitarian interests, and frequently those are in conflict.
We don't have a huge national interest in the outcome in Syria. As long as it doesn't become another base for al-Qaeda or ISIS to launch attacks on the United States, Syria is strategically not super vital to the US. Yes, we would like it not to be Iran's playground, but the fact of matter is Iran and Russia will be a lot more significant in Syria's future probably than we will be because it's more central to their interests that it is to ours. We do have a huge humanitarian interest in what happens in Syria, and we have a huge national interest in the stability of Europe, and we've discovered with the migrants that those two are closely related issues. That's the kind of debate I would be interested in covering as a reporter in this coming campaign.
So I leave you with this one last thought about future threats. I think one of the bigger successes of the Obama administration has been its ability to defuse the Iranian threat for at least the next 10 to 15 years. Assuming that the deal that was struck in Vienna this summer holds for a number of years, the Iranians will not have in their possession enough fuel to make a bomb for some time. If they cheat, they cheat. We'll deal with it then. But until then, we're in better shape than we were going into these negotiations.
What I think you are going to see is a significant increase in cyberattacks from the likes of Iran, Russia, China, or Korea because they are short-of-war attacks, to use the phrase I used before. They are ways for countries to get at the United States and its allies without going right above that threshold that's going to bring a big military response. Yeah, we might have a military response if somebody turns out all the lights from Ithaca to Florida, but likely what you're going to see in the next few years are the kind of pinprick attacks that you saw at Sony or that you saw at Saudi Aramco or that the financial markets were so vulnerable to.
This is our real soft underbelly. This is how groups can reach out and get us. Yet another 9/11 could happen, but it's hard to pull off. Yes, you could slip a bomb on an airplane and kill 200 or 300 people, and it's a great tragedy, and we'd have to stop it. But cyber gives the least connected, the least powerful, least rich nations and terror groups a weapon that they can get cheaply and, unlike nuclear weapons, they can actually use.
Do we have a strategy for this? If we do, I haven't seen it yet. And this was the big debate that President Obama was engaged in when he was approving Olympic Games. Yeah, it was very tempting to go off and blow up the centrifuges, and it worked for a while. But he knew and told his aides, look, we're the most vulnerable country on Earth, and as we legitimize this as a weapon of covert conflict if not war, others are going to begin using it as well. And they were before he even left office.
So as I said at the beginning, we have a lot to be thankful for. We're in better shape than we were in 2008 financially. We don't have any major wars underway. We've brought a lot of people back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, we've had to re-enter some into those theaters to try to keep the chaos at bay, but so far those have been fairly small interventions. We also do have a lot of big vulnerabilities coming up. Cyber is one of them.
So I thank you very much for inviting me back. I look forward to your questions. I'm going to be quiet now so that I can hear a bit from all of you. And I appreciate your having me back on your beautiful campus, so thanks very much for coming today.
If there are questions, we have a microphone for you.
SPEAKER 7: OK, you can take this microphone, and if you want to ask a question, I guess--
DAVID SANGER: Gentleman right up here, and one right here. So why don't we do one and then the other.
SPEAKER 8: OK. So this started as a foreign policy issue, but now it's probably more of a domestic policy and will get that way in the next couple months-- and that's GTMO. What do you think are Obama's chances of apparently closing GTMO and getting those people [INAUDIBLE]?
DAVID SANGER: So the question is-- what are the chances that the president's going to close GTMO? I think he feels this one very personally because the first day in office, he said, this is closing on my watch. And almost immediately, Congress passed legislation to keep it from closing on his watch. You have seen him squeeze down the numbers of GTMO as much as he possibly could. Every few weeks, you're seeing just a few more going back, and I can't remember the numbers-- maybe you do-- of what's left, but I think it's under 100 at this point.
So the big question is-- does he do this by executive order? And put the remaining GTMO detainees into American supermax prisons-- I talk about the one in Colorado, but there are many others. I'm betting that he'll try.
SPEAKER 7: Who's next?
DAVID SANGER: There's a gentleman right up there.
SPEAKER 9: Thank you for coming today. Just a question-- you've identified several different trends or strategies that were-- I guess that you've haven't seen a cohesive strategy. And here we are. We're in year six, year seven of an eight-year presidency, and you've pretty well identified the fact that there is no cohesive strategy. So I guess my question is-- the pendulum is swinging, but we don't know which direction. Have we gone too light on the light footprint?
