Twenty Years Since 9/11: Grey Wars, American Values, & the Future of National Security
September 9, 2021
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Hello, everyone, and welcome to our virtual program, "Twenty Years Since 9/11: Grey Wars, American Values, & the Future of National Security." I'm Joel Rosenthal, President of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, an independent non-profit institution. The Council's mission is to identify and address the ethical issues of today and tomorrow.
We have assembled this discussion at a somber moment. This week we approach the 20-year commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, and just a few days ago we saw the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. This seems like the appropriate time and an important time to reflect on the past 20 years of America's national security policy. To my mind, this period is best understood by the idea of "grey wars," so beautifully described by Nancy Collins in her new book with that title. In fact, this panel is inspired by Nancy's book, the story it tells, and the questions it raises. Our goal is to better understand the response to 9/11 as a national security matter, the grey wars it generated, and what this all means for national security policy today and into the future.
I will take just a minute to introduce our speakers, and then we will jump right into the discussion.
Nancy Collins is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. She also teaches security studies at Columbia University. Nancy's new book, the one I just mentioned, is Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations, and it was just published by Yale University Press.
Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor of strategy at National Defense University. He writes both fiction and non-fiction, based on his extensive military experience. His recent book, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, is especially relevant to our conversation today. You can find an excellent conversation about that book on the Carnegie Council website.
Joseph Votel is currently president and chief executive officer of Business Executives for National Security (BENS). He was previously commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and prior to that U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Over his 39-year-career in the United States Army, General Votel has been at the forefront of America's most challenging national security assignments.
I am glad to have you all with us. Thanks for taking the hour to be here. Let's begin with some thoughts on this week's significance as the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I am going to ask each of you to think a little bit about how you process the significance of this moment.
Let's go to Sean.
SEAN McFATE: Well, it's a sad, sad end to a long war. To me the Afghanistan War was really two wars. We won the first one, and that took place in a matter of weeks following 9/11, when we had a counterterrorism mission that successfully pushed al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. And then, in December of 2011, at Bonn, we switched strategies and decided to make the "graveyard of empires" the 51st state. That sort of snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, if you will.
I think it was strategically correct to leave Afghanistan—we can't be there forever. Operationally, how it was done—we all saw that on TV. It was in my opinion worse than Saigon and is going to leave a stain. That is unfortunate, and it's hard for our vets, who have had blood and soul on that soil, to see it in that way.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thanks. Nancy?
N. W. COLLINS: Thank you, Joel. Thank you to the Carnegie Council for bringing together Dr. McFate, General Votel, and me for this opportunity to discuss today's grey wars and our nation's special operations forces as well as the important milestones of this month, notably the 9/11 remembrances and the current shifts in our nation's force posture. I am looking forward to our discussion over the next hour. I am pleased to offer maybe a few observations on this topic to get us started, first maybe with the recent past.
I am sitting here today at the Council on East 64th Street. We are just a few miles from Freedom Tower and the previous site of the World Trade Center. I think—at least for me, how I feel about it—it seems hard to overstate the profound impact of 2001, how that year shifted our nation's trajectory in international relations and our operational conduct of war.
Second perhaps is a comment about our present. I think there are many opinions about current events in Afghanistan, some of which seem perhaps overly confident in their analysis and in their predictions. Former Secretary Gates has reminded us on a few occasions that it is unwise to act as though we have a crystal about future fights, and at this moment in time the fight is indeed changing. I would offer, though, that nothing about it is over. I think that's a false narrative. I think those opinions are off. There is nothing about it that is over in a general or conventional sense. I would suggest that the fight is simply taking on different forms.
Maybe the third and last observation I would have just to generate some discussion would be about our near term, that is, that our nation continues to undertake essential global crisis missions as we speak. Our country's expeditionary forces, to include our intelligence professionals, diplomatic leaders, and special operators, are engaged in diverse actions right now on behalf of all of us, a broader mission which requires significant engagement from across our country.
I would offer that we must continuously and deeply invest in our country's global actions and global partnerships, not just during the urgent moments of a few weeks ago but steadily, consistently, and in a sustained manner. Grey wars are not going away, I would offer. Some might wish them away, but we are far better served by practical realism. To ignore grey wars is to increase our own peril.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Thank you, Nancy.
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: Yes, thanks. It's good to be with you, Joel, the other panelists, and the whole group here today, so thanks for the invitation.
Just thinking about 9/11 here on the 20th anniversary, I share I think what a lot of other veterans and others are feeling here, which is kind of a bag of mixed emotions. I mean, I remember the feeling on the morning of 9/11, when everybody was watching the images of what was happening, this incomprehensible horror that was playing out for us but which gave way to the recognition that everything had changed for us on this day and was going to be different from this point going forward.
