Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq

Afghanistan: Looming Tragedy – Will President Biden Blame Bad Intelligence?

President Biden visited the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Tuesday (27 July).  In his public remarks he praised the Intelligence Community (IC) and promised to never politicize their workSounds promising and clear-cut.  But reality is never that pure.

Not being Trump, one might assume the President asked the IC for assessments on the future of Afghanistan before he decided to pull out quickly.  Did the IC provide analysis that underpinned the President’s calculation that full withdrawal was the way to go? 

Did the IC assess the Taliban would abide by commitments in their negotiations?  How long did the IC or President Biden think the government in Kabul would last?  Did the IC warn that the Taliban would eradicate all associated with the US (and our coalition partners)? 

The Taliban will decimate those Afghanis associated with the US  (interpreters among others). Thousands of Afghani citizens must flee or die.  Fear is more contagious that the Delta Covid variant.  How many will risk their lives (and their families) on the strength of the Afghan army?  How soon will the Afghan Army melt away, leaving abandoned uniforms in trash heaps?  The fall of Saigon is an obvious lesson.  (My mother as a retired teacher in the 70’s spent her time tutoring a Vietnamese family in English. One family of tens of thousands.) 

Will the President blame his policy decisions on lousy intelligence?   Or will his people create some other narrative that the collapse of the government was inevitable?  This could get ugly in many ways.

Possibly the intelligence assessments were bad. But you would think after two decades of total access to the country that there might be some folks in the US government who might have some foreboding insight into the fragility of Kabul absent even symbolic US military presence.  And someone must have warned that the Taliban would be brutal to those left behind. This is not a hard target like Iraq. Before we invaded, sources inside Iraq were scarcer than chicken’s teeth.

As the Afghan drama unfolds it will test the character of all involved.  After all, Biden’s foreign policy leaders are experienced veterans and colleagues from the Obama Administration.  And Biden is the most experienced foreign policy president as any since George H. W. Bush.  He was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before most Foreign Service Officers were born.  He co-sponsored a bill to provide additional humanitarian assistance for South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.

Of course that experience may give him reason to be skeptical of IC pronouncements—which can be way wrong (sometimes for good reasons).

But what were the intelligence assessments that Biden either relied upon or dismissed?  This question will not go away. The press and even Democrat-controlled congressional committees will ask some pointed questions.  The looming disaster of Afghanistan will be a test of how non-political the Administration will treat the IC.  (I suspect an investigation is inevitable and, sadly, will become politically driven.)

CIA director Bill Burns has wisely stayed out of the limelight.  Last week, in a rare interview with National Public Radio he was pressed about Afghanistan.   National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly asked if reports that the IC estimated the Afghan government could fall in as little as 6 months were true.  Burns danced around this inevitable question.  You can see his response tests the balance between candor and avoidance of damage to political leaders.  Remaining completely apolitical is not easy.  

Burns said, “Well, the trend lines that all of us see today are certainly troubling. The Taliban are making significant military advances; they’re probably in the strongest military position that they’ve been in since 2001.” 

Kelly pressed, “But that date, as soon as six months, is that correct?”

“Well, there are a lot of possibilities out there. I mean, what I would say is that the Afghan government retains significant military capabilities. The big question, it seems to me and to all of my colleagues at CIA and across the intelligence community, is whether or not those capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political willpower and unity of leadership that’s absolutely essential to resist the Taliban. So, as I said, the trend lines are certainly troubling. I don’t think that that should lead us to foregone conclusions or a sense of imminence or inevitability, but they really are worrying as well. So the U.S. government, as the president has made clear — and CIA will play a part in this — will continue to be strongly supportive of the Afghan government in every way that we can. And for CIA, we will be sharply focused beyond the withdrawal of the U.S. military and continuing terrorism challenges.”

Burns did a good job parrying Kelly’s question with a question.  But in private, he and his analysts will have made an assessment.  That’s their job.  They can’t simply respond to a president and shrug, “Gee Boss, that’s a good question. We were wondering the same thing.   Seems like a lot of our supporters might have a problem.”  They have to make a judgment, state their confidence level and what data underlies the judgment.

