The question of how to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions amounts to the “most vexing challenge” U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said he’s faced in all his years in Congress at a panel discussion on national security Wednesday night at the Denver Art Museum.
Amid fresh tension over reports Iran had blocked international inspectors from a nuclear facility, Udall cautioned against a rising drumbeat to attack the country, warning that brute force hasn’t always yielded the intended results in the troubled, complicated region.
“Were we to attack Iran,” Udall told the standing-room-only crowd, “the narrative would be, ‘This is the very reason that we need to have a bomb in Iran — if we had a bomb, we wouldn’t have been attacked.’ I don’t know how we thread that needle. We keep all options on the table.”
Those options include continuing “to drive wedges in the leadership” of a country he termed “a military dictatorship with a patina of religiosity,” while working to delay a confrontation until young Iranians — with “tremendous affection for the United States” — can have more influence in the country.
Udall said he was hopeful but wary about what he called a “very complicated and dangerous situation.”
The panel, convened by Udall, examined threats around the globe, including the looming danger of cyber-warfare conducted “in a land of fading borders,” in the wording of Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country’s second-highest ranking military official.
Joining Udall and Winnefeld for the nearly two-hour discussion were Ambassador Christopher Hill, dean of DU’s School of International Studies and a past ambassador to Iraq and South Korea; and Kenneth Wainstein, the Homeland Security advisor to President Bush and a former assistant attorney general for National Security. The panel discussion was sponsored by the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab.
Udall sits on the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, including the former’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
Elaborating what might be called the Udall Doctrine, the Democrat advocated for a “tough but smart” approach to national security, one that deploys American political values and economic might along with its military might. He warned against a rush to “sacrifice liberty for security” and concluded: “No threat can be effectively contained by eroding the right to speak openly or by limiting constitutional protections.”
Going forward, he said, the United States should maintain the world’s most powerful military “but never again have a policy of shoot first, ask questions later,” a reference to the Iraq invasion and shifting objectives in Afghanistan.
Pointing to another festering hotspot in the region, Udall acknowledged that the U.S. military could easily topple the Syrian regime but said the nation shouldn’t risk arming that country’s opposition “without knowing who they are.”
Wainstein agreed that the question of throwing in with the Syrian opposition was muddled by the possibility that al Qaeda forces could be moving in from neighboring Iraq, attempting to co-opt the attempt to overthrow Syria’s rulers.
“Killing bin Laden was the biggest blow to al Qaida,” he said, but then argued that the Arab Spring could be having a comparable effect on the extremists. The last year’s uprisings across the Middle East have “left al Qaeda behind” and have amounted to “a total repudiation of al Qaeda.”
Udall suggested several measures to help bring about the fall of the Assad regime in Syria, which he said “would be a benefit to the region and to the world,” in no small part because it would strip Iran of a key ally and further isolate that rogue nation. Among the steps Udall suggested were to encourage the work of the Arab League, “jawbone” Russia toward more constructive engagement, encourage Turks to broaden its aid to refugees, and funnel humanitarian aid to the region.
Taking a look at other troubled spots on the globe, Hill noted that Pakistan is “one angry mob away from a loose nuke.” Winnefeld concurred, calling America’s relationship with its ally Pakistan “one of those classic love-hate relationships.” The Pakistanis, he added, “are partners, but they’re very difficult partners.”
Turning to the potential for cyber-attacks, waged stealthily across computer networks, Wainstein acknowledged that the U.S. isn’t fully prepared.
“Everything we do relies on cyber, and we have some very determined adversaries out there,” he said, adding that the country lags “a few years behind” where it needs to be.
Winnefeld warned that it’s a whole new ballgame when it comes to defending against “attacks (that) can occur at the speed of light” on a battlefield that isn’t clearly defined. It can be maddeningly difficult, he said, to determine if “someone snorkeling around” amounts to recreational hacking, espionage or a full-blown attack.
Udall said Congress was preparing to tackle the question of cyber-security.
“Stay tuned for that debate in the next couple weeks,” he said, adding that the discussion could mimic a recent dust-up over digital copyright issues that swept through Congress last month.
Following the forum, Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who observed the discussion, told The Colorado Statesman he thought it had been a good airing of critical concerns.
“It was sobering to hear about the dangerous threats that are out there in the world today,” he said, “but on the other hand, it’s good to know that we in this country are taking big steps, and we’re learning fast.” We were kind of caught unprepared on 9/11, but at the same time, we’ve been learning fast. We have a ways to go — especially cyber-security. And of course, we have to watch some of the troubled spots in the world: Pakistan, Afghanistan, that area, Syria, North Korea, and Iran, maybe most of all. It was a good forum to air some of these issues, and I think everyone learned a lot.”