Then I project myself about a month beyond that, when I was part of the first U.S. forces that were going in on the ground in Afghanistan, and I remember the feeling of pride and patriotism. We all felt that we were doing something good and noble for our country. Then a whole series of deployments and everything that took place in Afghanistan, which has culminated in the last week, where emotions have ranged everywhere from sadness to disappointment to out-and-out anger with what has taken place. There is an awful lot to reflect on. I know we are going to get a little bit into it here today.
The one thing I would just share up front is that I think it is important for people to maybe put themselves in the position of people who have been on the ground there, military, civilians, and others who served. I am really concerned about the characterization of this as a "wasted effort" and the message that sends to people about us. We can talk about the approach, the strategy, and the mistakes that were made—and there were plenty of them there—but the fact of the matter is that, in the minds of many who participated in this, it was a noble venture.
We were doing something for our country here, and I think it's important to look at those sacrifices and that service in the context in which it was conducted by the many people who served there. That's kind of what I'm thinking about this week, particularly as we get ready to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in the context of what has just played out in the last couple of weeks here in Afghanistan.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, General. That's very helpful to set the context, and I appreciate your personal reflections as well.
Let's go back, though, to 20 years ago. After the 9/11 attacks there was a decision that was made to launch a Global War on Terror (GWOT), and this was the strategy. With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, how do we think about this now as a strategic decision? Maybe I'll start with Sean on that and then come to Nancy.
SEAN McFATE: I am sure there will be many disagreements with this assessment. Declaring a war on terrorism is like declaring a war on the Mitsubishi Zero. It's a strategem. It's a tactical type of warfare. It's like declaring war on poverty almost. It seems more of a metaphor than an actual war, and it's fine to have metaphors as long as we don't mistake them for strategy.
The 2002 National Security Strategy laid out a proto-grand strategy, the first we have probably had since the Cold War, and the last we have probably had, but I think it was overreach. Half of what winning is is knowing it looks like, and we didn't really know what that would look like at the end, and I think that's kind of why we struggled, if we are candid.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Nancy, take a swing at that, Global War on Terror.
N. W. COLLINS: Sure. I think first off the decisions that were made in September of 2001 were ones that were broadly unifying. I don't think there was actually that much division at a strategic level about the next steps that needed to happen in September, October, November, and December of 2001, and I don't think that 20 years later there are that many sensible voices that would truly try to challenge autumn 2001's strategic national security decision making. I think that has stayed pretty consistent. I think where there is divergence of thought and divergence of analysis is what comes later, decisions that were made maybe in 2003 or 2005, when maybe there was less unity of strategic thought.
Where we are today, to jump to the present, though, I would offer that we are not being realistic about what is to come. I don't think we are necessarily preparing ourselves and steeling ourselves for what it is going to take, and I think we are undermining ourselves by not recognizing the incredible lift that has been undertaken by those who have been at the forefront of the fight over the last 20 years.
It is incredibly unhelpful to discuss these fights as wasted efforts. They are not. There is so much goodness that has come out of these ground activities and ground efforts, and I wouldn't want to lose sight of that. What we are going to need going forward is more talent, more technology, more innovation, and more to be prepared for the conflicts that are coming our way.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. General Votel?
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: I think we have had some good points already today. I think in looking at this, context is important. When you look back to the fall of 2001 and what had just happened to our country, as Nancy implied, the administration, the leadership was looking for a unifying approach that seemed to bring people together and create a sense of action that we were taking against these people. I think it's important to acknowledge that.
But, as Sean highlighted, this was more of a metaphor. I think that is a great way of describing it, as more of a metaphor than a strategy. There really wasn't a clear articulation of ends, ways, and means with which we were trying to do things over a long period of time. Many of us will recall that there was a discussion on the "long" war and that this was going to take a long period of time, and all of that I think begged for a very clear strategy that outlined what we were actually trying to do, which in many ways was to protect ourselves here at home.
This wasn't just about Afghanistan. It wasn't just about al-Qaeda. It was about protecting ourselves at home and addressing an incident that at the point many Americans had never experienced or really had any expectation was going to occur in our homeland and was inflicted on us in such a personal way. I do think there was a unifying aspect to this, but it largely was in my view a communications approach. We were trying to communicate to people about this, and we lacked the ends, ways, and means discussion and guidance that we needed for the long term as we went through this.
