The concept of Passive Resistance has long been a staple of Special Operations doctrine since the beginning. As such, we have become the experts at stability and counter-stability operations around the globe. With this article, we have chosen to take a hypothetical look at how passive resistance techniques can shape the battlefield and be used effectively across the geo-political spectrum. We have taken a scientific approach in our methodology to illustrate how chaos can be used by demonstrators living under difficult regimes to help transform the battlespace. The Science of Chaos has parallel theories that can be applied to the human dimension in any environment.
Chaos Theory: The scientific study of complex systems that are highly sensitive to minor changes in conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to great consequences. A classic example of this new science is the study of global weather patterns. For thousands of years man has looked up at the sky and tried to predict what’s coming next. Even with today’s technology predicting the weather beyond a few days is a significant challenge at best. In 1962, Edward Lorenz, Professor of Meteorology at MIT, was trying to develop a simplified model for weather prediction. Using his new 1958 IBM medium speed computer, 16 bits per second, his initial inputs resulted in outputs carried to six decimal points. He decided to extend the forecast to a couple of months, and shorten the inputs to three decimal points.
After letting the computer run for a couple of hours, he compared the first line chart with the output data from the second line chart. A comparison of the two charts revealed something dramatic. Although, the charts seemed similar in the beginning they quickly diverged and the difference seemed to double every 15 days. He realized that with a minor change in inputs, he had yielded a dramatic change in outputs. The system had drifted into chaos.
The study of global weather patterns gave rise to a new branch of science known as Chaos Theory. Complex systems that are sensitive to minor changes are all around us. Over the last few years we have watched the stock market rise and fall reacting to a presidential tweet. One can observe the activity of an ant colony, and see how they act as single individuals to achieve the collective good. After studying these complex systems for 10 years, Edward Lorenz asked the most profound question: “Can a Butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas two years later?”. This suggests that a minor change in atmospheric conditions caused by the disturbance of a butterfly flapping its wings and taking off can affect the weather elsewhere on the planet. The complexity of weather systems illustrates the enormous number of variables that must be taken into account to receive a predictable outcome. This concept has become known as the “Butterfly Effect”.
This article offers a new look at how passive resistance when used in concert with Chaos Theory can cause problems for the oppressor. In our study of Passive Resistance, we asked a similar question: “Can a campesino, a farmer, cry freedom in the interior of Venezuela and cause a tornado in Caracas?”. The answer is yes, because we know that history is filled with examples of social, political, and economic changes that have emerged from the ideas of one person. One person can reach another person with his ideas, and that person reaches two, and so on.
In the SOF community this is called controlled chaos and it can be used effectively to cause disturbances in oppressive environments. Controlled chaos is the concept of reversing the science of Chaos Theory to cause the oppressor to expend all of his resources to regain control. At which point, he becomes defensive and reactive to the needs of the oppressed. Such as the French Resistance in World War II, or the Gorilla War in Viet Nam. Chaos Theory tells us that the evolution of a complex system must involve the use of an attractor, as it is known in science. “A set of values around which a system tends to evolve, from a wide variety of starting conditions” For example, during the great Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, Dr. King led the people with two primary attractors, civil rights and voting rights. India rose from oppression by the British with a single attractor, freedom from colonial rule. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela led his people with a single cry, “Freedom”. There are some commonalities between these examples. Each illustrates how a single idea can change a nation. Each represents a change in governmental control over its people, and more importantly, each attractor took time to achieve the desired outcomes.
A farmer in Venezuela can affect change if his cry for freedom has a universal attraction that impacts the greater population. In 1962, Cesar Chavez asked migrant farm workers to unionize to demand worker’s rights in California, and won. He came to realize that farm workers as a group had the power to affect change by simply refusing to work. Because there is a time stamp on agriculture, farmers realized very quickly that they needed his labor more than he needed their work. The starting conditions or inputs for the oppressed are inherent within the mass demonstrations because they already have the skills to cause chaos for the oppressor. Another common theme in these examples is that small changes in the system (the variables) must be targeted toward a specific attractor. Chaos, large demonstrations in the streets of Caracas, is not enough to cause the oppressor to give power to the oppressed. Each of the previous examples illustrates how the principles of Chaos Theory were used in reverse. Each demonstrates how the social dynamics of the population evolved over time with the unrelenting pressure of the individuals working collectively to achieve the desired results.
Passive Resistance in Venezuela is an effective strategy if the individual power of the people is coalesced around a universal attractor and guided by effective leadership. Since the days of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan people have been under the hands of an oppressive regime. They find themselves without the basic governmental services they should expect. There are shortages of food, medical supplies, and utilities. This has been happening in Venezuela for 20+ years. Efforts to resist this kind of Communist oppression has had little effect on governmental change because their efforts at passive resistance has been limited to mass demonstrations demanding change which has led to a hopeless uncertainty amongst the people.
PART II. What to do? Organize the population into a cohesive alternative governmental body. If the point view was reversed and millions of disenfranchised people decided to cause chaos for their governments the outcome would look very different. Most historical examples of public demonstrations have been reactive rather than proactive. By definition Passive Resistance is an offensive strategy that requires planning and skills. The planning must be deliberate and focused to achieve the desired effects. The skills are inherent to the group based on availability. Yes, causing chaos for the government takes more than marching a few blocks or throwing a few rocks. These activities are quickly neutralized and do not achieve the anticipated long-term goals. Giant demonstrations such as we have seen, become a formidable force when acting as a single organism. Through the eyes of the oppressed people the principles of Chaos Theory can be a model for proactive change in a society. A wise person once said “The mental expertise and knowledge will allow humankind to manipulate results in a more controllable manner”. Little by little, by trial and by error humans can turn chaos into order. In the science of chaos this is called evolution. Of course, this might take time to perfect and require higher degrees of consciousness from the oppressed. History has shown us that this can be done, as human evolution steps up and starts facing unknown dilemmas, variables and attractors. If the oppressed people worked collectively to resist the oppressor their effects would be greater than any military force.
(The Attractor) The first step to organizing an effective strategy is to define the common attractor in clear and unambiguous terms. In the case of Venezuela, the people demand freedom from a corrupt government.
(Passive Resistance Organization Model) First, organize an effective alternative governmental body that responds to the needs of the people. There should be a leadership structure organized around a key and charismatic leader. The leadership responsibility is to set policy and develop a forward vision for the people. His efforts are carried out by subordinate leaders.
