Global Watercooler: Scowcroft on Cyber

Global Watercooler

Around the watercooler today: the similarity between nuclear- and cyber-war; al Qaeda in Libya; and Greenspan takes on Dodd-Frank.

Scowcroft: Time for Cyber Arms Talks?

General Brent Scowcroft sees “eerie similarities” between the beginning of the nuclear weapons age and what we are now facing regarding the potential of cyber warfare. Both, he argued, are weapons unique in their capability to disrupt entire societies. Thus, he said, just as the great powers began to engage in nuclear arms talks during the Cold War, so must leading players now also “develop the rules of the road” for an inevitable proliferation of cyber weaponry.

Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, made this appeal before some of the world’s leading cyber experts, convened by Georgetown University and the Atlantic Council, where he is chairman of the International Advisory Board. “Cyber has let loose now the same capability to destroy our societies” that nuclear weapons had before them, he told them. 

He posed questions that will engage the world for decades to come. What cyber activities are off limits? What should be the role of cyber weapons? Once we agree upon the red lines, what does the world community do if they are crossed? Throughout the day, experts returned again and again to these themes. Unlike nuclear weapons, which for years have prevented war, some experts worried that these cyber weapons would have broader and easier applicability. More complicated yet, it will always be difficult after an attack to be certain of the source.  

For its part, the Atlantic Council announced yesterday at Georgetown that it is launching a Cyber Statecraft Initiative. We agree with Scowcroft that it is time for a broader global conversation about which countries and institutions will set what norms for the cyber world. And who then will enforce whatever rules are set. “This is not just a game,” Scowcroft said.

If the U.S. and its allies don’t take the lead, we will lose the initiative to others.  

Al Qaeda Among Rebel Forces

So Gaddafi at least wasn’t crazy when he argued al Qaeda was part of the fight against him.

Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, confirmed yesterday the worries of a lot of us. “We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaeda, Hezbollah” fighters among opposition forces, he said in congressional testimony. To be sure, Stavridis stressed that the intelligence he is receiving satisfies him that the opposition leadership is made up of “responsible men and women who are struggling against Colonel Gaddafi.”

The al Qaeda presence shouldn’t surprise anyone. As the Washington Post reported today, “Libya has for years been a fertile recruiting ground for al Qaeda.” Libyans have been in the terrorist network’s most senior ranks in disproportionate numbers, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group formally joined al Qaeda in 2007.

So on the surface, it was encouraging to see 40 world leaders meeting in London yesterday to make common cause against Gaddafi, intensifying their calls for him to step down. Yet even if they can achieve that end quickly, which remained in doubt after new Gaddafi gains yesterday in the town of Bin Jawad, the more difficult task will be to remain sufficiently engaged with the opposition to ensure its worst elements remain marginalized.

Greenspan’s Global Warning

In the Financial Times today, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan launched an attack that will be heard around the world on the Dodd-Frank act’s potential perils to global markets. Wrote Greenspan, “The act may create the largest regulatory-induced market distortion since America’s ill-fated imposition of wage and price controls in 1971 … The problem is that regulators, and for that matter everyone else, can never get more than a glimpse at the internal workings of the simplest of modern financial systems.”

The Atlantic Council published a report last year with Thomson Reuters ("The Danger of Divergence: Transatlantic Cooperation on Financial Reform") that pointed out, among other things the dangers of transatlantic regulatory inconsistencies. Now Greenspan is taking that a step forward. The FT predicts that his article might encourage Republicans to unwind Dodd-Frank.

At the very least, legislators should take another look – with more distance from the crisis — at whether Greenspan is right that its measures will, at best, be impossible to implement and, at worst, dangerously distort markets.

Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Berlin 1961, will be available May 10.

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