And you have identified, especially with the talk between Bush and Obama on covert operations and things like that-- with the exception of Osama bin Laden, I can only recall maybe three or four operations that have hit the media. Now, there are probably more that we're not aware of. But if we're relying on the light strategy, it seems like his policies are light in the area that he wants to consider a strength.
DAVID SANGER: Well, you gotta ask two questions. First of all, how many of these are we hearing about? And I can think of many more than three or four, but I have to live this every day. I mean, just two weeks ago, there was a very serious, big special forces raid in southern Afghanistan that wiped out a lot of people that we were concerned about. And you hear about those on regular occasion. But you hear the phrase "you can't kill your way to victory," and I think Obama believes that-- and I think it's right-- that you have a problem that we didn't really cope with in the Bush years, which is that there are some circumstances where in going in fairly heavy, you end up creating as many terrorists as you wiped out.
So imagine this problem. For all of the horrors of Syria, Bashar Assad is still a big draw for insurgents around the world who want to come into the Syrian war. For all of the horrors of the beheadings, including of journalists I take somewhat personally, ISIS remains a very big draw. So yeah, you can focus, and at moments you'll want to go in on taking out leaders in ISIS and disrupting their operations, but if you go on Google and you type in "ISIS and ideology," you're going to get a lot more sites that make a case for signing up with ISIS than you're going to get counterprogramming that talks about what life is like once you do sign up with ISIS.
That's a problem we can solve. If we know how to do anything in this country, it's create content. We are a nation of content creators. And if you could take the energy of the four million bloggers who get up in the morning to critique either the government or their local governments or what they read in the media or what they read in the New York Times and you put that and harness that in some way they're creating some alternative media that would make sure that it wasn't just the US government that's trying to start a program to convince people not to sign up for ISIS-- that there's something else they can do with their lives-- that would probably do as much good as the next five special forces raids, maybe then next 50.
Other thoughts. Ma'am. There's a mic coming to you. Right up behind there on the aisle. Turn around. Right there. OK. We'll do one and then the other.
SPEAKER 10: Thank you for your very interesting talk. You said earlier, Syria is not a country that's at the center of American national interests. I agree. Humanitarian interest is something else.
But Egypt is. And I'm curious what your thought is for why we fail to understand that between the crowds, who didn't want to govern and weren't capable of governing, and military that wanted to govern and is governing, there was another actor, and it was Muslim Brotherhood. And that's what we failed to predict and failed to understand how to deal with. And I wonder why you think that was the case.
DAVID SANGER: Well, I think there are three working elements, and I would not say for a moment that this is comprehensive. And I'm no Egypt expert. My background, as you heard, was mostly in East Asia. I've been to Egypt a fair bit, and I've talked to a lot of American policymakers who say we're dealing with it, but I'm not somebody who's got a real pulse on the Egyptian society.
The first thing is we didn't have a plan in place to help solve the problem that Hillary Clinton put her finger on, which was that the group of students in Tahrir Square were not organized to be able form a government. And it is interesting to ask the question-- what would happen if we had done a better job organizing them after Tahrir Square? Now, the answer could be that we would have prompted the cry that we were interfering in another country's governance the way we did in Iran in the 1950s, the way we did in Central America. And President Obama, given his own background, having grown up in Indonesia, another country where we mucked around on the internals of their government, is quite hesitant to have the heavy hand of America doing that.
But the fact of the matter is the students didn't organize, so that led the Muslim Brotherhood to come together as the quite organized operation. And I happened to be in Egypt working on Confront and Conceal when they had their first big parliamentary election, and these Muslim Brotherhood guys were pretty impressive. They would show up in every neighborhood with iPads in hand, talking to people about going to the polls, getting them to the polls, asking them what their problems were, which were incredibly local problems-- I'd like somebody to fix the water main-- yeah, we're going to go do that. And frequently, they did.
But then when the Muslim Brotherhood came into power, they didn't know how to exercise power, and we didn't know how to help them. And we didn't know how to help them in part because we were stuck with our own concerns about what the Muslim Brotherhood had given origin to years before, which was al-Qaeda. I mean, al-Qaeda's background is in Muslim Brotherhood ideology in Egypt, among other places.
