Over the past two days I transitioned from finding the discussion and content of a meeting provocative and thoughtful to increasing unease about everything happening around me. More and more the feeling seeped into my consciousness that the dialog wasn’t quite as deep as I had first thought, and I had been plunged into an echo chamber where various delusions exist unchallenged by countering viewpoints. The organizers had despite meritorious efforts had failed to provide sufficiently broad viewpoints on the important topics to be engaged during the symposium.
I attended an odd meeting this week, or at least odd for me, the US Strategic Deterrence Symposium put on by the US Strategic Air Command. This week’s offering comes from Omaha Nebraska, the home of Cornhuskers (Big Red) as I was repeatedly reminded over the last two days. Aside from all too much celebration of the upcoming college football season, the symposium was exceedingly well run and professional. Even more remarkably, it took place in a Hotel conference center, not “on site” or “on base”.
As always on travel to a new place I am extra observant. Indeed traveling is a great way to see the country and the world while gaining much needed perspective on how others live. Omaha offers me the chance to see a real sunrise that the Sandia Mountains deny me. Omaha also seems to eschew the practice of supplying sidewalks for its citizens. This is irritating given my newfound habit of walking every morning, and might explain part of the (big) red state propensity towards obesity.
Part of my watchful state was the growing thought and an increasing sense of being an interloper at this symposium. I really felt like a complete outsider. The first thing I noticed was the complete lack of technology in audience aside from cell phones (I was using an iPad to take notes which made me an immense outlier! This grew into a sense that this was the tip of the proverbial iceberg). Furthermore the footprint of the meeting on Twitter was nearly zero (until the press release from our last keynote speaker from the State Department). For a topic so ripe with technological angles and implications the seemingly Luddite mass attending the meeting was very troubling. I’ll note that the demographics of the meeting appeared to be about 40% military from all the services, and an array of beltway bandits, and think tank thinkers with a sprinkling of international attendees and high-level government officials. It wasn’t clear how many academics were there, but not many beyond those on the panels.
I will note that the meeting did offer the laudable idea of letting attendees text or email questions to the panels. I availed myself of this, with limited success. Here are my to questions,
Q1; to what extent is the current peaceful Europe more of a reflection of the collective memory of WW2 rather than a permanent change in the political dynamic? How can we effectively extend the peace?
Q2: to what extent are we vulnerable to technological surprise and potentially overconfident about our technological superiority?
The first one was never asked. It was a response to an observation that the Napoleonic wars of the 19th Century precipitated a pause in European conflict, and pondered whether WWII is the basis of the currently relatively peaceful Europe. Is the memory of the mass destruction caused by that war tilting governments toward peaceful resolution of differences? The second question was asked albeit in a modified form to an interesting subject. We had been treated to relatively jingoist discussion of American military superiority, and I wanted to know if we were a bit overconfident and could be surprised by an unforeseen technological advance. Instead the moderator asked the question to the Chinese member of the panel, who responded that yes they are afraid of this. Maybe the Americans shouldn’t be so sure of themselves. The Chinese are doing something about their fear and the Americans appear to be grossly overconfident of their technological hegemony.
When the meeting closed the Admiral who hosted the symposium highlighted the importance of youth, and their role in showing us the way forward especially with technology. He had everyone 35 years old and younger standup. Given my embrace of technology I think this approach isn’t good enough, not by a long shot. We need to challenge everyone in the field to be technologically advanced and learn how to live into eh modern World. Just because one is old shouldn’t allow one off the hook. Frankly this was one of the most disappointing moments of the whole meeting. This community needs to challenge itself to be current and up to date with a deep, broad understanding of the technology that our security hinges upon.
I’ll highlight three of the talks before I close. One that was very good, one that was off the mark and a third one that made me angry.
The dinner talk at the end of the first day came from Dr. Zuhdi Jasser. I found it to be very thought provoking with a message for supporting the rise of secular Islam as a policy. He was passionate and focused with a key message of supporting the liberal, secular forces that allow for Western ideals of liberty and freedom to flourish (I noted embarrassingly that “liberty” and “liberal” have the same root, but are perceived entirely differently by politics). One troubling aspect of Dr. Jasser’s speech was his failure to take on the forces of anti-secular Christianity (probably present in the room!). These forces actually legitimize the sort of philosophy he is speaking out against and it effectively makes the Jihad two-sided with Christian soldiers squaring off in a modern Crusade. This is a lost opportunity. This would also speak against his advocacy of dropping the enemy of my enemy is my friend philosophy that defines too much of US Foreign policy for the last 70 years (is he guilty of this very practice by embracing the American Right?).
General Frank Klotz, the NNSA administrator, gave the opening talk of the second day. In many ways the talk was not very interesting, but it was relevant to me. Ultimately, the item that stuck to me was the discussion of the maintenance of a World-class workforce in science and technology. General Klotz described the NNSA support for re-capitalizing the facilities as central to this. He reiterated the importance of the workforce several times. From my perspective we are failing at this goal, and failing badly. The science that the United States is depending on is in virtual free fall. Our supremacy militarily is dependent of the science of 20-40 years ago, and the pipeline is increasingly empty. We have fallen behind Europe, and may fall behind China in the not too distant future. The entire scientific establishment is receding from prominence in large part to a complete lack of leadership and compelling mission as a Nation. It is a crisis. It is a massive threat to National security. The concept of deterrence by capability used to be important. It is now something that we cannot defend because our capabilities are in such massive decline. It needs to come back; it needs to be addressed with an eye towards recapturing its importance. Facilities are no replacement for a vibrant scientific elite doing cutting edge work. Today, for some reason we seem to accept this as such.
One of the final panels offered a talk that just made me angry in a visceral, deep way. It came from DHS. The speaker offered up a vision of a walled off, gated community as a response to the potential terrorism. In my view this sort of approach to terrorism is the absolute failure of deterrence. He outlined an America where terrorism has won and our freedom has been scarified to the altar of fear. It is the surrender of our lifestyle to the forces of terror. He represented a view that hands victory to our enemies. One could argue that our response to terrorism has handed them success by the massive amount of resources squandered in fighting it, and the replacement of liberty, freedom and our fundamental principles by surveillance, torture and perpetual war. As the events in Ferguson, Missouri have demonstrated, too much of the war has been exported to our streets by police disguised as an occupying army (the negatively of this was alluded to at the meeting although not directly).
The last thing that stood out to me was the political attitude of the attendees. People usually shy away from expressing deep political sentiment, but not here. I felt like a group preparing the talking points for Fox News surrounded me. I heard open climate denial without a hint of reservation. Interesting the climate issue looms large over US-Russian dynamics with the Artic being a potentially huge flashpoint. Other climate related topics such as increased regional conflict due to crop failures and energy were avoided. This is a huge problem. I felt that the audience was largely only tolerating the current administration, and deeply wanted to see a more strident policy aligned with Neo-Con ideals. The topic of strategic deterrent is too important to not be subject to a deeper more nuanced debate, but this wasn’t happening here.
In summary, this was an important and good meeting with lots of provocative content, but needs to sharpen its edge and challenge the audience’s conventional wisdom. They need to tear open the echo chamber naturally arising from this community. If the USA isn’t careful we will all be surprised by dangers and risks hiding in plain sight.