Again, all of this is in retrospect here. It's very easy to look back at that and see those problems now and where we veered off on that along the way, but I think it's important to understand the context and what the initial decisions were and how they guided the way we went forward. I think in large part the global war on terrorism, while communicating action did not, in and of itself, convey an effective strategy for what we were really trying to do.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Let me take the metaphor one more step. I am curious to push on this a little bit, because it did achieve at least two big things in American society. It achieved a reorganization of national security at home—Department of Homeland Security, which again, as an outsider, seemed like a huge enterprise, but I'm curious with 20 years hindsight how that looks—but then also, with General Votel here, I'm looking and thinking about special operations and so on. It was a huge change in the deployment of our military capacities in a way, a rethinking from the old Cold War model to a much different, more agile model. In that sense, the metaphor achieved its goals, which were to reorganize society in some way.
General, maybe I'll start with you. Do you see it that way, and is that a positive or negative or again perhaps probably a mixed bag?
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: Yes, I think it is a little bit of a mixed bag, but I certainly recognize positive aspects of investing in the creation of Homeland Security is probably a good thing. That said, I think if you look deeply into that many of the initial challenges that were in place when we created the Department of Homeland Security remain in place with multiple stakeholders, multiple oversight, and a less efficient effective approach than we probably need, but the idea of bringing people together around that I think has generally been a positive one.
Likewise your point on the operational aspects of this. If there is a positive aspect to the nation being at war for 20 years, it is that those people who had to work together in terms of this, whether it is the military, the diplomatic corps, or the intelligence community, those relationships I think dramatically improved over the course of our conflict, and we have created a number of interpersonal relationships between people in multiple different agencies and now have a better way of communicating, a better way of cooperating, and a higher level of trust between themselves that I think really serves the national interest in a great way.
In fact, one of the things moving forward that we have to do is we have to preserve that. That has been a good thing. The fact that the military and the intelligence community, particularly the CT community, have come together around this in a way that we are combining the strengths of each other and offsetting the weaknesses of each other with the strengths of the other in this I think is a very, very positive thing for the American people and for our national security. We have got to preserve that going forward. So there certainly have been some positive benefits that have come out of the so-called GWOT, if you will.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Sean, take the metaphor one more step.
SEAN McFATE: It's interesting. Always beware never to introduce metaphors.
I think the national security community is better at observing lessons than learning them. That said, I think 20 years of this, if you will, integrating violence, as General Votel has said, has created a cadre of experienced vets, both in uniform and in civilian attire, that if we can maintain that can carry forward for whatever future threats we face.
We have to be specific that our future threats may not be like GWOT, so we have to be clear-eyed and critical about what we leave and what we bring, but our national security team from the grounds to Washington has experience under their belt, has intuition under their belt, and what I am curious to see is where the middle leadership is today and where they will bring us, say, in ten years. That was quite different on 9/11. I was in the Army in the 1990s. We were preparing for essentially the wrong fight. But I think we have experience that should be nourished and protected.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Nancy, what do you make of the bureaucratic changes, both domestically and operationally since 9/11?
N. W. COLLINS: Just to continue with the GWOT discussion, I don't want to get overly hung up on whether a bumper sticker is good or bad. It was accurate. It has been a war on terror; 9/11 was an act of terror in the U.S. homeland. It was profound, and it was a global response to that act, so in many ways it's a fairly accurate shorthand.
What then followed was a unifying federal and international effort to counter terrorism, to work anti-terror, to combat terror, and with that comes a lot of infrastructure, to your question about bureaucracy. But I don't think I would immediately jump to the word "bureaucracy" to accurately describe what grew. I actually think that what grew was a very sophisticated network of experts and professionals who have an expertise not only in combatting terrorism—that is one element and certainly an overriding element—but these experts have a broader orientation to the world, which I think has served U.S. national security interests with great effectiveness.
My concern now, though, is that—and this I think has been true for about the last at least three or four years, and I see it accelerating at this anniversary moment—somehow this is a bookend and that we are somehow to put all this behind us. I think that is grossly mistaken at a strategic level. I think that it could ultimately lead us to another traumatic series of events. To dismantle or otherwise under-invest in these national security professionals, to pull them apart or say that they are no longer relevant, or that we can move on to something else, any of these kinds of things that are happening, not just rhetorically but are happening congressionally, budget, authorities, all of these things, simply means that the next time—and there will be a next time or next times plural—that there are traumatic events we would then be back at square one, and I think that would be a horrible self-inflected wound. I do not want our nation to do that again.