I think the third factor was that when the military came in, we were at that point so craving not seeing Egypt go into chaos for exactly the reason you identified, that it is vitally in our strategic interest, that we decided to take that card rather than press the fact that the new military government was basically repeating the mistakes of the Mubarak government. And that's the bargain we've taken right now. Any others?
SPEAKER 11: You said that you thought we might have over-learned lessons of the Bush administration. Seems to me that a strong case could be made for under-learning. What Obama did-- Obama and Hillary-- did in Libya-- it could be exactly the kind of mistake they shouldn't have made if they were learning anything from the Bush administration-- to go in and overthrow a nasty dictator, [INAUDIBLE], and you're gone. That looks like a really dumb war to me that shouldn't have been done in the first place. The Europeans had demonstrated that you could work with Gaddafi, nasty guy that he was. You could use diplomacy to get rid of his nuclear weapons. That would've been a better lesson to learn.
As far as cyberwarfare-- maybe that's another dumb war. I was teaching the honors class of the government department four year ago, and this student did her magna cum laude thesis-- actually, this is more than a few years ago, but-- on how we should use diplomacy to avoid cyberwarfare. And it was brilliant at the time. Then came Stuxnet and using it against Iran. We lose all our legitimacy when we use it first. And of course, along with using cyberwarfare, we were using regular old assassinations, letting the Israelis do the-- certainly, we proved that. That's not a good way to set up the right kind of world.
It seems to me that Obama can play on what seems to me the best streak or the best legacy to come out of the administration, which is diplomacy. I think John Kerry has been absolutely heroic and makes Hillary Clinton look like a do-nothing Secretary of State. What did she ever do? But he did some very important things, and now if he tries to get a diplomatic settlement in Syria, if he can work [INAUDIBLE] with the Russians, that would be a tremendous legacy.
And certainly drone warfare, I think, on the other hand, for a dumb war-- why are we fighting with the Saudis to destroy the Houthis? Right? And the Saudis are cooperating with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. What in the world are we doing there? So I think there are plenty of dumb wars to go around when we haven't learned anything.
DAVID SANGER: Well, there are usually-- the world is usually in long supply of dumb wars. I'm in complete agreement with that. But let me just break down a couple of elements.
The oddity in the Libya case was it was the Bush administration that did the diplomacy that got rid of the remnants of AQ Khan's sale to them of nuclear material-- sorry, nuclear equipment. And I went down to Tennessee shortly after that stuff came back to the US and took a long look at it. They had tried to scratch out the Khan Research Lab labels on it so that we wouldn't embarrass the Pakistanis about where it came from, but you could, with a flashlight, see the wording underneath. And you have to give it to the Bush administration, because they did manage to conduct a negotiation in which Gaddafi got rid of all of that equipment.
And if you ask yourself the question-- what would 2011 have looked like had Gaddafi not given that up and made some progress and actually was close to a nuclear weapon? Would anybody have been willing to go in to try to topple him? And the answer is no. You'd have North Korea, why it is that we're frozen from dealing with the horrors of the Kim Jong Un regime.
Was Gaddafi on the verge of trying to exterminate a good part of his own people, at least in Benghazi? I think he probably was. The Europeans sort of forced the Americans' hand by-- you may recall-- starting up that bombing, and we sort of came along in support, especially when the Europeans started running out of ammunition. Sort of makes you wonder what would happen if they ever got involved in a real war.
I don't think that Libya was a case of over-learning the Bush lessons. I think that Libya was a case of not understanding what the fissions were in the society. So, we let ourselves think that if we just got rid of old leader, they'll go take care of it. Sometimes that worked. It worked in Tunisia next door. Didn't work in Libya.
On the cyber side, we clearly need a set of rules about how we're going to use cyberweapons, and we can't get that set of rules until we have a national debate about how we want to go use them. And we can't have that national debate about how we want to use them with a government that still views cyber-offensive weapons as such a secret technology that we can't really discuss openly having them.
So think for a minute about the analogy with nuclear weapons. We couldn't deny we had nuclear weapons. We dropped them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so it was clear what we had. And for the next 35 years, we had a pretty raucous debate-- or at least 30 years in the United States-- about how we wanted to use nuclear weapons, and it ended up in a completely different place than it started.
