Pulitzer Prize Winner Talks “Secret” International Conflicts

New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti was brought to campus by the Department of Political Science to give a talk on the “shadow wars” the next president will inherit.

On Thursday, Nov. 17, New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti came to campus to give a talk, “The Shadow Wars: The Secret Conflicts that the Next President Will Inherit,” to a large audience in Chase Auditorium. Mazzetti, who has reported for the Times in Washington, D.C., since 2006, is the bestselling author of The Way of the Knife: The CIA, A Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. He also shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for reporting on escalating violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the American response to that violence.

Mazzetti’s on-campus talk, sponsored by the Department of Political Science in conjunction with the Distinguished Visitors Program, explored the kinds of international conflicts that President-elect Trump is inheriting. “[Trump] is going to inherit a nation in a ‘semi-permanent’ state of war,” said the reporter, noting that this state of war has much to do with shadow conflicts and foreign policy and not traditional, congressionally declared military combat.

These wars, Mazzetti said, are outside declared war zones and many are off the radar of the general public, which mostly only sees media coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. He listed the seven main secret wars the U.S. is currently involved in: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. These secret wars, he said, are funded by a “black budget,” because, while the top-line $45 billion spent on American intelligence is public knowledge, we don’t know the specific allocations of said budget. Secret wars are, therefore, funded by a channel wholly separate from the public budget.

According to Mazzetti, most discussions and decisions pertaining to these secret wars have been made by small groups without any public debate. He stated that, in the last 15 years, these groups are largely run by lawyers who decide what can and cannot be done and also noted that these types of conflicts have a tendency to increase executive power, with Congress often offering little in the way of a check on executive authority.

Mazzetti also discussed the increasingly blurred lines between the jobs of soldiers and spies and noted that the covert nature of these “shadow conflicts” do not make them any less significant or threatening. “Nothing is without cost or consequences,” he said. “We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that there is cost-free warfare.”

As for the incoming president, Mazzetti is concerned that executive authority has expanded so much in the last 15 years that there will be very few limits on what President-elect Trump could do. Mazzetti said that he has analyzed Trump’s foreign policy views and finds them filled with contradictions. Trump seems to be drawn to the idea of aggressive unilateral action, he said, but also seems to think that we’re involved in too many costly wars.

There was obviously much to discuss after Mazzetti was finished, so a lengthy and generative Q&A session followed, touching on the role of cyber warfare, media portrayals of conflict, Trump’s inheritance of major U.S. alliances, and much more.

-Jenny Ahn ’17

Photo by Claire Chenyu Wang ’20