So my big caution on this is not that a bureaucracy was built over the last 20 years, but expertise was built over the last 20 years, extreme talent. I think we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we are, I am sitting here in New York City, a place that hasn't had an attack on that level for 20 years. That doesn't happen because nobody tried. It happens because talent made sure that none of the 50 states experienced an attack and nor, quite frankly, did most of our partner nations over the last 20 years.
That is not to say that there haven't been terrorist attacks. Of course there have. There has been great loss of life. I would just offer that I think things would have been far more violent, far more chaotic, and far more destructive if we had not joined together with more than 80 countries around the world and stood for eternal efforts, virtues, and values, and worked so diligently.
In other words, there was a lot of work behind the scenes. Peace doesn't happen. It requires this level of expertise, and I would offer that this really needs to be sustained going forward.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Nancy, that's great.
This is probably a good opportunity to move into the discussion of the way you have been thinking about what we are looking at now in this period of grey wars.
Can you maybe share with us, and we can talk a little bit about, what you mean by "grey wars" and why you used this image and this idea? Clearly we are moving from the Global War on Terror into this period of grey wars and then beyond. Maybe you could just say a little bit about the concept of grey war.
N. W. COLLINS: Sure. I can offer one or two to maybe kick off discussion. I settled on that as the descriptor that seemed to me apt to where we are, that we are not in large-scale wars of annihilation. This is not steel on steel, not some of the things that we built in the 20th century. Those were incredibly important when you take a lot of the goodness of that construction of the 20th century and move forward.
We also need to take a lot of the goodness of the last 20 years and move forward, but I would offer that we are now going to be marked by a period of protracted and persistent struggles without a beginning and without an end, without a victor and without a vanquished. So I think that when we fall into some of the tropes of either superpower language or win-lose or "It will be done," I think that paradigmatically that is unhelpful. I think that takes us into a less useful way of thinking.
I think when we fall into language that seems a bit conventional, like that we will know somehow what it will look like in the future and therefore all we have to do is design it, plan it, I think that is again unrealistic. We can always do our best, but I would offer that enemies and adversaries are going to be filling our voids, our niches, and creating contingencies. They are going to be trying to work around, so by definition that means that it is probably not going to be something obviously recognizable. That would maybe be a second offering I would have to the group for us all to discuss.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I am going to go to General Votel now. I know you have written a little bit about the "grey space" or the "grey zone." Can you share some thoughts about how you think about what we're looking at there?
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: Sure. I think it is really an interesting topic. I do like the phrase "grey" here, grey zone, grey wars, as a pretty good descriptor of this. In my own experience I went through a number of different ways to try to describe this. The Israelis describe this as "the war between the wars." We tried to describe it as a "hybrid" war, and again we created more questions about what the hell we were talking about when we tried to do that.
We went back to our doctrine and tried to talk about this as "unconventional" warfare, and of course that got everybody stirred up because we were introducing another form of warfare, and nobody understood what "unconventional" meant, so the grey war connotation I think helped serve this and highlighted what we all recognize about this, that there is really no clear beginning and no end, and the fact that this grey war, this grey zone, is something that has always existed. There is a taxonomy in terms of this that goes all the way from normal competition between states to strong economic and military activity short of open conflict that get wrapped into it, so I think it is a good way of thinking about it.
But it also really challenges us. One of the things that we have really struggled with is how do you define winning in a grey war. We as Americans like to win. We want to be able to have a parade. We want to be able to say, "Yes, that's what we did right there." That's not possible in grey wars. It is really, really difficult.
At SOCOM we had some great thought on this, and I credit some of the leadership at U.S. Army Special Operations Command for leading the way on this about how we think about what winning means in grey war, and it doesn't mean this idea of total victory. It means preserving your interests and it talks about prevailing with your influence. It means preserving the decision space of our senior leaders so that we can continue to operate here, and we can maintain our relevance and influence in these particular situations.
That is I think where the difficulty gets in with things like grey war or grey zone in terms of trying to make people understand this, but to me it's a good way of describing this, and I think it's a state that we are going to continue to confront for some time going forward.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Sean.
SEAN McFATE: All right. This is such a good question.
First of all, Nancy's book is really good. It's very readable. She is a great introduction for people who don't know what SOCOM—Special Operations forces—is, and it gets at the heart of this. This I think in many ways is what we should be discussing in terms of grand strategy for the next 30 years: What kind of warfare are we facing? As General Votel says, "What does victory look like?" How do we know if we've won, all of these things.
I am going to say something that is going to be a little heretical. I go beyond Nancy. I think that the era of conventional war is done. When we think of conventional war, we think of like World War II, force on force. The data on this, if you look at war since 1945 to today, conventional wars are very rare. There is actually nothing more unconventional than a conventional war, whereas unconventional wars are just off the chart.