Subordinate leadership should be developed into departments of personnel, (the accountability of all key personnel in the organization), intelligence collection and analysis, operations (near term, less than six months, and future operations, more than six months), Logistics, (responsible for the procurement of goods and services the people need), and communications (both mass and individual). As the organization evolves other elements are added such as civil affairs and international policy. The organizational model should be extended to every region or town within the sphere of influence of the leadership organization. The leadership must train subordinate leaders to ensure that policy directives are carried out effectively. Passive Resistance doctrine tells us that each element of an organization should be stove piped and separated from other elements. This means centralized planning and decentralized executions. Each element acting independently while moving toward the same objective.
(Chaos Theory at work) The most effective predator in the Amazon is the Army Ant. This complex organism is composed of millions of individuals and has a 100% success rate when looking for food. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals moving along a 10-meter front and they are unstoppable because as a group they are unified in their objective. Each member of the colony has a specific job and is relentless in completing that task. Once on the move, prey will abandon their position and leave the area. Similarly, a massive group of oppressed people with specific skills could use them to provide specific services to others while denying those same services to the oppressor.
Medical Personnel – In Lebanon, Hezbollah started winning the hearts and minds of the people by establishing free medical clinics to the locals and denying medical treatment for outsiders. Much of their medical support came from outside agencies and international relief groups. This system could be set up in Venezuela.
Intelligence Personnel – In the ghettos of South Africa, various intelligence collection services were established to keep the African Congress up to date on all future plans by the South African government. The best intelligence collection was done by marginalized people at the lowest end of society, such as cab drivers and prostitutes.
During the VietNam War, the Viet Cong were able to use these groups to effectively determine US plans, operations, and movements. They exploited the US soldier to gather information that was critical to their strategic plans. Unionized Groups – In the 1970s, organized trucker unions led a week of disruptive events in the major cities of the United States. Thousands of tractor trailer trucks were slowly driving the streets of DC, bringing traffic to a complete standstill throughout the city. They shut down the Jersey Turnpike preventing commuters from getting into or out of NY City causing chaos for governmental bodies. Their efforts were temporary but very effective in getting their demands met.
International Relief Organizations – A massive amount of critical supplies can be procured by an established organization with a plan for proper distribution and accountability. These organizations give an outside voice to the internal problems of the oppressed. Specialist – Electricians for example. An organized and committed group of electricians could ensure that if the oppressed people endure an electricity blackout, then government buildings should also be affected for an even longer period of time. Plumbers – All government buildings need water. Plumbers could disrupt that water and sewage supply for a lengthy period of time. They could also ensure that critical buildings such as hospitals always have a team on call for support. People demanding freedom, equality, and justice in countries such as China, Iran or Venezuela may believe there is no hope. They believe they are subjugated to oppression (chaos for them) because solutions are too complex and beyond their control. That is a totally reactive submissive position and very understandable. History tells us that the oppressed can be liberated. Without knowing it, the founding fathers of this country used the principles of Chaos Theory to win freedom from Great Britain. In their cry for freedom they disrupted King George’s ability to impose his will on the patriots and changed the course of history. “One must choose to be free, otherwise, we live in the state of mind we choose to believe.”
“Those skilled in war subdue their enemies armies without battle. They capture their enemies’ cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without a protracted operation.” “-Sun Tzu”
Its 0730 hours, Sunday morning on the 23d Day of October 1983. The sun was just starting to heat up the desert, and a warm breeze drifted across the desert sand from the East. Young Marines were just beginning to move about preparing themselves for the day’s activities. Guards and weapons were being exchanged at the front gate. Some Marines and Sailors were preparing themselves for Sunday religious services. There was confusion at the front gate and suddenly a large bomb exploded.
A suicide bomber detonated a truck bomb at the building serving as a barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines (Battalion Landing Team – BLT 1/8), killing 220 Marines, 18 sailors and 3 soldiers, making this incident the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Armed Forces since the first day of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War.
In an instant, the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan found himself standing on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Delaware as the caretaker of 241 flagged draped caskets. Clearly moved by this tragedy, Ronald Reagan came to realize that the U.S. Military was not prepared for fighting this new asymmetric threat. He realized that his military leadership was still fighting the last war and had learned very few lessons from the Vietnam War. Which was for the most part completely asymmetrical. The Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, knew changes had to be made at the highest levels of military command and quickly. Quietly, he began to seek out the advice of General Colin Powell and others in that generation of Vietnam veterans to help transform the military into the world’s best fighting force. He tasked the pentagon to develop a new forward-thinking strategy that would exceed expectations and carry the Armed Forces into the 21st century and beyond. Later, this strategy became known as “Warrior 21”. The overarching principle is to always look forward and plan for the next war, not the one in the past. Retired General Gordon Sullivan was once asked, “How do you prepare soldiers for a distant conflict if you don’t know what kind of threat will emerge in the future.” He said, “you climb on top of the mountain, or the highest building you can find, then you look out as far as you can see across the valley. When you pick out a point in the distance, you point all of your resources toward that objective.” Strength, Speed, and Agility became the foundation of this new strategy as Warrior 21 began to take shape. Those commanders that could know adapt to the new strategy and concepts were quickly dismissed. Major commands were streamlined and a new force was added to the MACOM structure and designated as United States Special Operations Command, USSOCOM.
In military terms, these changes were coming at lighting speed. By the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term in office, the U.S. Armed Forces had turned 180 degrees and was pointing at the future. The mantra of Strength, Speed, and Agility became crystal clear during the next administration when President George H.W. Bush found himself faced with burning oil fields in Kuwait, which Saddam Hussain had suddenly incorporated as part of his ancestral lands that belonged to Iraq. The full implementation of this forward-thinking strategy can be historically evaluated during this conflict. During this administration Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, which gave him a front row seat to implementing this strategy. He implemented what would later be known as the Powell Doctrine. This is a reference from his book, “An American Journey” in which he listed 10 guiding principles that would help every commander at every level. For us, the Powell Doctrine meant simply to ask yourself how many soldiers do you need to win a battle? When you decide on a number you double that amount.
This overwhelming force moving with Strength, Speed, and Agility will force an enemy into submission in very short order. Remembering the lessons from Vietnam, this new group of commanders chose to break the enemies will using strategic targeting options. When Colin Powell was asked in a press briefing what was the American strategy? He said, “we are going to cut his army off and then we are going to kill it.” That’s exactly what we did.
General Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander CENTCOM, decided on the size, disposition, and strength of his forces, and then he doubled that number. His original decision to put 125,000 troops on the ground, eventually became 250,000 with full combat loads. The brilliance of General Schwarzkopf Campaign Plan was its simplicity.