(There is more to the interview and the juggle of candor and political risks.  See: https://www.npr.org/2021/07/22/1017900583/transcript-nprs-full-conversation-with-cia-director-william-burns)

Most tragic is the fate of the Afghani citizens and especially those who supported the US.  The consequence of our withdrawal cannot possibly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the collapse of South Viet Nam.  The absence of preparation for this knowable tragedy will be tough to explain. The Biden Administration is populated with experienced State and Defense hands.

The government process to deal with so-called special immigrant visas is bureaucratic insanity.  Former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, to his great credit, raised this horror we are bequeathing to those we leave behind.   Crocker testified on 23 June before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and detailed the appalling bureaucratic process that will last much longer than the collapse of Afghanistan. The 14-step labyrinth (involving bureaucrats with no stake in the outcome and plenty of excuses for doing nothing) can take years.  The loyal supporters of the US will be long dead. Crocker knows this from his Iraq experience.  There were the same issues—but the timelines were less critical.

Unless urgently fixed, this will be a black stain on the US reputation for a long time.  Loyal support downrange is essential in any American or NATO operation.  Loyal support needs to be reciprocated.  (See Crocker’s testimony at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/06/23/special-immigrant-visas-for-foreign-interpreters-pub-84831)

It will be hard for Biden and his administration not to own what comes in Afghanistan. Watch those who may wish to run in 2024. There will be many moon-walking away. Afghanistan may be to President Biden, what Iraq was to George W. Bush.  The difference maybe in degree and direction, one going in and one getting out. 

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BYOB? — US and UK F-35s operate from UK Carrier against ISIS

UK and US F-35s have conducted strike missions against ISIS targets from the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. (https://theaviationist.com/2021/06/21/f-35b-hmsqe-shader/ ) This is good news.  It points to the potency of close allies working together.  We draw strength in many ways from allies.  As difficult as it is to manage coalitions and allied relationships, the joint benefits are substantial.*  Common operating procedures, communications, intelligence and equipment provide great strength.  The absence of this is weakness. 

Hence, the problem posed by the decision of Turkish President Erdogan to purchase Russian S-400 air defense system–a big win for Putin.  First deliveries occurred in 2019 and in response, the US cut Turkey off from the F-35 program.  First test launches came in 2020 and the Trump administration levied sanctions. However, neither Trump nor Biden have been able to convince Erdogan to reconsider this move.  Turkey’s interests and NATO’s interests are complicated to say the least. But having a Putin ally as part of the NATO integrated military can not work.

So, its good to see US aircraft operate from a UK carrier.  No doubt there are complications of coordination, e.g. is it a BYOB (bombs) invitation? But better to have more options than less.

* As Churchill is quoted in 1945, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”

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Reward for What?!

According to news reports, the US State Department announced that in response to the continued attacks on US diplomatic personal and assistance missions in Iraq it was offering a reward of $3 million for information about the perpetrators. 

This seemed weird.  Our people are in Iraq have been subjected to continuing attacks. In fact, Lockheed is withdrawing their staff supporting the Iraqi Air Force F-16s. Washington has repeatedly asked PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi to stem this problem.  Nothing happens.  The Iranian-backed Iraqi militias (who receive their salaries from the Iraqi government) grandly state they will expand such attacks until the US military leaves. Iraq at one point arrested a few militia members but soon released them presumably due to militia threats to the government.

And so we offer a reward for information about those responsible?  Huh?

I thought this might have been fake news.  I checked the State Department press releases and found nothing.  The State Near East Bureau had no such announcement. The Rewards for Justice site had no announcement. Maybe it was fake.

So I checked the sources of the articles that carried this story—the first articles appeared in Arabic press.  It turns out they were quoting a twitter announcement by the Rewards for Justice program.

Sure enough, you look up the RFJ twitter account and they really are offering money (and have an imbedded video) for information about attacks on US presence in Iraq.