It started with General MacArthur wanting to get a few nukes to use on the Chinese and the North Koreans and being told he wasn't getting them and then being fired. It continued with an Air Force general who was advising Jack Kennedy to end the Cuban Missile Crisis by wiping out the Soviet Union. We might have lost 80 million people along the way. Ithaca probably would've been fine. It's a little bit out of the range. If you lived in my neighborhood in Washington, it probably wouldn't be habitable still today.
We ended up concluding we would only use nuclear weapons for national survival, basically. And that's basically where it's been for the past 20 years. Across Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, you don't hear anybody threatening to use a nuclear weapon in almost any circumstance.
The question is-- how do we get there with cyber? And it's not so easy, because nuclear weapons are so devastating and so expensive to develop that the argument against using them is incredibly high, and the results of using a nuclear weapon are so overwhelming that you know it's going to happen to your country 60 minutes later.
Cyber is the reverse. It's cheap, dirt cheap. It's on a dial. You can make it the Sony attack. You can take out the electric grid. You can do anything in between. And so people think that because it's adjustable, it's usable. And so they're using it.
What were President Obama's questions about Olympic Games, the Stuxnet attack? Can we contain it so that doesn't hit hospitals nearby? Yes, sir. Can we make sure it's only going after a military target that is these centrifuges? Yes, sir. But we created a precedent, as you point out, that we're going to be living with for some time. And yes, we always end up being the one who is the first one the use because we're the one that's the most technologically advanced. Ma'am.
SPEAKER 12: So a lot of our foreign aid is going to three very different countries, Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt. And what I don't understand is-- aren't we able to take back some of the money and push in directions that are more in our favor? But yet we're still giving an enormous amount of money in aid to these countries.
DAVID SANGER: Right. And we're giving them for different reasons. We're giving it to the Egyptians to basically hold onto the peace treaty with Israel. We're giving it to Israel, and we're about to give more. Bibi Netanyahu was in Washington on Monday asking for $5 billion a year instead of $3 billion a year. And so to some degree, we are locked in all of that.
And it's the place where Congress plays the biggest role, right? A president can't issue foreign aid. Congress can. It's one of the few areas of foreign policy where Congress has actually got a lever, and so it becomes a much more complex political issue.
SPEAKER 13: You talked a lot about where you saw cyberwarfare going, and I'm just wondering where you think drone warfare is going.
DAVID SANGER: You know, I gave you those statistics about how there were 300 drone attacks in the first term. In the second term, the numbers have actually gone down. They've gone down for a number reasons. First of all, there are not as many targets as there were. Secondly, the people who we're aiming at have caught on to that buzz up there, and they're beginning to think about ways to operate that don't make themselves as big of a target.
And thirdly, I think that we've learned the lesson that an accurate drone strike can cause huge collateral damage and turn people against the United States in a very big way. You travel through the Mideast, and you look for the little graphics of what's the symbol of the United States, and frequently it's a drone drawn by kids. That tells you something. I think you will see more and more of the Air Force move to drones, but I think you're going to see them used less and less in these individual cases and more to replace what is currently manned aircraft.
Oh, I'm sorry. Right up here.
SPEAKER 14: ISIS has increasing sphere of influence in the Muslim world. I myself am from Pakistan. I have seen spray paintings on walls that say, "Long live ISIS." And then there was also the attack on the Russian planes, and there is growing consensus that it was because of the [INAUDIBLE]. So an alternate way of looking at the world in the Islamic State is that they have been largely successful in indoctrinating their forces, relentlessly using dogma and rhetoric, and that sort of after most effective recruitment tourism.
So my question is to you-- firstly, how should the US act on this problem of indoctrination? Because the ideology and the terror wave exists regardless of how many bombs are dropped in Syria. Let's say the ISIS already has a force of 30,000 people. Even if 10 or 20 are left after relentless bombings and we want a peaceful and prosperous Syrian state, is it possible for Syria to be a peaceful and prosperous state as long as this particular ideology exists in Syria?
And secondly, a recent documentary by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a prominent Pakistani filmmaker, shows that various economic factors are the root of radicalization, especially in the youth. So considering the destruction that [INAUDIBLE] after the bombing of Syria, how exactly can the US ensure that the Syrian economy will prosper to the extent that poverty is not the root cause of the spread of terrorism?
