The Limits of U.S. Financial Warfare

The Limits of U.S. Financial Warfare

Mini Teaser: The Treasury Department has run up an impressive list of tactical victories against rogue regimes, terrorists and criminals. But what is the strategy?

by Author(s): Michael Scheuer

Juan C. Zarate, Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 512 pp., $29.99.

AMERICA’S FOUNDING FATHERS believed little else would matter if the government they were forming did not reliably protect the new republic from foreign and domestic threats while also ensuring the liberty and growing prosperity of those it was to govern and defend. If that were not the Republic’s main and institutionalized organizing principle, the Founders believed, their effort to give it life would fail. The keys to success in ensuring national survival, liberty and prosperity were: stay out of debt; steer clear of foreign entanglements, alliances and wars that did not concern the United States; and avoid situations—whether products of ill-considered policies, fatuous and feckless idealism, or leaders’ inattention—that would lead to unnecessary wars and foreign military adventures, debt and eroded liberty. James Madison warned in the 1790s:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended.

Elsewhere, he added, “War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”

Juan C. Zarate’s new book, Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare, shows how great a regression the Republic has undergone since the only-necessary-wars principle of the Founders’ era. Zarate, who served in the George W. Bush administration as assistant secretary of the treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes and is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers a detailed study about what might be called “all war, all the time.” The author is described on the dust jacket of his book as “a chief architect of modern financial warfare,” and he unveils a catalogue of America’s financial-warfare adversaries, including Al Qaeda and other Islamist fighters; organized criminal groups, narcotics cartels and people smugglers; North Korea and Iran, with a short stopover in Libya; computer hackers; and obstructive, turf-conscious bureaucrats. What emerges is a stark reality: the Treasury Department is at war—and those involved in this financial warfare revel in it. Traveling the world to recover hoards of embezzled money, stop terrorist plots and confound North Korea’s money managers, these financial warriors thwart the bad guys through an array of tools ranging from old-fashioned publicity—to “name and shame” evildoers—to electronic whizbangs. And they do so in an amiable way, which is fitting for a group of men and women portrayed as if they are all “above average,” in the mold of the children of Lake Wobegon. Based on Zarate’s characterization, they are all brilliant, hard-driving, friendly, striking, optimistic, garrulous, savvy, confident, eloquent, masterful and so on.

It must be said that Zarate and others in Treasury’s war have accomplished some remarkable things for U.S. security—temporarily denying North Korea ready access to international financial markets; attacking the essential components of Iran’s economy such as banks and oil; dismantling parts of the financial networks of Al Qaeda and other Islamist insurgent groups; and recovering many billions of dollars stashed away by Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi for the debauched retirements they never reached. Perhaps most interesting, Zarate explains how successful he and others at Treasury were in forging ties to powerful private-sector U.S. and European interests—banks, financial managers and organizations providing security for international financial transactions—that allowed effective joint attacks on targets designated by the U.S. president. The reader will come away from Treasury’s War genuinely impressed by the tactical victories scored by those Zarate ably led and justly honors.

ZARATE HAS written a useful and alarming book. Useful, because he instructs his readers about the wide range of lethal enemies the U.S. government has acquired in recent decades and, at times, motivated. And alarming because, as Zarate implies, the U.S. government has no national-security strategy worth the name. Resting complacently on the illusion that the tactical victories Zarate details will adequately defend the United States, Washington, under either party, continues to pursue a relentlessly interventionist foreign policy that cultivates more enemies and complements the strategies that our myriad foes have designed to seek our defeat. Sadly, at book’s end Zarate turns out to be an advocate of intervention.

The rub in the book arises when it becomes apparent that there is no clear and attainable set of strategic objectives that provides a framework for the war waged by Zarate and his team—or their successors. There is nothing, that is, that even faintly resembles what the Founders saw as the sine qua non for the Republic’s survival—a government organized on the single principle of defending and furthering the security, liberty and prosperity of Americans. As smart as Zarate’s team and their allies may have been and as hard as they may have worked, their attacks are pinpricks—often quickly healed—that hit the financial interests of a wide array of America’s enemies. The clear inadequacy of this pinprick offensive is not their fault; they and all Americans are cosufferers of the national-security mess our bipartisan governing apparatus has cooked up since the Cold War’s end.