 (see:  https://twitter.com/Rewards4Justice/status/1402997633702981632)

(Google translation:  Oh loyal people of #Iraq, cowardly terrorists attack US diplomatic missions in Iraq and then rush to hide among the civilian population. America is offering a reward of up to $3 million for information on planned or past attacks against US diplomatic facilities. Text us via WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal.)

So, we are so disturbed about these attacks that we quietly offer $3 million for reports about attacks on the US.  Is that the best we can do?

First of all, it will generate all sorts of useless responses.  When the Iraq Survey Group was pursuing WMD evidence in 2003-5 in Iraq, someone had the idea of offering rewards for tips.  Well more tips than could ever be checked out came in.  Useless.  Some were just misguided.  Somebody would see something that looked weird (like the cryo bottles for a SAM missile) but wasn’t WMD.  More damaging, tipsters would provoke raids against somebody they had a grudge against.

But worse, it is the responsibility of the government of Iraq to provide protection.  They can’t or won’t. The government cannot control the militias they fund.  Clearly Iran has more control than Baghdad and is even upgrading their ability to hit the US with attack drones like those used by the Houthis in Yemen.

So, in response the US issues an Arabic twitter statement asking for information—and offering a reward.  Is that the best we can do? 

It’s difficult not to conclude that Washington is unwilling to address the source of the attacks—Tehran–so as not to upset the nuclear JCPOA talks in Vienna.  This repeats the approach of the Obama Administration.  The highest priority was the JCPOA and all other issues were subservient to that goal.  Iran seems to understand this and take advantage of it.

Where this leaves Iraq remains a sad question. And where does this leave the US, or do we just leave?

Posted in Allies, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sunni, Syria | Leave a comment

The New CIA Director

Ambassador William J. Burns is a great and timely choice to head the CIA. He will assure that the Administration has the intelligence collection and analysis for the critical security issues facing the United States. He is a long time diplomat, but not without knowledge of the CIA. He was Ambassador in Moscow and therefore close to his CIA counterpart. Russia will be a key issue and he can calibrate the Agency’s production and critically appraise the analytic products. And he can make sure the staff are addressing the right questions.

The same understanding of policy and process apply to the rest of the world (especially China). Burn’s experience as deputy Secretary of State invests him with long experience in consuming intelligence products (and approval of various collection activities). He knows when assessments are useful to policy decision-makers and if operations offer too much risk and not enough benefit.

Moreover, Burns has long experience in working with the national security team Biden has assembled. Whether you like the Iran deal or not, Burns certainly knows the players from his experience in the Obama administration. He knows foreign leaders first hand. He will be a tough consumer for the analysts who create profiles of foreign leaders–he knows them and the analysts don’t.

Can he run the Agency? He ran State Department as Deputy. Of course that’s quite different from many activities at CIA. For example, there are massive programs in science and technology and the newer digital world with no counterpart at State. But careful selection of his team should keep the CIA growing where it needs in these areas. Forward thinking staff and managers can be unleashed in an organization with improved morale. The sense of mission reportedly slumped in last administration. If the US is to leap ahead of competitors like China, it will need the agency to be inspired and amped up for a sustained period. This is not different from State Department.

Of course, Burns will face tough choices. What emphasis to give the “War of Terror”? Currently, the popular concern is domestic insurgency–how much of that is being pumped up by foreign actors? What to do about that? What to do about cyber? How to interface with private sector actors in new ways? The list is endless.

Burns has been around the national security world long enough to understand the value in sustaining expertise in areas that are not currently fashionable. Russian experts were out of favor for a long time, but the expertise is now needed. Corporate memory is valuable behind a vision for the future.

Burns is seen as a calm, extremely competent, diplomat. This should not be confused with softness. A colleague observed that transgressions would have consequences–perhaps without “sturm und drang”, but there would be costs, severe costs. In this vein, I would expect greater attention to “Moscow Rules”.

I had the opportunity to work with (and learn from) his father, then Army Brigadier General William F. Burns, when he was detailed to State Department as deputy assistant secretary for Politico-Military Affairs. He integrated diplomacy and military power to build national security in the Reagan Administration. (I only interacted with the younger Burns on limited occasions regarding Iraq when Bill headed the Middle East Bureau at State in 2001-2005.) In my opinion, there is every reason to believe he will bring the full capacity of the CIA to bear in the world that we now face–and maintain its apolitical stance. Such balance is all the more important today when all government assessments are scrutinized for political bias.

