Probably more than one child over the years asked a father how to handle an ominous schoolyard bully. The typical reply was to avoid a confrontation if possible.
But that advice often came with a warning that at some point it would likely come to physical confrontation, the only language bullies understand. And be prepared to fight.
There is much to criticize in President Donald Trump’s less-than-nuanced behavior and approach to governing. The unemployment rate among his critics is now near zero.
But we ought to express approval of his actions when warranted. Trump promised to destroy ISIS. He removed the strategic engagement handcuffs imposed by President Barack Obama.
Under James Mattis, a warrior secretary of defense, that terrorist army is now an encircled shadow of its former lethal self, reduced to hit-and-run acts.
Trump’s trade strategy built on tariffs is probably problematic. Instead of forcing change on trade partners such as China, it seems more likely to embed resistance and retaliation. If it doesn’t work, the president will pay a severe political price in 2020 for curbing the American jobs he promised to create — and did.
The United States, its people, businesses, economy and intellectual properties have been pushed around for years in the rapidly evolving cyber-world.
To put it bluntly, we’ve been patsies. Our government, companies, infrastructure and institutions have been the targets of countless cyberattacks, feints and breaches.
Recall, for one example, Chinese hackers spending unbothered months downloading personal and security files on more than 20 million of us, including myself, from the Office of Personnel Management.
The federal government’s response? The Obama administration complained to Beijing.
Complaining to bullies doesn’t work, especially in Asia where power is respected only if its threat is credible. (See the developing results of Trump’s hard-line coalition toward North Korea.)
Now comes a new National Cyber Strategy, rolled out last week by this White House.
The big news, which you probably missed in all the Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford hysteria, is that the United States will now respond in kind to cyberattacks from “malicious nation-state, criminal and terrorist actors (who) seek to steal our intellectual property and our personal information, damage our infrastructure, and even undermine our democracy through the use of cyber tools.”
To put it bluntly, official U.S. retaliation is now a real possibility, just as it was with the military during the long Cold War.
As outlined by National Security Adviser John Bolton, the retaliation could take many forms — cyber, economic sanctions, even military if necessary. “Americans and our allies,” he said, “are under attack every day in cyberspace.”
Some actions will be made public. Some will remain secret.
When pressed, Bolton added: “I’ll just put it this way: For any nation that’s taking cyber activity against the United States, they should expect — and this is part of creating structures of deterrence, so that it’s publicly known as well — we will respond offensively as well as defensively.”
To accomplish this, Trump had to rescind an Obama presidential directive known as PPD 20 which, as with Obama’s military restrictions in the ISIS fight, in effect, prevented effective U.S. reactions. Beyond, of course, verbal.
“It’s important for people to understand,” Bolton added, “that we’re not just on defense, as we have been primarily on defense for a period of time.”
Of course, the new idea, which is actually old, is that weakness invites attack. Strength and the credible willingness to use it discourage that. Obama was willing to threaten the use of force. Remember his infamous “red line” vow if Syria used chemical weapons?
Syria did. But President Obama did nothing. President Trump issued the same warning. Syria again used gas on civilians. Five dozen Tomahawk missiles aimed at the launching base promptly took out 17 percent of Syria’s air force.
Finally, it appears the U.S. is willing to demonstrate to adversaries the costs of engaging in anti-U.S. cyber operations is higher than they want to bear.
As inventor of the internet and its donor to the world, the country must also simultaneously harden its inexplicably porous cyber defenses, military, industrial, personal. That’s no easy task in an open society.
It will, no doubt, take a while — and probably some damaging retaliations — for those “malicious nation-state, criminal and terrorist actors” to fully grasp this administration’s new American attitude, determination and willingness to scrap back.
It’s the kind of stand-up posture that would make all those fathers of old, including mine, smile and nod.