Throughout this nearly five-hundred-page book, the reader perceives no such thing as a “U.S. national-security strategy,” notwithstanding documents that are so entitled and published with some regularity and fanfare. What the reader sees is Washington—under both parties—running an uncoordinated, politically correct, ad hoc foreign and military policy that strikes out at numerous targets without sufficient power to destroy any of them. At this stage in its history, America’s security motto should be: “We take no enemy off the table.”

In the context of this amateurish foreign policy, successes like those scored by Zarate and Treasury’s warriors certainly are better than nothing, but they are not war winners. Like the U.S. use of drones, renditions, special forces and interrogations against Islamists, and the law-enforcement methods used against mafia groups and drug cartels, the operations heralded by Zarate reside on the periphery of the main components of genuine national power—namely, military force and a prosperous, low-debt economy. They are at best a complement to, and not a replacement for, these crucial ingredients of American strength. Indeed, notwithstanding the clear tactical successes scored through the methods Zarate describes, the United States today is losing to every entity Washington has designated an enemy.

Consider Zarate’s slate of enemies. Despite the successes against North Korea so well described in Treasury’s War, Pyongyang can still bring the world to a fretful standstill with its saber rattling, behind which it is gradually improving the quality of its nuclear weapons and their long-range delivery systems. It is true that Al Qaeda and other Islamist insurgents have suffered since 1996 from telling attacks at the hands of Treasury, the CIA and U.S. special forces. And yet, Islamist elements have defeated U.S.-led multinational armies in Afghanistan and Iraq and are quickly growing in manpower, geographic dispersion, and—thanks to the Arab Spring—access to veteran mujahideen and sophisticated weaponry. All of this means that Osama bin Laden’s strategy of bleeding the U.S. economy remains alive and viable. Meanwhile, Iran continues to build toward a nuclear capability, sucking up the pain and soldiering on despite the severe damage Western aggression has done to its economy via sanctions and cyberattacks. Tehran also maintains a capability to wreak terrorist havoc inside the United States—thanks to more than four decades of open U.S. borders—if we and/or the Israelis attack Iran.

And gangsters of all kinds, as Treasury’s War documents, continue to steal, hack, suborn, corrupt and kill. The Latin American drug cartels are expanding their manpower, monetary resources and firepower, challenging the state in Mexico, spreading into Central America, establishing smuggling networks in West Africa, corrupting banking systems throughout the Western Hemisphere, and, in alliance with Latino street gangs, showing signs of increasing influence and control in some towns and cities across the southwestern United States. Again, much of this is facilitated by the open U.S. southern border. Zarate’s book also explains the symbiotic relationship between organized criminal organizations (mafias, hackers-are-us groups, people smugglers, etc.) and globalism’s characteristic communication systems and portable high-tech gear. He makes the excellent point that even as the U.S. government has used cutting-edge electronic and computer equipment to hurt these organizations, they are growing increasingly capable themselves in this field. With seemingly unlimited cash, they can acquire state-of-the-art skills and equipment to defend and attack. Zarate wisely notes that these malefactors have an advantage over America because they do not care at all about collateral damage or breaking any laws. And he posits the troubling and probably accurate thought that it is only a matter of time before nonstate actors pose a potentially catastrophic threat to U.S. economic, financial and infrastructure interests that depend on the Internet and other electronic-communications systems.

HOW DO we fix this problem, which is really asking how we ensure the Republic’s survival? Well, most helpful would be to accept the fact that the Founders were not dead, white, misogynist slave drivers, but rather smart, often-ruthless and practical fellows who were completely devoted to an “America First” national-security policy. If we can embrace this historical reality, and if the NSA and Department of Education do not discover the heresy and lock us up, we can begin to see that today’s U.S. government and the bipartisan political establishment that runs it are contributing significantly and knowingly to America’s vulnerability. Then perhaps we can begin to formulate a commonsense national-security strategy, which would incorporate all of the enthusiasm described by Zarate and some of the methods.

Pullquote: It is apparent that there is no clear and attainable set of strategic objectives that provides a framework for the war waged by Zarate and his team—or their successors.Image: Essay Types: Book Review