This may be the hardest and most important task. It requires staying hard-wired to the factual basis for statements and being explicit about uncertainties when making assessments. I had a non-trivial experience in sustaining (recreating) credibility in the CIA when presenting the factual outcome of the investigation into Saddam’s WMD programs in the midst of the 2004 presidential elections. To be trusted simultaneously by the White House and Congress, let alone our Allies, is a major challenge. Staying out of the public eye makes it easier. Staying clear of being used in someone else’s narrative is critical.

Bill Burns is great choice for Director.

Posted in Allies, China, Cyber Threat, Elections, Intelligence, Iran, Russia, Uncategorized, WMD | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Most Hyperbole In the History of the Galaxy, Or, Does Democracy in America Really Hang by a Thread?

The recurrent statements following the chaos of January 6, were nothing, if not cataclysmic, i.e. “democracy hangs by a thread!”

Unfortunately, foreign friends and allies tend to watch events in Washington via television like everyone else.  On multiple occasions conversations with such friends reach a point when they gently suggest that they must re-evaluate their own security and policy positions in light of the circumstances (weakness/chaos) in Washington.     

Fortunately, even the casual foreign observer of American television reporting (and other media) may notice the preponderance of the use of hyperbole.  If you don’t declare that something is the worst or best in the history of the galaxy, then you don’t have an opinion worth airing.  Only superlatives get attention.  Or so it would seem…especially related to President Trump.

To foreign friends I caution against quick reactions.  Look beyond the latest news cycle before compromising with China or Russia.  I urge them to consider the longer term.  Decipher the current narratives promoted relentlessly by elements in the US. Groups/individuals have substantial stakes in sustaining those narratives.  Without steering foreigners to any particular conclusion, I think it is constructive to advise some historical context.  The easiest and perhaps shortest way I have found is to remind interlocutors of 1968. 

In April that year, Martin Luther King was assassinated and riots engulfed Washington and dozens of other cities.  Blocks in Washington were burned and took years to recover.  Armed National Guard troops were deployed to restore order around the country.  Live ammunition was distributed and used.  In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.  In August, the Chicago Democratic convention (which nominated Hubert Humphrey after Johnson declared he would not run) was engulfed in riots. 

The Vietnam War tore the country. Thousands of Americans and Vietnamese were dying (remember the 1968 Tet Offensive). War protesters flooded Washington filling the Mall.  The Black Panthers got headlines and there were shootouts and trials.  Remember the Huey Newton and Bobby Seale trials?  Later in 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives. Yale decided to admit women undergraduates.  Nixon beat Humphrey by  .7 percent of popular vote.  And remember George Wallace? He carried five southern states.  Perhaps reading American’s distraction, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia putting an end to “Prague Spring.”

Oh and by the way, don’t forget we were balancing the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union throughout all this.  The United States had 300,000 troops in Europe to deter Soviet aggression.  There were tens of thousands of nuclear weapons all over the planet, ICBMs, SLBMs, B-52’s, large and small nuclear artillery, etc.  Accidents happened.  In 1968, a B-52 crashed in Greenland with four nuclear weapons on board. Yikes!  While Greta Thunberg, may never forgive the boomer generation for not reining in carbon emissions, at least total thermonuclear war was avoided.  Think of all the dead pandas and whales.

After 1968, the country eventually got out of Vietnam.  While Nixon was consumed by the Watergate crisis, the country advanced.  Social issues evolved in ways unimaginable in the 1950’s.  Arguably, the United States became stronger socially, economically, militarily, technologically and scientifically (we landed on the moon in 1969).  Democracy did not die as was predicted by many.  Western democratic societies endured and the world was not incinerated by accidental or intentional nuclear war. 

So while the confluence of current narratives requires pundits/parrots to shriek in full-throated superlatives, I suspect the current divisions in the country will heal as they have in the past.  And new divisions will inevitably follow.

