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

To get on the same page as the Founders and then employ what might be called the “Founders’ Rules” in America’s defense, Washington must do five things, aiming to shape a world in which Treasury’s economic tools, special forces, military drones and CIA covert actions have a chance to control a suppressed and greatly damaged enemy. This would supplant the current, unachievable mission of defeating a rapidly growing enemy that is too often motivated by U.S. adventures overseas.

The five imperatives are: extinguish the national debt; attain energy security; win the very few wars America needs to fight; take risks to defend America and annihilate its enemies; and end an interventionist foreign policy meant to install secular democracy around the world.

Zarate’s book admirably underscores the dire national-security threat posed by the almost-unfathomable level of our national debt. With much of it held by adversaries and competitors in China and on the Arabian Peninsula, the debt cripples our ability to shift or even find resources to meet emergencies or reequip our badly worn military. It also prevents us from effectively challenging China’s obviously official and highly damaging hacking campaign against U.S. government agencies and corporations. Further, it forces us to acquiesce in the well-financed and unending campaign of Saudi Arabia (about which Zarate is far too positive) to spread its murderous form of Sunni Islam around the world, including in the United States.

No viable national-security policy is possible until the debt issue is resolved. Until then, our national security depends on the unlikely success of Ben Bernanke’s monthly flood of backed-by-nothing fool’s currency and the prattling of foreign-monster-seeking politicians such as John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, bent on rattling sabers that have become dull blades following the U.S. debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In noting the importance of energy security, Zarate rightfully stresses the pleasing prospect of substantial near-term advances in that direction via shale oil and natural gas. Washington must realize these possibilities for both the energy security they will yield and the jobs they will produce. The United States already does more than any other great power to reduce environmental degradation, and for now it is time to put that issue on the back burner. President Obama’s politically motivated delay of the Keystone XL pipeline and his war on the coal industry cruelly cost jobs and degrade U.S. national security. It is time to ignore the ecozealots, the politicians who pander to them and their media supporters, while simultaneously squaring away our future energy security and ending our humiliating and war-causing dependence on effete but oil-rich Arab despots.

Although Zarate never says so explicitly, his book makes clear that human beings are, as ever, hardwired for war and lesser violent conflicts. Therefore, the wars that America must fight—and there are very few—must be decisively won. The widespread idea, embraced by Zarate, that the world has moved away from using military power to win wars and that America can now prevail by employing the pinprick tools described above is nothing less than lethal nonsense.

Since the mid-1990s, America definitively has proven that such tools can hurt its enemies but cannot win wars; indeed, in the long run they make matters worse by prolonging wars and ensuring our enemies survive, grow and—as Zarate accurately notes—learn how to turn our own pinprick tools against our very vulnerable economic and financial sectors. If we fix the debt and stop causing or intervening in unnecessary wars with countries that pose no threat to us (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, etc.), we can refit the U.S. military and await a chance to unleash our forces against our most lethal enemy, the Islamists, in a manner that focuses on destruction of their fighters, their infrastructure, and their supporters and abettors.

My own guess is that this necessary war will come in West Africa, where Al Qaeda and related Islamist groups are cooperating with Latin American drug cartels and organized criminal organizations to solidify their positions in and near areas that produce oil, strategic minerals and uranium, which are life-and-death national interests for the economies of America and several of its European allies. When this war occurs, it should be formally declared by Congress—a quaint but clear constitutional requirement—and then fought with as few allies as possible. It should be waged as the U.S. military sees fit under a presidential directive that simply orders it to annihilate the enemy as quickly and thoroughly as possible and then come home. Intense, indiscriminate and enemy-erasing lethality applied as fast as possible is, after all, the only mercy in war.

In Treasury’s War, Zarate also makes clear that U.S. politicians and senior civil servants have yet to realize that the Cold War is over, and that with it went the near “certainties” they once enjoyed about the intentions and capabilities of America’s major nation-state opponent, the Soviet Union. Once their leaders at last absorb this reality, America’s defenders can begin to take well-considered but dangerous risks on America’s behalf. As much as Washington’s bipartisan elite hates it, regular risk-taking is now the order of the day.

Zarate describes a policy advancement that occurred when Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill allowed him and his team to work on an 80 percent rule, meaning U.S. action could be undertaken against the enemy when there was an 80 percent confidence level in the intelligence being used. But this formula was soon replaced by a near 100 percent confidence requirement. In reality, such high confidence levels are rarely achievable in the post–Cold War world, and when they are it is almost always regarding nation-states, which operate from fixed addresses and use communications systems and other assets that can be monitored by a broad range of U.S. intelligence tools.

In assessing Soviet intentions and capabilities during the Cold War, we often had very high levels of confidence. But that world has changed, and Zarate demonstrates that senior political leaders and civil servants still don’t understand that. Nonstate actors—precisely those detailed by Zarate—are not vulnerable to many U.S. intelligence tools that are effective against nation-states because they have no fixed addresses, tank parks, airfields, fiber-optic cables, communications satellites, navies or electrical grids. Therefore, if America’s defenders secure a 25–30 percent confidence level that the United States is being threatened by a nonstate actor, close attention should be paid. If those men and women then become 35–40 percent certain that trouble is coming our way, U.S. political and bureaucratic leaders should destroy the threat, even if they have to risk being wrong, causing collateral damage, and then suffering condemnation by domestic political opportunists, the media, human-rights groups and foreigners—all of whom can stoop to criticize precisely because they are not responsible for America’s security.

It should be noted that today’s Islamist threat to the United States is so enormous because President Clinton’s administration wanted Cold War–level confidence—75–80 percent certainty or more—in the intelligence about bin Laden before it would act to protect Americans. Not surprisingly, that level never came, and Clinton took no chance on Americans’ behalf. The result was September 11. When U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in May 2011, U.S. government officials told the media that the chance bin Laden was in Abbottabad was at best 50 percent. Against Islamists, narcotraffickers, mafias and other nonstate actors, that is a truly excellent level of confidence. If we do not act when or before that level is reached, we will always be chasing but never defeating nonstate actors.

THE MOST essential reform needed to craft a viable national-security strategy is a decision by our bipartisan governing elite and senior civil servants to stop waging their war of cultural intervention—often backed by bayonets—against populations that don’t embrace Western norms and practices, and particularly against the Muslim world. The catalogue of meddling is extensive: intervening in Russian politics to criticize their gay- and human-rights policies; lecturing Latin American regimes on their democratic failings; hectoring societies whose level of women’s rights is not to our liking; and intervening militarily, diplomatically and economically in the Muslim world when we have no national interest at risk, such as in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and the Arab-Israeli conflict. These U.S. actions do more than any other factor to motivate the most lethal of the enemies Zarate describes. Oblivious to their penchant for self-inflicted overseas disasters, U.S. foreign-policy officials are, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, “political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.” If these U.S. interventionist actions against foreign cultures continue, Washington will help give birth to a worldwide collection of enemies requiring military countermeasures of such magnitude that they eventually will damage liberty, prosperity and democracy in the only place those things really matter—inside the United States.

Despite Zarate’s experience in fighting nonstate actors and seeing their continued growth into more numerous, skilled and ruthless foes, he still enthusiastically encourages U.S. political leaders to continue and strengthen the interventionist orientation of U.S. foreign policy that makes the job of all America’s defenders—intelligence and military—more difficult and perhaps impossible. He writes:

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