Yet we are preparing for a future conventional fight. When people think now about great-power competition—as you know, our national defense strategy in 2018 moved away from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency into great-power competition, which really means Russia and China first and foremost. Many people in Washington imagine that there is going to be like a Battle of Midway in the South China Sea fought with Ford-class carriers, F-35s, and drones, like World War II with better technology, a conventional fight. I argue that that is not going to happen unless there is accidental warfare.
War is getting sneakier. War is going into the grey zone more and more. Look at Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. The strategy here is that Russia and others pump the fog of war into a battlefield, use units that give them plausible deniability to move through that fog, and while the West is still scratching their head about what are the facts on the ground in Crimea, Crimea is already a fait accompli.
So warfare is getting sneakier, and I don't think that is going to change. All of these war games of force on force with Russia or China could go nuclear really quickly, and that is why, just like the Cold War to an extent, we are going to see competition across all layers. I think one of the weapons of choice will be special operations forces (SOF), mercenaries, disinformation, all of these things.
But here is the problem for democracy, and it really gets to the mission of the Council here: If war is getting sneakier, we all know that secrets and democracy are not compatible from the Church hearings of 1975–1976. So how do we get in this battle space, where it's grey and dark and shadowy and punch back without losing our democratic soul? This way of warfare favors autocracies. They can do these things very easily, but we cannot, and this is I think one of the reasons we are seeing the rise of autocracy.
Just as evidence that this is actually what is going on, if you talk to any special operator—and I think Nancy and General Votel will confirm this—their op tempo is insane. It has been for 20 years, and it will be going forward, whereas conventional war weapons don't do as much, I think. So I think the future will be grey. It will not be black-and-white conventional war. I'm not sure we're ready for it, and we need to think about how do we fight this modern way of warfare ethically and without losing our democratic soul.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Sean, that's great. It opens up a couple of avenues here for further discussion.
The first one I want to explore with you and the group is the question of the use of violence or the use of force, or kinetic versus non-kinetic, in a way. One critique of the last 20 years is that our foreign policy has been militarized. In other words, we have been using the military instrument more than perhaps we should.
I'm curious for your first thoughts about that. If I'm hearing you correctly, you might be suggesting that there should be a move toward less use of violence or force and other tools. Is that right? So I am curious as to what you think about the period we have just experienced and where we are going, so maybe a little more on that.
SEAN McFATE: I think the utility of force in modern war is declining. I think what's taking its place is the manipulation of information, and the reason that's the case is because we live in an information age, so suddenly deception overcomes kinetic force on force. We see this, whether it's terrorists have used sophisticated propaganda, or Russia, a disinformation superpower, China and the three-warfare strategy. Because we live in an information age, deception and shaping operations can trump good old-fashioned battlefield victory. In fact, we all remember "Mission Accomplished." We achieved perfect battlefield victory, but it meant nothing strategically for that war.
Not to be too nerdy here, but warfare is moving from a Clausewitzian paradigm of force on force to a Sun Tzu-ian one where the idea is you win before the first shot is fired through deception and through these other things. But our norms of warfare do not allow that. The laws of armed conflict do not allow that. The strategic paradigm of Clausewitz looks at that as like the tool of the desperate. I think we have to have a real serious think about how do you win wars and maybe some of the best weapons don't fire bullets.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Nancy, your reflections on this from the book?
N. W. COLLINS: Sure, I can offer more reflections.
On the question of lethality, kinetic, and so on, first I would say that our nation should not take lethal force out of the discussion. Kinetic strikes are necessary and relevant when they are necessary and relevant. They are part of our arsenal of democracy, period, and I think it's better just to call it out as that rather than to try to hide it behind euphemistic language, as a first point.
Second point would be about the notion of the use of force. I think it's a mistake to conflate force with lethality. Force is a much broader term. Force incorporates offensive information campaigns. That is a type of force. That is force in 2021, and it will be a force in 2025.
We are not as sophisticated—yet—in our information campaigns as we are in our physical, territorial campaigns. We have not been doing it for as long. So much of the resident expertise resides in the private sector. Most of the digital infrastructure is in the private sector. Very little of it is in governmental space, much less military space. So we are maybe not as capable yet there as we want to be and need to be, but it is a form of force.
We also have some outdated concepts, paradigms, ideas, authorities, and language with regards to the digital domain. In other words, a lot of things that we rely and rest on are written either explicitly to speak to it in a physical, territorial way, or it is implied and therefore open up for question and therefore unclear. For example, if the United States wants to take an active, offensive, digital strike against an enemy, that is in some ways a dicier proposition than some of the more routine conventional physical strikes.