The United States and its like-minded friends and Allies will, at worst, muddle through.  The connective tissue of our common ideals is strong.  The inventiveness of people unleashed from authoritarian governments is strong.  Our capitalist system tempered by government energizes innovation that serves the people. Cell phones have done as much as anything to raise living standards globally. While we may scare our friends (and ourselves) with the hysteria promoting assorted narratives and interests in the media, I strongly suspect we’ll come out stronger.

And consider whether Xi’s China or Putin’s Russia will help you be what you want to be.

Posted in Allies, China, Elections, journalism coverage, NATO, Russia, Uncategorized, United Nations | Tagged | 1 Comment

9-11 Nineteen Years On…

This day used to re-kindle memories of an attack against America. Little attention is now paid. It does not fit the current narrative. In this political season, neither candidate benefits from the old narrative. Today’s atmosphere seems to be that the threat to the United States comes from its own citizens and, probably always has. For those who do reflect upon 9-11 there is ample reason to consider the decisions made afterwards and the difference they made or did not make.  But today’s popular mindset is not one of reflection, but an entire paradigm shift–the problem is not out there, but in here.

It is striking that the heroes of the early post 9-11 days, including the NYPD and other police departments, are now the villains in the present “narrative.”

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Asteroid Near Miss (?): Monday, 2 November 2020

Indications and Warning – You won’t get anywhere else

Based on European Space Agency database (drawing on JPL and many other sources), on Monday, 2 November 2020 Near Earth Object (NEO) 2018 VP1 will pass very close to earth(est. 62,000 km). This puts it up on their RISK category.  The good news is that its size (estimate based on object reflectivity) is only 2.6 m.  So if it hits Earth, it won’t be a species-ending event (remember mass extinction of the dinosaurs of 65 million years ago).  However, the kinetic energy of impact would still be 2.6 megatons TNT equivalent. (Sourcing below.)

Analysis:  This will be reported as a Trump campaign plan to depress voter turnout.  Or, another reason to mail in absentee vote.  Or, fund US Space Force…or…

http://neo.ssa.esa.int/close-approaches;jsessionid=ca1211b1d52e2f16d5f94f198ade

https://newton.spacedys.com//neodys/index.php?pc=1.1.2&n=2018VP1

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Understanding the Dataverse: Beirut Explosion and the future of Intelligence Collection/Analysis

As a thought experiment to see what’s coming in intelligence collection and analytics, consider the forensics associated with the recent Beirut disaster.

The event itself was obviously detected instantly by witnesses all over the city.  And instantly, decision makers needed to know:  What was it?  Who caused it?  Terrorists?  State actors?  Will there be follow-on threats?  Are there pending risks to US citizens/interests? 

With emerging capabilities for continuous global surveillance in various spectra, we are approaching a world where, for any given geo-spatial spot, data stores can be intensively analyzed forensically. Moreover with artificial intelligence methods, such troves of data can be searched to find meaning that will answer the immediate questions—such as accountability.  In essence, machines can answer the natural human questions, “Tell be everything relevant about this point and event regarding what, who and why?”  Evolving artificial intelligence searching all the databases on the planet will derive answers regarding correlations that humans could not.  In fact, such analytics will surface relevant questions that were left unasked.  And the answers will be out there in the expanding “Dataverse“. 

Current and historical data on everything is accumulating in the planet’s data farms.  Space-based sensors, both commercial and government are proliferating for imagery as well as infrared and other spectra—and the capacity to store and access such data is proliferating.  Ship

Imagery and audio from the millions of cellphones around the planet offer another surveillance tool.  The proliferation of public and private surveillance cameras has created another obvious data trove.

The location of cellphones all over the planet can theoretically be collected and stored.  When an event of interest occurs how are individual ISP’s (people with cellphones) moving about?  Were there anomalous movements beforehand or afterward?

As more automobiles become directly linked to the Internet of things, movement of all autos can be analyzed with an eye toward forensic analysis.