First, control the airspace over the battlefield and then kill all Iraq’s communications systems. Within the first 24 to 48 hours, the U.S. had air and ground superiority over Saddam’s forces. Before moving a vehicle on the battlefield, General Schwarzkopf destroyed Iraq’s logistical lines and now all Saddam’s forces were trapped in place where many of them went to their eternal rest. Those that could move, either gave themselves up to the Americans as quickly as possible, and those that tried to escape the battlefield where trapped on the border with Kuwait, where they were cut off and killed in tremendous numbers.
It took only 100 hours to dispatch Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, and General Schwarzkopf had an open pathway to Baghdad had he chosen to do so. This military strategy has been repeated multiple times since the first Gulf War. Commanders decide how many troops they need to win the battle, then double that number. Stay ahead of technology by gaining air superiority, then destroy the enemy’s ability to communicate with subordinate forces from the top down. Destroy the enemy’s logistical lines no matter how sophisticated or primitive. When they have no ability to shoot, move, or communicate they will then submit to overwhelming force. Finally, the most important development in the evolution of military strategy has been the elimination of politics from the military decision-making process. Before and after the end of the Vietnam War, the Commander-In-Chief exercised a political metric into the military decision process. You would often hear words like “peace keeping” describing military operations. Soldiers would often not be allowed to charge their weapons when under threat because the “rules of engagement” had a political component to them. This meant that many politicians would use the military to make up their political shortcomings. We learned our lessons well from the past. Now the military option is firmly presented as the final option, before all other elements of power have been exhausted. It was in this conflict that the United States first imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, and when that didn’t work the U.S. implemented a political strategy through the UN calling for multiple resolutions.
After Saddam Hussein failed to act on UN resolutions to leave Kuwait, the President of United States presented his case to the American people. In a clear and decisive message, he explained to the American people that America had exhausted all political and economic options and that we need the domestic support of U.S. Citizens to complete this strategy. The strength of the U.S. Military is directly linked to the domestic power of the people within its borders. There is no other country on the planet that can transform its domestic engine overnight to support military operations in the way the US can. When called on to do so, General Motors can stop making trucks and start making humvees, domestic aviation carriers will become troop transport aircraft, and logistical support providers such as Kraft foods can start packaging MREs. Across America, children will begin to collect parcels to send to troops overseas.
The power of the people in support of military strategy cannot be overstated. When all economic and political options have been exercised, then the President must go to the American people to win the domestic support. With the people’s support, the President can then turn to the military for action.
Once the decision is made for military action, the world knows that American Military Forces are coming to fight. Without proceeding through the economic, political, and domestic process before exercising the military option will leave soldiers standing at the gates without being able to load and fire their weapons at the enemy. That should never happen again.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, America awoke the undisputed superpower, commanding advantages across all dimensions of national power.
America boasted unprecedented diplomatic and military strength. Our companies dominated the U.S.-developed internet, spreading soft power at light speed. Our economy was 32 percent of global gross domestic product, the federal budget generated surpluses and the national debt was less than $6 trillion. A true “near peer” was laughable.
This strategic advantage eroded as America fixated on a small, at times lethal, band of extremists. These same fanatics and a purported threat of weapons of mass destruction were invoked to invade Iraq. For 17 years, these non-existential threats have been America’s strategic distraction, leading to where our National Defense Policy states we face great power “competitor” nations.
What happened? While we continue to fight the global war on terror, China won it.
Winning a war commonly means emerging better than the enemy. But winning also can mean using a war to gain strategic advantage. One can say Japan won World War I when it used the European powers’ distraction to expand in the Asia-Pacific region, something reversed at the cost of allied blood and treasure during World War II.
China has used the United States’ GWOT distraction to pursue strategic advantage, with spectacular results. In 2002, China jettisoned its policy of the “peaceful rise of China” and doubled down on its quest to close gaps with America by using deliberate policies coordinated across society and government.
Geopolitically, China expanded its sphere of influence. It flaunted international law, seizing and ecologically destroying South China Sea reefs to build outposts it later militarized, providing footholds in the middle of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. America protested, but GWOT commitments precluded any tangible show of force.
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017, less than a week after a high-profile visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)
Simultaneously, China is expanding its influence with money and labor to build “One Belt, One Road,” tying regional trade to its economy and creating dependent client states. Meanwhile, the United States negotiated, and then abruptly abandoned, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, meant to counterbalance Chinese efforts.
Amid concerns from U.S. lawmakers and the Pentagon that China is “weaponizing” investment in early-stage technologies, Congress is considering legislation aimed at sealing regulatory gaps.By: Joe Gould
Militarily, while America burned resources fighting the GWOT, China transformed via a 600 percent increase in military spending and targeted investments into an emerging, peer-projecting power across the Asia-Pacific and beyond. It developed a stealth fighter, built its own supercarriers and exceeded America in critical technologies like hypersonics.
But China’s real focus is its aggressive challenge of America’s true source of strength — our dynamic economy. Through strategies including Made in China 2025, an industrial policy of aggressive cybertheft, predatory investment strategies and forced intellectual property transfer for access its domestic market, China advanced.
China primed its innovation pump, sponsoring students at full tuition in the West’s best colleges and universities, as U.S. students struggle with spiraling costs. On the lower end of the market, China subsidizes producers and undercuts competition, driving out U.S. competitors and creating supply-chain dependencies.
It increasingly controls the network infrastructure and the information that flows through in key regions of the world, including Latin America. In the information age, China made its play for information dominance.
China’s actions created the world’s second-largest economy. Its strategy led to economic addictions and dependencies from full-tuition students at U.S. universities, to Western manufacturers using cheap Chinese components, to economically developing nations (like Sri Lanka)struggling to pay off development projects while their trade flows become inextricably tied to the Chinese market.
China’s done this through coordination at the very top, through aggressive implementation of its policies where “every player in China’s economy — public or private — is ultimately linked to national objectives,” as noted in a study by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. Abandoning any pretense at a “peaceful rise,” China shifted to the “Chinese Solution,” extolling the superiority of China’s one-party system and hybrid economy.
While China rose, a distracted America atrophied, typified by the depletion of more than 2,000 diplomats, 40 percent of Air Force fighters and 15 percent of Navy ships. The internet thrives, but like elsewhere, China uses laws and national corporate champions to exclude or hinder Chinese market access while winning market share globally. The U.S. economy shrank below 25 percent of global GDP. And, perilous for future investment, national debt is accelerating past $21 trillion with trillion-dollar deficits on the horizon.
China may have won the GWOT, but that needn’t be the end of the story.
America is waking up. Our National Defense Strategy is the first truly strategic one in more than a generation, a modern Mr. X article. Economically, the administration and Congress are acting in areas such as trade practices and restrictions on predatory investment, albeit without strategic alignment.
