“The world has been more dangerous, but it has never been more complicated.” These were the words Michael Hayden, former director of both CIA and NSA, used to launch the 2018 Threat Report at The Cipher Brief’s Annual Threat Conference in Sea Island, Ga., on Sunday. Hayden first prefaced the discussion with a few long-term threats of his own, including the effects of climate change on U.S. strategic position in the world and the withdrawal of the U.S.-led Bretton Woods world order.
Hayden then delved into the evolving dynamics of China’s strategic competition from the east, a revisionist Russia, the challenges on a path toward a denuclearized North Korea, an increasingly influential Tehran and the small footprint of U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the Trump Administration.
Hayden’s comments have been adapted for print below.
“The Sino-American relationship is the core pass/fail geostrategic issue of the 21st century. Getting it right will pretty much figure the other stuff out. Get this wrong and most of the other stuff isn’t going to matter.”
“China has made their military structure less administrative, less political, leaner, more combat-oriented and more efficient. They have taken a military whose history has large been in land combat, and expanded its expertise into the other domains, including air, certainly sea, and now space where they threaten what we had come to believe was our right for unblinking surveillance should it come to that kind of war. And finally, taking a lesson from our dependence on informational sources, they have moved up in the information domain to deny us the kind of precision that we would need in order to apply the type of firepower we have become accustom to. It has been quite an impressive movement.”
“There was a debate in the 1990s about whether we are in the cyber business or in the information business. Are we pursuing cyber targets or are we pursuing information targets? Since we have a Cyber Command, you can figure out how it ended up – we decided that we were in the cyber business. The Russians went to door number two – the information business. One of our problems is that our lens for looking at this issue is imperfect and incomplete. We have trouble responding to this because it is something that we have not embraced for ourselves.”
“You don’t create fractures in a society with covert influence. You ride the fractures that preexist. You identify them, exploit them, and if you can, worsen them. I think that we should go do things – Facebook and YouTube should go do things – to make it harder for the Russians to do this. But that is not the cure. The cure is us. It is our own social and political culture.”
“Within our current definition of acceptable risk, it is likely that by the end of President Donald Trump’s fourth year, North Korea will be able to reach North America with a nuclear weapon delivered on an indigenously produced intercontinental ballistic missile.”
“A ‘bloody nose’ strike is good enough to get their attention and change their behavior, but not so good that it triggers a war. I think those are two thin circles that do not overlap.”
“The North Korean definition of denuclearization is very different than the United States’ definition. They believe that denuclearization means a peace treaty with the United States, the withdrawal of all of American forces, and the removal of American security guarantees to the Republic of Korea – denuclearizing the strategic circumstances.”
“The Iranians are in the ascendency in four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Sana’a. That should be scary. Whatever reasons the Saudis had to move into Yemen – good or bad – the Iranian involvement there was far less dramatic than the Saudis portrayed it or than it is now. That may have set in motion things that didn’t have to occur. However bad it was before, it has now become a Sunni-Shia front.”
“I see the American-Iranian problem in three baskets: first is the nuclear deal; second is what comes after the nuclear deal 10-15 years in the future; and third, everything else. I personally would be very aggressive punching the Iranians in the face in a whole bunch of places. We are giving them a free ride in Syria. One of the unsaid issues is the tremendous growth of Hezbollah along the Israeli border. After the dust settles in Damascus, we are going to have to live with gray zone tactics from Iran.”
“We do these things in four phases: deploy; shape; fight – that is what the press calls war – and then stability operations. Right now, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford are fighting with the president to let them finish three, which is the force-on-force, because we really haven’t quite gotten to the physical destruction of ISIS’s former so-called caliphate. I know Mattis and Dunford want to go do four – stability operations, changing the facts on the ground – so we don’t have to do one, two and three again. I think the argument within our government is no longer about four. It is about staying around long enough to really finish three. But I don’t think there is a serious discussion about changing the facts on the ground through stability operations.”