Imagine all the sources of data that are being collected and stored in the data farms scattered over the planet and then imagine being able to, in essence, run the tape backwards to see how the people and things got to the geo-spatial point where something happened. 

In the Beirut harbor case, how did the material accumulate at the point of explosion?  Incrementally over years?   Who were the people associated with the deliveries?  Shipping data and ship patterns now routinely collected and stored can be searched. (Even for the mildly curious.  I noticed David Geffen was anchored off Islesboro, Maine for the past couple nights.  His 139-meter “Rising Sun” yacht squawking identifiable ship identification (AIS) data.)   

And, of course masses of financial records are searchable.  Imagine if you knew where every dollar in the world was and could monitor them?  It’s not such a huge leap.

Consider Beirut again, were there any uncorrelated financial transactions whereby someone with advance knowledge might seek to profit (as was the case before the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea)?

Plume and chemical analysis of the explosion can be matched against collections of such data for explosions all over the planet.  Widespread spectroscopic data will grow. Staring sensors for agriculture purposes will find other uses.

The data are out there.  The analytic tools that can sort and look for meaning in the data are evolving rapidly.  Critical to dominating the coming Dataverse are two things. One is access to the data.  In the first generation of the Internet, the US had access (we built the original systems) and could see email traffic…a big leap forward.  Google did the same commercial for commercial purposes.

In the coming generation, access to the Dataverse will be controlled by those who create the channels into and through it.  This is why the issues of Chinese infrastructure plans for 5G and their extraordinary investment in AI are critical.

The second necessity is massive computing power. Quantum computing is vital. Our future depends upon it for both security and economic reasons. 

China may have been able to answer the questions about Beirut before anyone else.  And, as things evolve, they may be able to anticipate more…. not just do forensic analysis.  These are long-term existential drivers that US leadership needs to consider and take concrete actions.   We are not ahead of the curve.

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9/11 is Over

For almost two decades policymakers, intelligence analysts, defense planners and warfighters have focused on strategies and priorities birthed on September 11, 2001.  “Today is September 12, 2001” was a sign posted in many offices and field operations.  It’s not September 12 anymore.

There has been a generational shift in America.  National security professionals whose mindset was radically recalibrated with the 9-11 attacks have moved on or evolved.  The country has moved on.  The national attitude post 9-11 is gone.  The popular focus is not on external threats but on internal divisions.  The Congress that created the Department of Homeland Security is long gone.  The Congress that approved the transfer of military equipment to local and state police to prepare for terrorist threats inside the United States is long gone. 

The current narrative is that the United States needs to attend to internal problems.  Some believe security and police forces are no longer essential to protecting America but are threatening America.  Of course, we’ve been here before–as any aging hippie will recall from the 60’s and 70’s.  Likewise those dubbed the “Silent Majority” by Richard Nixon have an opposing view.  (Coincidentally, at the time, I stumbled upon the use by Homer of  “silent majority” in the Odyssey but he was referring to the dead in contrast to the living.  Somehow that stuck with me.)

American internal unrest may be seen as a vulnerability to be exploited and fanned by our enemies (do not doubt that we still have such).   International security dynamics have clearly changed.  The threat of terrorism and the American Global War on Terror no longer the dominant defense planning.

There are, or course, plenty of security risks.  Curiously, many also echo of the 60’s and 70’s.  Russia is back as a real threat and even more so is “Red China” (or the “Chinese Communists”).  Fortunately, nuclear war has not re-emerged as the risk it once was.  Screwing up international security management during the cold war could have incinerated the planet (and in some cases nearly did).  And Greta Thunberg would have had no issue—nor have been afforded the opportunity to chastise all who preceded her by shrieking, “How dare you?”   Yes, Greta, it could have been worse.

Today we find ourselves with risks that derive from nation states as well as global risks that can only be addressed by nation states.  China spent the decade of the 2000’s expanding its GDP at 10% a year.  America spent trillions (when a trillion was a lot) of dollars on economically wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, the happy face painted on globalization was found to mask some major downsides.