These are first steps in a multi-generational, whole-of-society effort to re-secure our strategic focus and shared dynamism. What’s required now is real bipartisan leadership, a clear vision and a deliberate strategy. All efforts must remind us that to win, all Americans must be a part.
Retired Col. Wesley Hallman is the senior vice president of policy at the National Defense Industrial Association. He served in the U.S. Air Force for 27 years.
McCain, R-Ariz., challenged the Pentagon and defense industry with taxpayers and troops in mind, calling out what he saw as problem-plagued acquisition programs and gaps or failures in U.S. national security strategy. He argued that political support for robust defense budgets is unsustainable without reigning in waste, fraud and abuse.
This week, several of his SASC colleagues said they will pick up the torch. Notably, his personal friend and fellow defense hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Tuesday after an emotional Senate floor tribute to McCain that he had promised his dying friend weeks earlier that he would try.
“When it came to the Pentagon, he was a ferocious reformer, and he loved nothing better than getting into the bowels of the budget and finding ways, so we’re going to take that up,” Graham said. “I talked to him about a month ago, and he said: ‘Boy, you’ve got to keep it going.’ ”
McCain, who died battling brain cancer on Aug. 25, enacted numerous reforms through annual defense authorization bills, including acquisitions and sweeping bureaucratic changes. Each year, he would legislate cutbacks to programs where he saw problems and would often hold up Pentagon nominees for further scrutiny.
“John McCain was a soldier’s best friend and the Pentagon’s worst nightmare,” Graham said. “I’d like to name the Pentagon after him just to get back at everybody.”
Graham acknowledged he has sought dialogue with President Donald Trump, a departure from McCain’s more confrontational approach. Graham said he would continue to “do things the Lindsey way.”
“The worst thing I could try to do is be John McCain because I’m not,” he said. “The best thing I could do is remember what John McCain was all about and channel that into who I am.”
Graham is an Air Force veteran who served as an officer and judge advocate. He chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, which oversees foreign aid.
Graham said he will seek help from Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska; James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Cory Gardner of Colorado — lawmakers willing to promote American values abroad as McCain did.
Among Graham’s priorities are stiffer sanctions on Russia, protecting the midterm elections from hacking, puzzling out immigration reform and to “persuade President Trump if you leave Afghanistan, it will blow up in your face.”
Arnold Punaro, a former SASC staff director and retired two-star general, said McCain was influenced by his predecessors as chairman, particularly Texas Republican John Tower, who helped put the defense budget on an upward trajectory during the Carter administration, and Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, whose name is synonymous with acquisition reform.
What was unique to McCain, however, was his proclivity for testiness with administration witnesses, no matter the president’s party affiliation.
“There was the phenomenon known as ‘Mount McCain’ where the volcano erupted if he thought you were giving him the runaround or parroting the administration’s position,” Punaro said. “He would press the witness, and you saw that at the beginning of this administration with a lot of the nominees.”
Punaro expressed confidence the committee would be, as it has long been, “serious, thorough and objective, particularly in civilian and military nominations.”
Several SASC members suggested no one senator will step into McCain’s shoes and that they will fulfill their oversight duties together, under the leadership of Sen. Jim Inhofe, the panel’s No. 2 Republican. Inhofe is expected to ascend to the role in the days after McCain’s funeral is complete.
“The reality is John was such a unique personality that I don’t think any one person will step in and say: ‘I’m the one doing it,’ ” said the SASC’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. “I think there are enough very thoughtful members on both sides who pursue their duties very seriously, and one major one is making sure we are a check on the Pentagon — not just to be a check, but they do better work when they’re being supervised.”
Out of respect for McCain, Inhofe has rebuffed reporters asking about his possible chairmanship. However, its likely Inhofe will further empower the chairmen of the panel’s various subcommittees.
“I think the other chairmen on the other committees will step up, and I assume they will continue doing that work,” said Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chair Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. “Yes, we won’t have John McCain there prodding us. I think it will get done.”
Maine Independent Sen. Angus King, a senior SASC member who caucuses with Democrats, called McCain’s absence “a huge loss to the committee,” comparing him to a roving ambassador and a rock star. McCain’s contacts overseas and decades of experience set him apart, King said.
Yet, King stressed that the committee is capable and will carry on, pointing to the completion of the 2019 defense policy bill in record time in McCain’s absence.
“His energy, his passion, his knowledge, his history, his relationships are unique,” King said of McCain. “That doesn’t mean the committee’s not going to be able to do its job.”
The hedge fund billionaire’s efforts to assist veterans with PTSD have thrust him into the fight over privatizing the VA.
This story was originally co-published by ProPublica and Fortune.
At a House hearing last year on post-traumatic stress disorder, a private organization showed up with an ambitious plan to help suffering veterans. The Cohen Veterans Network was opening a chain of free mental health clinics across the country, backed by $275 million from hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen.
By contrast to the high-profile scandals at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Cohen Network claimed 96 percent client satisfaction. In a statement for the hearing, the organization said its clinics “provide a desirable alternative” to the VA—a clear echo of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to let veterans skip the VA for “a private service provider of their own choice.”
But at that same moment, across the country, the Cohen Network was closing its clinic in Los Angeles less than a year after it opened. The Cohen Network’s leaders had alienated the staff there, former employees said, by telling them to prioritize healthier patients over homeless veterans. The shutdown was so hasty that former therapists said it left some patients in the lurch.
Privatization has become the defining controversy at the VA under the Trump administration. Conservative billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Ken Langone want veterans to increasingly see private doctors, while traditional veterans organizations want to maintain the government-run health system.
The Cohen Network has become a test case for both sides. It is either proof that the private sector can do the job better than the VA — or a template for diverting taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private groups.
Steven Cohen is perhaps an unlikely person to find himself in the crossfire of this debate. He is best known as the billionaire hedge fund titan whose investment returns were the envy of Wall Street, until prosecutors busted his firm for insider trading. (Cohen, 62, was not personally charged; he declined to be interviewed for this article.) Since then, Cohen has launched a new hedge fund and opened 10 clinics serving veterans across the country.“It almost seemed too good to be true,” one of the clinicians said. “And, in fact, it was.”
A thorough examination of the Cohen Network’s record — including internal documents, emails and dozens of interviews with current and former employees—reveals a different story from the one the Cohen Network tells about itself. The clinic at the University of Southern California was doomed by the Cohen Network’s mismanagement and insistence on a narrow focus that helped only a subset of veterans, former employees said. “The model we ended up believing would really serve veterans was different than the model the Cohen Network was proposing all clinics operate under,” said Marv Southard, who served as CEO of the Cohen clinic at USC and is now chair of USC’s doctor of social work program. The network’s original clinic, at New York University, got into a spat over who would own the patent rights from research that Cohen funded. And shortly after the hearing, Cohen mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to get the government to subsidize the clinics.
