“Asymmetric warfare” is not new. But the term has gained currency since the “war on terror” replaced the Cold War against a rival superpower as America’s preoccupying threat.

Defined by the Rand Corporation as “conflicts between nations or groups that have disparate military capabilities and strategies,” asymmetric war takes many forms. While the threats are still martial, they’ve morphed: In Afghanistan and Iraq, uniformed armies with identifiable armaments were sometimes supplanted by civilian-clad saboteurs wielding unconventional weapons like suicide bombs.

U.S. forces have had to adapt, according to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, one of four keynote speakers at the U.S. Army War College’s National Security Seminar. The annual seminar, which I attended last week, is the capstone to the 10-month curriculum for select U.S. and international officers. Besides big-picture keynote addresses and breakout sessions on hot topics like Syria, seminars led by Army War College faculty members broadly explore the national security implications of social, political and economic problems.

Per longstanding tradition, the seminar adheres to a nonattribution policy, so keynotes are characterized, not quoted. But based on speaker selection and lecture title alone, it’s apparent that there are challenges on both the home front and the front lines. Hayden, for instance, went beyond military matters, stressing how strategists need to maneuver within an ever-evolving U.S. society. Each speech was made more relevant by the week’s news, which showed that what’s studied at the War College isn’t abstract academia, but often the stuff of explosive headlines.

For example, on June 4, ACLU President Susan Herman gave a speech entitled “Challenges to American traditions of liberty, due process and equality in a changing world.” The very next day, the Guardian newspaper began its series of bombshells about secret surveillance by the National Security Agency — just one example of the U.S. response to this asymmetric era. This week, the ACLU made news of its own when it sued the Obama administration over the NSA “dragnet.”

NSA surveillance isn’t the only tactic under scrutiny: The most notable topics in President Obama’s recent speech on national security were his defense of drone attacks and his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center — two of the more-controversial responses to this asymmetric era.

Another headline, however, concerned not a new enemy but an old scourge: sexual harassment and assault. While Herman spoke of equality, uniformed leaders testified before Congress about the military’s metastasizing scandal.

Other asymmetric challenges coming from the Beltway and still-struggling Main Street were addressed by Minnesota native Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Gordon Adams, professor of U.S. foreign policy at the School of International Service at American University.

Once again, the news highlighted (or hijacked) their messages. The morning Ornstein spoke about “Making policy in a dysfunctional political environment,” it was announced that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon had resigned. His replacement, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, led some Republicans to reopen the still-simmering debate over the deadly terror attack in Benghazi.

It’s not just national security anxieties that deepen partisan paralysis. Economic security issues drive divisions, too, as nations lurch from one self-inflicted fiscal crisis to the next.

This point was underscored when Adams addressed “Defense in an age of fiscal austerity.” While he focused on America, this austerity era is truly transatlantic, and could destabilize NATO — the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s “Great Decisions” dialogue.

To be sure, this isn’t the first, or worst, time of trouble in American history, a truth not lost on officers, and one reaffirmed during a tour of nearby Gettysburg. Away from the seminar and the headlines, an Army War College military historian expertly explained the battle and its background, including the crucial role played by Minnesotans (for more, see the excellent exhibit at the Minnesota History Center).

Gettysburg’s solemn monuments, honoring Union and Confederate forces alike, give witness to how relatively minor, and solvable, today’s problems are.

And fittingly, even this historical interlude in the seminar will also soon be in the news: The 150th anniversary of the three-day battle begins July 1.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @ rashreport.


The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www. micglobe.org.