So the mass of enthusiasm to respond to 9-11 is over.  There will be divisive domestic infighting with the upcoming elections and serious doubts will be fanned concerning the legitimacy of the American system.  The patchwork of groups and “communities” who all have leaders demanding to get what they deserve from the great American pie.  Sacrificing for the country is less fashionable now.  Congress, reacting to the pandemic financial crisis and eyeing the coming elections will spend like there is no tomorrow (giving Greta & Company another reason to say “How dare you?”).  These are times when Washington discounts the future pretty heavily—but not permanently.  Lurking beyond our shores, are growing external threats that can diminish the pie for everyone.  They will not go unnoticed.

 It may be appear that Americans are consumed with demanding what their country can do for them and not what they can do for their country.  However, strategic planners in Beijing and Moscow should be careful in assessing American weakness.  The unifying principles of America are not gone.  China and Russia will find that the United States will coalesce around policies and strategies that serve the critical interests and principles America and its allies share.

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Corvid-19 and Industrial Policy Reconsideration

The weak national response to Corvid-19 in the US will produce a re-awakening of debate on national industrial policy.  Are there national interests that cannot be left simply to the free market and shareholders seeking to maximize profit?  Yes, of course some, certainly including defense industry.  But where are the limits and who decides?  Time to rethink these issues.  Global supply chains have suddenly been revealed to have surprising dependencies that were not considered from a national security/health perspective.

This is not new.  I was recently reading a classic book in its field, “Chemical Warfare” by Curt Wachtel written in 1941.  Wachtel had been a key scientist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute before and during World War 1.  He subsequently became a US citizen and worked on American defense programs.  Anticipating potential chemical weapons that the US might confront in entering World War 2, his work highlighted the linkages that were overlooked by many countries regarding chemical weapons offensive and defensive requirements.

Wachtel noted that when Germany in 1916 decided to use mustard agent as a defensive weapon it would have to deal with eye injuries to soldiers and civilians.  This required vaseline.  The only source was from the US and the British blockade cut that off.  They immediately searched German and Austrian inventories and found only a few hundred pounds and immediately confiscated it.

Wachtel goes on to make the broader point governments need to identify and control critical items.  “There must be a bureau, or expert, or committee for chemical and industrial planning, not only for providing government agencies as well as private institutions and business.”  Wachtel also notes that a balance must be achieved because, “interference of a bureaucracy may mean disaster.”[i] 

Such planning comes naturally to China.  It’s in the DNA of the Communist Party of China.  Making no secret of its goals, China, under Premier Li Keqiang issued a blueprint in 2015 for its industrial policies.  The goal was to move their industrial capacity and expertise further up the supply chain in production and to leading edge in key technologies.   Their plan, called “Made in China 2025”, identified ten focal areas including biotechnology and medicines.  Midterm grades on their progress by various outside industry observers rate their progress highly (https://www.lek.com/sites/default/files/insights/pdf-attachments/Chinas-Healthcare-Innovation-by-Made-in-China-2025-and-Implications-for-MNCs_JUL06.pdf).

Analysts note that China’s emphasis in medicine is consistent with other nations with an aging population (Premier Li is said to be in charge of the Corvid-19 response).  However, China has always had a strong national security, economic and prestige component in its decisions.  Industrial policy comes naturally to the leaders of the Communist Party.  President Xie’s trademark Belt and Road initiative combines many of these goals in way that only a government with heavy central direction over the economy can achieve.  It must be a high priority for Beijing to achieve a vaccine first.

For the US, one fallout may be a broader view of federal roles in issues that can determine real risks to US security more broadly defined that just military or intelligence.  These issues come up regularly but there is not a sustained consideration of them in government.  Unlike many countries, we do not have the equivalent of a US 2025 program.  Politics and elections make sustained attention and sustained consensus on goals difficult if not impossible today.  Industrial policies in response to pandemics are one thing.  In rebuilding the economy with massive government infusions of resources we can expect strong advocates in the upcoming electoral season for such actions to address climate change.

The usual debates over industrial policy will re-ignite.


[i] Wachtel, Curt, “Chemical Warfare”, Chemical Publishing Co., Inc. Brooklyn New York 1941 pp. 84-85.

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