January 7th, 2013

Context and Blind Spots

Perhaps one of the most deeply frustrating things for me as an analyst of security and strategy is the tendency of observers to ignore contextual factors when denouncing recurring military or strategic trends that they presume to be modern and endogenous to the organizations and actors they critique. My friend Dan Trombly is very skilled at conjuring up history to look at the deep roots of these trends and deflating technologically-based explanations. But I think his work has evolved in a more useful direction lately: from making a claim to precedent to explaining why these trends recur over time.

I ran into this problem when trying to write an Ab M post about the “militarization” of the CIA. Certainly I looked at historical precedent, policymaker demand, and the means by which the CIA and the military have always had a fairly porous relationship. But then something really obvious smacked me over the head: we’ve been engaged in 11 years of nonstop war, including two large stability operations with substantial regional elements. Every arm of the USG and military was enjoined to support the wars—why should we be surprised that the CIA also adapted itself to short-term projects heavily oriented towards military support? People cheered when Robert Gates backhanded the services for not “fighting the wars we’re in,” but boo the CIA for doing the same? There is an element of having one’s cake and eating it too in such critiques, if only because they ignore the context of war inducing greater militarization in response to policymaker demand.

In the cyber realm, I’ve felt a similar sense of aggravation when remembering my reaction to the crestfallen reaction to the Sanger leaks on Stuxnet. There was an attitude, reflected in op-eds written at the time, that Stuxnet meant a loss of innocence in cyberspace akin to nuclear warfare’s perversion of atomic science. Never mind the extensive interest by foreign armies and intelligence services in computer network operations. Never mind that those same foreign militaries built up said cyberattack capabilities over a period of 20 years because they perceived American cyberpower and its ability to enable net-centric conventional military operations as a existential threat. Americans have normalized this structural power to the point where it is invisible, but others have not. Does this mean the US should give up on its structural cyberpower? Not at all. But let’s put the blame for the emerging “cyber arms race” where it belongs: on adversary adaptations to counteract American military power and cyberspace’s role in enabling it.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in thinking context is important. I’ve been enjoying reading this book as I chase shiny object after shiny object in formulating my dissertation topic, and it is useful for policy audiences as well. Haven’t quite gotten to the end, but goes a long way to explain how contextual understandings can enrich any sort of inquiry.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng