Obama's cyber war: A diversionary exercise

The use of computer worms have delayed Iran's nuclear program, but they are not a solution.

Stuxnet 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Stuxnet 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In its relentless effort to assure the reelection of US President Barack Obama, The New York Times has lately taken to touting his foreign policy and national security credentials.
First it highlighted the president’s extensive involvement in directing the drone war against al-Qaida and other Jihadists in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then the paper exposed Obama’s pioneering role in conducting cyber warfare against Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility in an effort to derail or at least slow down the Iranian drive to a nuclear weapon. In the latter case the paper claimed Obama “was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s.”
Whatever the merits of this comparison, the two campaigns provide the broad outline of Obama’s new defense doctrine of “luxury warfare." Apparently, a decision to act by the current administration is predicated on five elements:
Relevance: There has to be a direct threat to US national security interests.
Cleanliness: US troop deployment would be kept to the bare minimum if at all. There would be virtually no American casualties.
Cost: The new warfare is geared to a country whose economy is in deep trouble and can no longer afford prolonged conventional wars overseas.
Secrecy: The conduct of shadow wars allows for scant public exposure and scrutiny domestically. (Obama saw how the American people's post 9/11 unity turned into deep political divisions amidst mounting casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is determined not to repeat his predecessor’s mistake.)Externally, the secretive nature of the action provides a measure of deniability which can reduce the risk of direct confrontation.
Unilateral: The resort to action requires no international mandate and can be switched off and on at will.
Obviously, America has departed from the Bush administration’s grand design, in which the country tried uprooting evil regimes and politically reforming their societies to assure there would be no more 9/11s. Instead, under Obama an era of threat management has been introduced. There is no question the new doctrine has been politically astute, as it has so far eschewed the various pitfalls encountered by his predecessor’s epic effort. But it remains undetermined whether the new doctrine can effectively cope with threats posed by Islamic terrorism or a nuclear Iran.
While it is conceivable that al-Qaida could be held in check by repeated drone attacks aimed to decimate its leadership, new terrorist plots have been discovered irrespective. The drone warfare also caused severe rifts with the Pakistani and Afghan governments.
With regard to Iran, based on the outlines of the “luxury war” doctrine, it is safe to conclude that the Obama Administration  is unlikely to engage in a massive military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
Cyber warfare can also not be relied upon to block Iran's unyielding pursuit of the bomb. In contrast to atomic weapons and intercontinental missiles, cyber warfare generally could be defended against in such a way that makes it utterly useless. Any damage inflicted is rarely permanent and can be mended rather quickly. Case in point: Iran possesses a stockpile sufficient — if further enriched — for five or six bombs despite the US's employment of the computer worm Stuxnet against Nantanz. And more centrifuges are being installed daily at the hardened Fordow enrichment facility near the Iranian city of Qom.
If these attacks were carried out by bombers rather than computer malware, the mission would have been deemed a failure given that it may have only delayed the Iranian program by 18 months. After all, Obama administration officials have often tried to dissuade Israel from taking preemptive action against Iran by arguing that such a move would only postpone the Iranian program by a year or two. And while the cyber attacks' great advantage was their avoidance of casualties and conflicts, the time and resources wasted on this fantasy solution could have been used to really do something about the Iranian program.
Indeed, the cyber war option has delayed any resort to military action, which was why Obama opted for it in the first place. Thus, the Obama cyber-attacks not only aimed to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts, they were also diversionary tactics to prevent Israel from launching a preemptive strike. In this respect, Washington was quite successful.
As a result, while the whiz kids of Obama’s cyber warfare tinkered with their computer worms, Iran continued its drive toward the “immunity zone”—a stage where its nuclear program is so well protected that it cannot be stopped.
Undoubtedly, The New York Times believes its exposé contributed to Obama’s image as a decisive and fearless leader, unafraid of using cutting-edge military technologies to protect national security interests. But the mullahs in Tehran could be forgiven if they draw the opposite conclusion. The Iranians may feel a greater deal of security than under previous administrations, knowing this president is unlikely to order large-scale military action against their nuclear program.
Obama avoids direct confrontation with experimental measures and tries to restrain the only nation ready to take decisive action: Israel.
The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press).