The Cohen Network and Cohen’s own spokesman insist they’re not trying to privatize the VA and their only goal is helping veterans. “No single private person in this country has ever donated more money to save veterans’ lives and treat their mental health needs than Steve Cohen has,” Cohen’s spokesman, Mark Herr, said. The organization blames others for the problems in Los Angeles, New York and Washington.
The story of the Cohen Network illustrates what could lie in store for veterans as Trump pursues his campaign pledge to place their care in the hands of the private sector.
When the Cohen Network opened the LA clinic in mid-2016, it attracted talented therapists with what appeared to be a rare opportunity to treat veterans as if money were no object. “It almost seemed too good to be true,” one of the clinicians said. “And, in fact, it was.”
The disappointment started as soon as the staff showed up. The clinic turned out to consist of a hallway shared with the dermatology department inside a USC facility. There were only three therapy rooms for six therapists; they were supposed to take turns and then walk to a different office several blocks away.
The next problem was the software for the patients’ medical records. Many of these systems are clunky, but clinicians said this one was the worst they’d ever used. They would fill out a long form and click submit, only to find their session had timed out and they had to start over. Session notes mysteriously vanished. “It was completely substandard compared to what we would have expected from this organization,” said Kathryn Arnett, the clinic’s director.
The Cohen Network’s CEO, Anthony Hassan, shot down complaints about the software, so staff across the network convened secret conference calls to troubleshoot, according to former employees. In written responses to questions, Hassan said it’s “absurd and untrue” that he lashed out at employees who spoke up about the software. He also denied it ever had problems, saying “there was no bug in the system.”
But a February 2017 internal review concluded otherwise: “There are ongoing clinical data errors in the system,” Cohen Network officials wrote.
Because of these problems, some current and former employees doubt the Cohen Network’s claims about its results. The client satisfaction survey, for example, was completed by only 6 percent of exiting patients, according to an October 2016 email from the network’s chief operating officer. The Cohen Network said the response rate has since risen to 59 percent. Still, that’s lower than typical for published studies and it means the score might not represent all patients’ views, particularly since there’s evidence that happier patients are more likely to complete the survey. (“We’re confident in the integrity of our data,” Hassan said, but he declined to elaborate on how they inspect and validate the data.)“The biggest disjuncture between USC’s vision and the Cohen network’s vision was we were aiming at people with more serious issues and problems and we needed a model that would serve them.”
The Cohen Network wanted more patients and was displeased with low turnout: An internal review found that the LA clinic, in its first six months, saw just 116 clients, which cost the clinic $10,282 each. “The average cost per client is very concerning, as is the low client count,” two executives wrote. Some of the clinicians had seen an emphasis on cost and volume at public agencies or cash-strapped nonprofits, but they struggled to understand such scrimping from the well-funded Cohen Network.
The Cohen Network’s focus on measurable outcomes influenced the care that the clinics would provide. Clinicians were supposed to use a set of six- to 15-week treatment programs that have been shown to help with PTSD, insomnia, depression and anxiety.
But patients often have multiple conditions that don’t fit neatly into 12 weekly sessions. The Cohen Network’s limited scope led some other organizations that serve veterans to stop referring people there. “I didn’t think their model invested enough in engagement and after-care and focused too much on short-term intervention,” said Southard, who led the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health for 17 years before becoming CEO of the Cohen clinic at USC. “The biggest disjuncture between USC’s vision and the Cohen network’s vision,” he said, “was we were aiming at people with more serious issues and problems and we needed a model that would serve them.”
The Cohen Network’s focus on measurable outcomes for PTSD led the LA clinic to shun some of the neediest patients. Because of the clinic’s location in a gritty part of downtown Los Angeles, many veterans who walked in were homeless. Homeless patients were hard to follow up with, which could be a drag on the clinic’s metrics. In an internal memo, Cohen officials chastised the staff for “targeting inappropriate client populations (e.g., transient/homeless, chronically mentally ill).”
Clinic staff were devastated. “All of us came here believing we were going to help the people who need us the most, and they said no,” said Arnett, the USC clinic’s director. “They weeded out the most compromised veterans.” This is exactly what the VA’s defenders have long warned would happen to veterans left to the private sector.
Hassan countered that the clinic simply wasn’t equipped to treat people with chronic mental illness or who needed inpatient treatment for drug addictions. “Our network provides short-term outpatient psychotherapeutic care delivered through weekly or biweekly sessions,” he said. The Cohen Network, he added, is intended to fill in gaps in the existing system, not to replace it.“He said, ‘Why can’t we have this?’ and “Why isn’t it like that?’ He took a few pictures and stayed less than half an hour.”
Steve Cohen arrived to tour the clinic in October 2016, with a New York Times photographer in tow. A spokesman said Cohen was “impressed by the effort made by USC,” but people who were present recall it differently. Cohen didn’t like how small the clinic was, they said. He didn’t like that people needed to be buzzed in (a security measure). He didn’t like the neighborhood. As Arnett recalled it, “He said, ‘Why can’t we have this?’ and “Why isn’t it like that?’ He took a few pictures and stayed less than half an hour.”
In response to Cohen’s dissatisfaction, staff looked into moving the clinic to more affluent Pasadena, which would be more expensive and cater to a different kind of client.
In June 2017, Hassan emailed the staff to say the clinic was closing, with no explanation. The abrupt shutdown cut off some patients in the middle of treatment, according to three former clinicians and three other former employees. Clinicians said they had some patients who had just completed intake or opened up about a traumatic experience for the first time. The therapists had to tell them they couldn’t continue. For his part, Hassan insisted that no patient’s treatment was interrupted and that USC was supposed to tell the Cohen Network about any patients who needed their treatment to be extended.
The therapists tried to find referrals for all the patients to continue treatment elsewhere, but there wasn’t always another provider available. The Cohen Network sent a list of resources, printed on expensive paper, but the therapists said it wasn’t helpful. “It looked like someone had Googled ‘mental health Los Angeles’ and picked the top three results,” a third former clinician said.
The Cohen Network initially said the clinic would reopen, but as the months went by it never did, and eventually Los Angeles disappeared from the map on its website. “We just ghosted,” a former employee said. “We just split town, and what about all of these patients? The really bad part is, nobody seemed to care.”