DAVID SANGER: Well, two very good questions. So the first one on poverty being the root of it-- you sort of want to start with this question with the Gulf Arab states, because frankly, it's more their populations and more their opportunity to go deal with this. And what we've seen with Saudi Arabia was a lot of money flowing to the madrases, including in your country, that help train radicals. So that's the first thing we've got to get reversed.
We talked a little before about counterprogramming on the web, and that's a very difficult thing to do because governments do it in a very heavy-handed way, and you don't want it to come from governments. The most effective stuff on the web the counters radical groups is the testimony of people who are members of ISIS and have left and describe what life is like within ISIS. That's the most effective.
I don't know how many of you have seen some of this, but it's pretty dramatic, and that's what we want. We want to make sure that we provide the technology that that message gets out. But we can't over-control the message, because if it's coming from us, it's tainted to begin with.
A third point that I think you raised, rightly, out of this is-- what's the future of Syria? And I agree with the question up here-- that John Kerry has been doing remarkable work in trying to come up with a diplomatic solution. But one of the things everybody agreed on at the meeting in Vienna a week and a half ago is that Syria remains a state in its current borders, that it doesn't break up.
A noble aspiration, but I'm not sure it's workable at this moment. And I'm not sure, necessarily-- I don't raise this to make the argument one way or the other. I just am not certain that we are safer as a world with a single Syria that's got all of these competing forces within it or what essentially becomes a partitioned Syria. And since Syria was not a natural country the way Egypt and Iran and Turkey are, I'm not entirely sure why we're super invested in maintaining the current borders.
SPEAKER 15: My question is-- do you think that the Middle East would be more stable if Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi were still in power?
DAVID SANGER: The question is-- do I think the Middle East would be more stable if Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi were still in power? Stability at a very high price. And who knows if they would still be in power? I mean, it could have been that the Arab Spring could have swept Gaddafi out or could have swept Saddam Hussein out even if we hadn't been involved in their ousting.
SPEAKER 16: I think you really summed up the Syria problem in a really concise way by saying that it sort of is indicative of problems in the second term of the Obama administration. You said that it was complex problems, cross-cutting interests, too many players, and too many old grudges. And Syria is such a microcosm of that in the sense that it's a civil war, but it's also ISIS against the Assad regime. It's Turkey bombing the Kurdish groups that the US is trying to use to fight ISIS. It is Russia bombing the rebel groups that the US is trying to sponsor.
What I'm wondering is if all of these cross-cutting cleavages-- the only sort of common point of interest seems to be, in these powers with really long-standing grudges, ISIS. And what do you see ISIS-- the possibility of ISIS as a common point where the US and Russia are working together? What do you see is the possibility that that could actually be a common point on which to build any sort of future relationship? Or do you think that the interests that underlie the reasons why they're fighting ISIS would preclude any sort of movement forward?
DAVID SANGER: It's a very good question, and it's a question that Kerry and his staff are asking themselves now. And it's really become a dramatic question since the bombing of the airliner, assuming it was bombed. And if it turns out that that bombing was pulled off by ISIS or an ISIS affiliate, I think there's a fairly reasonable chance that you could see Putin change his focus and that he could, rather than be focusing on the rebels who were trying to oust Assad, actually get on the same page we're on about ISIS because-- if they were responsible for this horrific killing of more than 200 of his citizens.
So it's conceivable that the bombing could actually bring in part at least a temporary alliance of interests. Is there history for this? Yeah. It's called World War II. We actually managed with a country we did not like very much, a Soviet Union that we could barely stand, to coordinate our activities, not always super well, for five years-- four years. And when it was all over, it fell apart in a really big way really fast for a long time.
But we have shown at various moments that we can do it. We did it again in the Iran negotiations. Remember, the Iran negotiations proceeded even after the Russian attacks on Ukraine. We were sanctioning Russia. We were really at loggerheads with Putin, but we had a common interest in making sure the Iranians did not have the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
And I covered those negotiations pretty much day to day, and I didn't see a whole lot of the other issues that we were disputing with Russia creep into our cooperation on Iran. So my answer to your question is yes, I think it's possible.
HIRO MIYAZAKI: Quite wonderful. Thank you, David, for this lecture.
DAVID SANGER: Thank you.
Thanks so much. Good to see you.
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New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger spoke at Cornell Nov. 10, 2015 as part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies’ Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.