So one is not as evolved, but I think it would be a mistake to somehow put that latter part as not force and not kinetic. It may not result in something lethal. We may not be as effective yet at developing those kinds of options, but they are all within the rubric of the use of force, and I don't believe that the world is going to be getting less risky, less dangerous, or less anything, so I believe that having sophisticated uses of force, those that are not lethal and that have a significant digital plus to them, is something that really behooves our country to invest in.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Nancy.
I want to ask General Votel: With that in mind—and let's just stipulate that—as an answer, how do you integrate that thinking as a CENTCOM commander or a SOCOM commander? In other words, some of these things are by definition military, but they are going into these sort of non-kinetic and different areas of the uses of force but perhaps are not military in nature.
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: That's a really interesting discussion, and I agree with a lot of what I have heard here. I think it is always really important to recognize that war is a political state. It is not a military state. It's a political state. It's a decision taken by civilian leaders, at least in our form of government, in terms of our relationship with others, whether it is a Global War on Terror or whether it's declaring war on Germany or Japan during the Second World War. It is a political state, and the military is, in my view, almost always going to be a supporting effort to that.
I agree with what Nancy says. We have to maintain a menu of capabilities that can be offered to our civilian leadership for how we contribute to this, but I think we can never lose sight again of the fact that war is an aspect of the whole nation and all of our instruments. We've got to look at that.
I think back to when I stepped out of CENTCOM as the commander in late May of 2019. Twenty countries in that region, 18 of which we had diplomatic relationships with, and in only seven of those countries did we have a confirmed ambassador. Now the chargés and others that were in charge were excellent people, every man and woman just great Americans, very patriotic and very committed, but they did not carry the weight of the United States and the representation of a president of the United States in those countries.
So one of the really key things we could do very quickly is address that, make sure that our Department of State, our forward missions, are well-manned with confirmed ambassadors and the necessary team they have, and then the back bench that is necessary in the State Department is there to support them. Those are the types of things that we have to do as we move forward, and that's got to include things like the grey zone, the grey wars, as well. This is a political state, and we have to recognize that, and we have to leverage everybody in conjunction with this.
I think the military is very good about it, and we are going to do what we need to do, and we are going to maintain capabilities. We ought to look at the things in our inventory, and some things probably need to go away and some things need to be maintained and reinforced with this, but to me it's really, really important that we not lose sight of that.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to push on one other theme here. Nancy uses the word in the book, which is great, which is "hazy." We have "grey" and we have "hazy."
Sean, I am going to connect this up to your previous work on new rules of war. I want you to take a few minutes to talk about that aspect of the grey war, the sort of rules of engagement, if you will. And I hear General Votel loud and clear, which is that the military is an instrument of American foreign policy. It is directed to do certain things.
I guess my question as a layperson is: Where do these rules get cooked up? At the end of the day, reading Nancy's book, special operators many times are given a mission. They have to do this stuff. How should we be thinking about that? We have eyes open now. We are in this period of grey war that has these hazy things.
Sean, help us think about some of these things that are happening, and how should we be thinking about these new rules of war and how to put some parameters on that?
SEAN McFATE: It's a great question. The first observation is that "war" is not the right word. I am not sure what the right word is. The problem is that we tend to think of war like pregnancy—you either are or you're not. But in truth, war is a spectrum of things, and what our adversaries today are doing, like Russia and China especially, is exploiting this paradigm of ours that there is war or peace and war is the failure of peace, when in fact we may be at some level of in between at all times.
So they use things that deliberately confound us strategically, like cyberattacks—is that war or is that peace?—disinformation—war or peace?—lawfare, what China is doing—war or peace?—and they use mercenaries and special forces on the edges that they can deny if things go wrong. Even though our intelligence community might know, does Fox News and CNN know, and that is what they are fighting for. So traditionalists say, "Well, that's not war," because it doesn't look like World War II or Napoleonic warfare.
What I am suggesting in my book, The New Rules of War, is that we have to be more plastic than that. We have to widen our aperture about what is warfare today and not be a paradigm prisoner of conventional war. But the word "war" is problematic because that already predefines a certain set of activities. I want to have a bigger discussion about what does war look like in the 21st century, and I think that in Nancy's book Grey Wars and my book New Rules of War there is an intellectual insurgency brewing that is challenging groupthink blobthought. I'll end with that.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is great. I am going to follow this up, but I do want to tell our audience that if you do have questions you can put them into the chat function, and as we get towards the end we will try to collect a few and share them with the group.