Cohen got involved in veterans’ health for the most personal of reasons: His son Robert joined the Marines and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. It was “obviously, as a parent, a very scary thing,” Cohen has said. “Now, he came back, he’s fine, but not every vet is.” For Cohen—whose interests until that point were limited to trading stocks, collecting art, spending time with his family and rooting for the New York Yankees—it was a life-changing experience, according to a person close to him. Cohen established his first veterans clinic at NYU in 2013.
That was the same year his hedge fund, SAC, pleaded guilty to insider trading. Prosecutors circled Cohen for almost a decade, nabbing eight of his lieutenants (although some of those convictions were later overturned). In one case, a trader got a sneak peek at discouraging clinical trial results affecting two pharmaceutical companies. Cohen had $700 million riding on those stocks. The trader called Cohen, who then liquidated his position and bet $260 million that the stocks would fall. When the results of the clinical trial became public, the trade netted SAC about $276 million, the biggest profit from insider trading ever.
Cohen printed a mission statement and list of core values—starting with “Ethics & Integrity”—on a big poster for the staff to sign.
The trader, Mathew Martoma, is serving a nine-year sentence, but he refused to testify against Cohen, so prosecutors could not prove whether or not he told Cohen anything about how he got his information. They indicted SAC as a company, but not Cohen personally. The Securities and Exchange Commission sought to ban Cohen from the hedge fund industry for life, but settled on a two-year hiatus. (This cat-and-mouse game loosely inspired the Showtime series “Billions.”)
Cohen opened a firm called Point72, which was initially a family office that managed his own $11 billion fortune, and has since begun to manage money for outside investors. He printed a mission statement and list of core values—starting with “Ethics & Integrity”—on a big poster for the staff to sign. He hired a 55-person compliance team that now reads all of his emails and routinely restricts trades, according to Herr, Cohen’s spokesman. “We have the most aggressive compliance and surveillance department on Wall Street,” Herr said. “It would be hard to have done more than we have.”
The staff of the nonprofit Cohen Veterans Network, which was formally launched in 2016, works in the same building, outfitted like the traders in branded fleeces. “It’s almost as if I’m one of the portfolio managers. I’m just not making money, I’m spending money,” Hassan once told a Bloomberg reporter. “We very much feel part of the firm.”
Cohen got started at NYU when Ken Langone, the name donor of the university’s hospital system, connected him with Charlie Marmar, the chair of the psychiatry department. Marmar, who’d spent 21 years at the San Francisco VA, had an idea not only for a mental health clinic but for research on the biological signs of PTSD. Cohen and Marmar discussed the vision over poached eggs and coffee at Cohen’s Greenwich mansion, where Cohen dazzled Marmar with the Picassos on the walls and the Warhol in the bathroom, two of Marmar’s colleagues recalled.
The mission, as one researcher involved in the project described it, was to find a “pregnancy test for PTSD”: a blood test or a brain scan that could be used to diagnose PTSD, rather than relying on self-reported symptoms. Better understanding the biology might also lead to more effective treatment.
Some experts were skeptical that a biological test could work for a complex and varied psychiatric condition like PTSD. The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs had already sunk millions into pursuing PTSD biomarkers, with little to show for it. “We mostly rolled our eyes and said good luck,” said Terence Keane, director of the National Center for PTSD’s Behavioral Science Division at the Boston VA. “Why would that be what Steve Cohen wanted to put his money into?”
In Keane’s view, there were many more deserving research endeavors in need of funding. Still, a diagnostic test for PTSD, if one could be found, would have a clear market. Nearly a million veterans receive government checks based on a diagnosis of PTSD. So a functional test could decide how the VA distributes billions of dollars—and make a lot of money for whoever commercialized it.NYU researchers and lawyers objected to what they viewed as the Cohen group’s revenue grab.
Cohen launched a second nonprofit organization, called Cohen Veterans Bioscience, to lead the research. Its CEO, a former pharmaceutical executive named Magali Haas, sent researchers contracts asking them to sign over intellectual property rights, according to three people who reviewed the agreements.
That caused friction with NYU researchers and lawyers, who objected to what they viewed as the Cohen group’s revenue grab—or wanted the university to share in the possible windfall, according to a person present for conversations on this point. NYU declined to comment.
But it’s rare, experts say, for foundations to seek total control over intellectual property developed by the academics whose work they fund. Universities typically object because they consider themselves more qualified to use the IP to advance research and benefit the public. And since foundation grants typically don’t cover universities’ full costs including overhead, they don’t want to be in the position of subsidizing commercial research. “There were cases where industry was using this as a ploy to get a lower rate on research costs and get ownership of technology in a sweetheart deal,” said Wes Blakeslee, the retired director of the Johns Hopkins University Technology Transfer Office.
The disagreement over intellectual property led Cohen to stop funding Marmar’s research, according to two people involved in the project. Haas disputed that, saying in an interview that NYU didn’t get more money because it mismanaged the original grant. She then followed up with an email, this time saying the study ended because NYU finished recruiting subjects.
Cohen Veterans Bioscience moved on from NYU, scooping up existing biological samples and datasets, and funding top researchers. But some scientists said they turned down Cohen out of discomfort with the IP arrangements. “They have offended many people across the country,” said Keane of the National Center for PTSD. “The undercurrent is they’re trying to get a silver bullet to make money, and that’s why a lot of groups are not collaborating with them.”
Haas said Cohen Veterans Bioscience shares intellectual property rights with collaborators, but they’re still hammering out the details. “The only thing we’re interested in is trying to move the science forward,” she said. If the organization did have rights to an invention that it could license to a drug company to develop, she said, all the proceeds would fund future research.“Langone and Greenberg were really into privatizing the VA, and the big motivation behind the Cohen clinic was to be proof of concept.”
Cohen’s spokesman, Mark Herr, said Cohen won’t invest in anything that arises from Cohen Veterans Bioscience’s work. “We maintain a church and state separation between the two, and that will not change in the future,” he said in a statement.
When Cohen started his collaboration with NYU, Langone and a fellow NYU trustee, former AIG CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, told faculty members that the goal of the clinic was to create a private alternative to the VA, according to two people familiar with the discussions. “Langone and Greenberg were really into privatizing the VA, and the big motivation behind the Cohen clinic was to be proof of concept,” one of the people said. (Greenberg declined to comment. Langone’s spokeswoman referred questions to NYU, which declined to comment.)
Cohen wasn’t present for those meetings, and his spokesman said he doesn’t support privatizing the VA or envision the Cohen Network as a model for doing so.