I can't resist this here. I'm thinking about how these policies are made and formed and so on. Nancy does write about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), so we have this famous declaration of September 2001, which is I guess still in effect. It just raises the bigger question: How do we think about the policymaking around this, Congress, and so on? It just seems like an open, undirected activity that is outsourced in a sense to the United States military and kind of overseen by the Executive. Is there a role for Congress? Is there a role for regulating this in some way?
Nancy, do you have some further thoughts since the book about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and maybe where we are now? Should things be amended? Should the slate be wiped clean and start over? How do you think about that?
N. W. COLLINS: Congressional leaders are already directly and deeply involved in the day-to-day decision making, so it's a false premise to somehow suggest that they are not engaged and not involved. I would say that in addition to our elected leaders, House Armed Services Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Appropriations, and so forth, there is also an incredibly impressive cadre of professional staff members on the Hill who really do toil often 18 hours a day on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) annually and who are working very hard and who are regularly interacting with groups across all of government, not just within the Department of Defense but also Department of State, the very broad and diverse intelligence community, and so on.
Congress is there and very present in all of these decisions. They obviously have the power of the budget. Whether it is a small item or a large item, Congress is directly engaged. I guess that would be my first thing, just to clarify that they are already there.
In terms of the Authorization, while the September 2001 AUMF is the most well-known—it was the highest profile of the various Authorizations—it is a patchwork of really thousands of different types of Authorizations over the last 20 years and also going back much further that provide the mechanisms by which this all works. It can be something as small as an addendum within the NDAA. In other words, it can be a paragraph that opens up some new way of doing things, and that could be it, or it could be blanket umbrella, like Article Two or Office of the Executive, or something that is passed in this high-profile 2001 way. So again, I think it is a pretty complicated patchwork of legislative decision making that is what makes all of this go.
What I would want to offer, though, is that in addition to this complicated network of decision making across the Executive and Legislative branches is an area where it is not perhaps as evolved as we could be as a nation, which are those individuals who are not currently serving in a full-time capacity, whether they be an active-duty military service member or they are a Foreign Service officer or they are a senior intelligence professional. All of these folks are serving in a full-time and permanent career way.
When we look at the problems that we face, though, that is a relatively small number of people having to deal with massive strategic challenges that affect all of us. So what I would call on would be all those people who are not currently serving in full-time federal capacity to figure out what their contribution is going to be. General Votel is leading BENS. That is an example of an outstanding organization of individuals who have made the decision that they want to take time and energy and commit to a mission, and I think it really is incumbent upon all of us to find our contributions.
The professionals are who need to be in charge. They are the ones who are there every day, but again, when we think about what the fights are going to be going forward—to take Sean's example of some technological fights, much of that infrastructure and much of that expertise currently resides in 10 to 15 large technology companies. They need to be much more open to having discussions with national security decision makers. They need to be much more willing to come to the table and make a contribution than they have been. I think that some of their attitudes toward these things have fallen short in profound ways that put us all at risk, and I quite frankly think that some of their grandstanding may be good for their bottom line, but I do not respect it.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Nancy.
General, do you have some thoughts about this theme?
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: I sure do.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I bet you do.
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: This is a big, fat softball here.
First off, I will just say this, that I think the vast majority of military professionals recognize that how you do something is actually more important than what you are doing on the battlefield, whether it is holding detainees, conducting kinetic strikes, or whether it is the conduct of operations that we are doing out there. I think we all recognize that a failure of standards, a failure of values in any one of these would not only hurt the organization that we are part of, but it would in fact hurt the nation.
We do have to have some rules out there. Things like the AUMF are very, very important. The AUMF that we refer to, the 2001 version, I think we have wrung about as much as we could get out of it. I know there was a position that we had for a long time that we did not need a new AUMF. My personal view—and I think I testified to this—was that if we were going to do a new AUMF, I would support that. I think it is a statement of support for those we are putting in the way of harm and are doing the nation's bidding: "Here's what you're trying to do."
I don't think it's unreasonable for our civilian leadership or for the American people to have an expectation that we will conduct military operations and do it in a manner that represents our values with this. Those are not incompatible ideas there, and we should be able to hold both of those things in our mind at the same time.
From a practitioner's standpoint, what we need to be able to do is we need to be able to enable decision making at the right level. We need to make sure that we promote good communication and feedback between multiple levels. I have never wanted people guessing about what I was doing as the CENTCOM commander. I wanted people to know what we were doing. And we need to do things that promote trust between levels of leadership as we're executing all of this, and I think well-written, well-considered AUMF or rules of engagement or what have you—and there are differences between all of those things—it is in our interests to do that.
I think Congress has a role in this. Certainly the administration has a role in this, and the practitioners in the intelligence community, military, and diplomatic corps all have input into this. This I think should be a priority as we move forward, particularly as we confront, as Sean articulated well, this continuing aspect of grey wars that we are going to deal with for the future that is going to be much different than anything else we have done before.
Oftentimes the challenge of things like cyber information is that it gets after core values. It gets after things like privacy and things that we hold very dear in our country, but yet we have to confront this because our inability to confront it is limiting the ability of decision makers and people who are trying to do the nation's bidding to best protect us. So we really have to wrestle with this, and it is going to take a variety of smart people to do that, I think.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Thank you.
There is a question in the chat, which actually will help us come to the conclusion of the hour, which I think is quite profound. It talks about the kind of unifying moment of 9/11 for our country. A lot can go unsaid here about the division and the polarization that we have right now, but I wonder if I could push each of you to think about that a little bit, about what might be a unifying if not strategy, vision, or set of values or concept, to think about the future of national security. I think there is probably a growing consensus that the challenges are going to start to look different, having to do with whether it's cyber, space, crypto, or these new realities of the way we live. This is a big question but is there a potential for unification around this, or is it just further polarization?
I am going to go to Sean because I think he has thought about this a little bit coming into this.
SEAN McFATE: Not a softball. I will be very quick because we don't have much time.
Look, we all need a grand strategy. We haven't had a grand strategy since 1950 with containment, and there are grand strategic skeptics in Washington thinking the world is too complex and it can't be done.
Nonsense. The world was complex a hundred years ago. It was complex a thousand years ago. A grand strategy articulates all these things, and sort of like a good business plan—it is not a business plan, but it forces you to think about some of the details.
The thing about a grand strategy, what makes it "grand" is that it can last beyond an administration and beyond a president. There is no such thing as an Obama grand strategy, a Bush grand strategy. It has to last, and right now it is hard to imagine, given the culture war in our country, that happening anytime soon, but that is the answer that is easy to say but hard to do. We can't go much further without a grand strategy that articulates all these things. And our adversaries like China have one. We have to be concerned about that.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Nancy, do you want to take a crack? Is there something to unify us?
N. W. COLLINS: I will do it quickly in the interests of time. I would offer that we are at a moment where we need America to stay deeply and strategically engaged with the world, full stop. That is what is so important to unify behind and around. I think that over the last six to eighteen months we have been pulling away, pulling out, turning our back, and otherwise diminishing our credibility. What I would offer is a deep reengagement with the world around us.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. General.
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: First off, I vehemently agree with Sean here on this need for a strategy. We need an Eisenhower-like moment when in 1953 we convened the National Security Solarium to basically lay out a strategy for how we were going to deal with the Soviet Union that unified us for decades and transcended that.
We also need to address our aspects of partnership. We have done a lot of damage to our relationships over the last several years with respect to this. They are not necessarily broken, but they are in need of important tending here.
I think the last thing I would introduce is that we need to work on strategic communication, first and foremost to our own people to make sure they understand exactly what is at stake right now, and what is at stake is being number two. If we are okay with that, then we don't have problem. But I don't think we are. If we are okay to live in a world that is dominated by China—who is going to write the rules, who is going to be the reserve currency, who is going to devise the norms by which we operate, and who is going to drive coalitions and alliances around here—I think that is what's at stake, and we need very clear communications with the American people about what is at stake and what we are trying to do with our strategy.
Think back to the Cold War. People understood the threat that was coming from the Soviet Union and what that meant, and it transcended age groups, generations, and everything else. We need that right now. We need that level of clarity, and I think that is something that would be a worthy undertaking for the nation frankly.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. That's a great place to conclude. I would just add, General, in building on what has been said here, that there is also a set of values that we can think about as a country, what we stand for, for ourselves and for the world that should be part of this conversation, and perhaps our Council can play a role in promoting that conversation.
We are at the end of the hour. I want to thank you all very much for participating. I really appreciate you lending your expertise and your experience.
Nancy, thank you for writing the book and for prompting this conversation.
I think we will definitely have more sessions around these themes. These are big themes, and they deserve dialogue and conversation. I hope all of you who are watching either live or on the recorded version come to the Carnegie Council website. We have a lot of resources here. You can watch sessions like this, you can listen to them as podcasts, you can read the transcripts, and we will be building up a whole set of materials around this.
With that, we will adjourn the session. Thank you all very much, and I hope to see you again soon.
N. W. COLLINS: Thank you.
JOSEPH L. VOTEL: Bye-bye.
SEAN McFATE: Thank you.