Last year, Cohen set out to persuade Congress and the Trump administration to reimburse his clinics for veterans treated there. (Cohen contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and another $1 million to the House Republicans’ super PAC in April 2017.)
From the beginning, the Cohen clinics were advertised as free to patients, but the plan was always to start seeking reimbursement for their treatment. By their fourth year in operation, clinics are supposed to supply 25 percent of their own funding from insurance reimbursements, local philanthropy and government grants, according to information posted on the Cohen Network’s website. That figure rises to 50 percent by year six. In some cases, billing insurers also requires charging copays from patients.
Hassan said the clinics never turn away patients who can’t pay. He called collecting reimbursements a common-sense way to extend the reach of Cohen’s gift and make the clinics sustainable; like Haas, he said any revenues would be used to offset costs.
As part of his pursuit of government reimbursements, Cohen contacted fellow billionaire Ike Perlmutter, the enigmatic Marvel Entertainment chairman who has unofficially advised Trump on veterans policy. Cohen had a phone call with Perlmutter late last summer to sell him on the network, according to a person familiar with the call. Perlmutter questioned why Cohen would go to so much trouble to open brick-and-mortar clinics when other nonprofit organizations have leaner models, the person said. According to this person, Perlmutter warned then-VA secretary David Shulkin to be careful with Cohen. (Perlmutter’s representative declined to comment, and Shulkin didn’t answer requests for comment.)
Cohen also sought advice from a person who shaped President Trump’s position on the VA: Jeff Miller. As chairman of the House veterans committee, Miller had been a harsh critic of the VA and promoter of private alternatives. He was one of the first lawmakers to endorse Trump and became the candidate’s point man on veterans issues. After Miller retired from Congress in January 2017 and joined a big law firm, his first lobbying client was Steve Cohen.
In September 2017, Cohen Veterans Bioscience flew researchers from around the country to a lavish summit in Washington, featuring a speech by Shulkin and a panel moderated by Miller. At a cocktail party at the National Portrait Gallery, Cohen lingered behind bouncers in a roped-off area, summoning people he wanted to talk to, an attendee recalls. A day after the summit, Cohen Veterans Bioscience held a briefing for congressional staff in the House veterans committee hearing room. Cohen Veterans Bioscience also joined a coalition with two pharmaceutical companies to lobby for access to VA datasets and biological samples.
Cohen’s representatives repeatedly complained to government officials that his clinics couldn’t get reimbursements from the VA. In one meeting, the leader of a veterans organization corrected Miller, pointing out that the Cohen Network could, in fact, enroll in a program for buying private-sector care (a program Miller had actually helped create). But that would require each patient to obtain advance approval from the VA. Miller made clear that the Cohen Network wanted to see the veteran first, then send the VA the bill.The VA weighed in with more than a dozen concerns about the bill, including that it carved out a new private-care program conflicting with other laws on eligibility and funding.
Miller set out to change the law to let the clinics do exactly that. His team visited the office of every member of the House veterans committee and drafted a bill to let the VA pay for veterans who walk in to private mental health providers like the Cohen clinics. “Here is language to get you started,” they wrote in an email to congressional staff.
The lobbyists recruited a freshman lawmaker from each party, both former Marines, to sponsor their bill and tried to rush it through the House on a voice vote in time for Veterans Day.
But the bill raised objections from major veterans organizations. They generally oppose privatizing the VA because the health system remains popular with their members despite recent scandals. A few days later, the VA weighed in with more than a dozen concerns about the bill, including that it carved out a new private-care program conflicting with other laws on eligibility and funding.
Miller called a meeting with the major veterans groups to brief them on the bill. The veterans groups agreed among themselves to present a united front. Meanwhile, they pressured the Democratic cosponsor to drop out and waved other lawmakers off the bill. Miller caught wind of the counterattack, but by the time the veterans organizations showed up at his office overlooking the Capitol in late October 2017, the bill was dead.
Thwarted in Congress, Miller fared better with the Trump administration. He contacted senior VA officials in the hopes of forming a partnership with the Cohen Network. They signed an agreement in October 2017 that didn’t offer much other than to share data that was already publicly available. The VA has scores of similar agreements with other organizations.
But soon after the agreement was in place, Cohen’s representatives raised the issue of getting reimbursements for the clinics. That made VA officials feel tricked, according to a former agency official.
Veterans groups and some lawmakers were suspicious when they found out about the partnership. The Cohen Network “must be transparent about its organization and compliance with federal law,” the top Democrats on the House and Senate veterans committees wrote in a March 5 letter to Shulkin demanding more information.
Nevertheless, the Cohen Network succeeded in getting approved to receive reimbursements from the VA. A Cohen Network official downplays the payments, saying they’ve amounted to $500 so far.
But after Miller’s lobbying campaign, that does little to reassure defenders of the VA’s healthcare system. “The problem is there’s only so much government money in veterans’ care,” another former VA official said. “If you start trying to carve into that to feed things like the Cohen Veterans Network, that’s actually privatization. It’s going to be death by a thousand cuts.”
The resistance to the Cohen clinics is vexing for Cohen, who believes he’s trying to make a positive impact. “Steve Cohen is helping repay the debt we owe our veterans,” said his spokesman, Herr, “and it is shameful that anyone doubts or impugns his generosity.”
Cohen is undeterred. The network just opened its 10th clinic and plans to have 25 by 2020. Cohen believes the network is succeeding, Herr said, and is considering expanding his support beyond the $275 million he’s already committed.
CSIS.ORG by Senior Associate (Non-resident) Nathan Freier, International Security Program
July 27, 2018
In its September 1999 Phase I report New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century, the United States Commission on National Security in the 21stCentury (better known as the Hart-Rudman Commission) darkly concluded that “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” Two years later, the United States suffered catastrophic terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens. Ultimately, Hart-Rudman was about challenging what was then contemporary U.S. national security bias and convention, forcing U.S. decisionmakers to fundamentally reconsider how core U.S. interests would be threatened in the coming decade.
Unfortunately, key aspects of their message fell on deaf ears or failed to penetrate institutional predispositions about consequential threats. The United States and its leadership were simply lulled by post-Cold War primacy into profound vulnerability.
The next wave of unconventional warlike aggression against the United States and its allies is well-underway. Elite U.S. leadership has been warned about the strategic hazards of effective counter-U.S. gray zone resistance-especially that originating in Beijing and Moscow. Among many others, CSIS has undertaken meaningful work on gray zone challenges. All of this ongoing work recognizes that the United States is clearly suffering setbacks and losses in the face of Russian and Chinese gray zone campaigning. However, as in the case of Hart-Rudman’s counsel and the subsequent 9/11 attacks, the United States appears to be as flat-footed and perhaps more fundamentally threatened by gray zone challenges than it was pre-9/11 from terrorists.
Our War College work specifically suggested that the most consequential U.S. rivals-paced by Russia and China-were employing to great effect “unique combinations of influence, intimidation, coercion, and aggression to incrementally crowd out effective (U.S.) resistance, establish local or regional advantages, and manipulate risk perceptions in their favor.”
We opted to describe these so-called gray zone challenges instead of defining them. At the time, we believed that the creative “weaponization of everything” would rapidly outpace, defy, and fundamentally undermine precise definition. In short, we worried that a defense and national security community so enamored with precision of language would ‘miss the one that got us’ by effectively defining away transformational warlike behavior by U.S. rivals. Our concern was that U.S. defense and national security bias and convention-still invested in the rapidly dwindling advantages of post-Cold War primacy-would discount as nuisance rival methods that were in fact potentially fatal to U.S. interests.
In place of a definition, we opted at the time for a simple parsimonious set of descriptors to guide senior leader identification of hostile gray zone approaches. We suggested all gray zone challenges manifested in some combination of three distinct characteristics-hybridity, menace to defense and national security convention, and risk confusion.
Hybridity suggests that all gray zone strategies include unique combinations of hostile methods within and across instruments of power, traditional domains (air, land, sea, space, cyber), and heavily contested competitive spaces (e.g., electro-magnetic spectrum and strategic influence). We found that gray zone adversaries present a menace to convention in that the character of their competitive methods promises warlike outcomes yet fall short of military provocation. We concluded that rival gray zone strategies and approaches “lie between ‘classic’ war and peace, legitimate and illegitimate motives and methods, universal conditions and norms, order and anarchy; and traditional, irregular, or unconventional means.”
Finally, risk confusion captures the gray zone’s fundamental security dilemma. Risk confusion sees gray zone hybridity and menace to convention combine in strategic decisionmaking to paralyze effective counter-gray zone approaches. In short, risk confusion emerges when the hazards associated with action and inaction against gray zone rivals appear equally unpleasant.
Hyper risk conscious U.S. decisionmakers-convinced that the long arc of history favors continued U.S. dominance-can see aggressive action against capable gray zone rivals like Russia and China as risky flirtation with uncontrolled and costly escalation. And, in inaction, they clearly see the hazard associated with real or perceived appeasement of the same capable rivals. The highest cost of appeasement, of course, is tacit acknowledgement of rival gains and surrender to the same rival’s attendant ability to solidify those gains against reversal. In the end, the deferred hazard of inaction presents attractive incentives for U.S. decisionmakers to wait out the opposition. Unfortunately, irreversible strategic loss is a natural outcome.
Q2: Why are gray zone threats so challenging for U.S. national security leaders?
A2: Risk confusion lies at the heart of ineffective U.S. competition with Beijing and Moscow. Risk confusion is weaponized by both to great effect and employed to stall either offensive or defensive U.S. responses to obvious gray zone provocation. Our Russian and Chinese gray zone adversaries successfully manipulate risk calculus, transferring the preponderance of risk onto U.S. and allied decisionmakers. Each successful Russian or Chinese gray zone maneuver creates new opportunities for their exploitation. And, each successful rival exploitation further undermines U.S. credibility and expands U.S. and allied vulnerability to continued gray zone assault.
To date in U.S. risk calculus, it appears that an outsized fear of future hybrid escalation across the political, information, military and paramilitary, and economic instruments trumps very real near-term losses of U.S. influence, reach, freedom of action, position, and credibility associated with any one incremental hostile gray zone act. One can only assume that the latter are perceived by U.S. and allied leaders as recoverable at some future date. In reality, however, we now know that tangible rival regional gains-Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South China Sea, etc.-are more likely than not new inalterable facts on the ground. In short, while rivals campaign and win, the United States cries foul but fails to effectively campaign back.
Going forward, a more troubling and decidedly more strategic evolution in great power gray zone competition appears in the offing. Its potential for harm far surpasses anything thus far anticipated by scholars and analysts. The U.S. response to this darker shade of gray is likely to determine the future of U.S. great power.
Q3: What is the darker or darkest shade of gray?
A3: Those of us assessing the character of gray zone challenges over the recent past likely underestimated their potential hazard and impact. For the most part, we focused on their regional-at range-implications. And, in so doing, we failed to recognize the effective “lethality” of strategic gray zone maneuvers against the stable functioning of the United States itself. We played “small ball” while U.S. rivals were in reality building their team to “hit for power” in what we at the Army War College call the pivotal “strategic influence” space. As a consequence, U.S. leadership is facing yet another potentially catastrophic “failure of imagination.” However, this failure is potentially much more far-reaching and crippling than that of 9/11.
In recent Army War College work on hypercompetition in the Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility, my colleagues and I opted to examine vulnerability and the pursuit of advantage across “contested spaces” versus traditional military domains. In doing so, we identified “strategic influence” as preeminent among the various heavily contested arenas within which the United States competed for advantage with its most capable rivals. In very simple terms, the “strategic influence” space demarks conceptual territory where elite and popular perceptions are formed, consequential choices are made, and, ultimately, great decisions are taken on the pursuit and defense of various core national interests.
Winning in the strategic influence space-dominating or disrupting perceptions, choices, and decisions or dividing a rival’s consequential constituencies over the same-took on new meaning in light of recent detailed reports on Russian attempts disrupt the U.S. election. Russian gray zone maneuvers directly against U.S. political institutions, as well as their demonstrated abilities to manipulate popular perceptions, mobilize political activism, and, potentially, affect political outcomes and decisionmaking, are game-changing escalations in gray zone campaigning. Further still, the Russian approach appears to employ a combination of capabilities and methods that are uniquely-even exclusively-suited to illiberal U.S. rivals.
This darker shade of gray-the prospect that rival powers may reach directly into the United States virtually and physically to exploit U.S. political fissures and influence strategic outcomes in their favor-fundamentally changes the character of contemporary great power competition and conflict. Serious U.S. and allied pursuit of institutional resilience and powerful offensive remedies are the only possible defenses against this new darker gray zone hazard. It marks an important adverse shift in the existing balance of power between the United States and its allies on the one hand and increasingly assertive rival gray zone actors on the other. Paralyzing risk confusion on our part will ultimately be lethal to continued U.S. influence. Creating rival risk confusion on the other hand -transferring the preponderance of risk back to them-will free-up decision and maneuver space for the United States to regain the initiative. However, as of now, time and will are not on our side.
Nathan Freier is an associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a non-resident senior associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this work are the views of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).