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12:01AM

Blast from my past: Esquire's Best & Brightest: "The Strategist" (2002)

The Strategist

Much has been made in the past year of profound changes in the way we make war. Thomas Barnett, forty, is the man who dreamed them first.

Thomas Barnett is a philosopher of modern war.

A few years ago, Barnett, a Harvard-educated professor of military strategy at the Naval War College, began to imagine a world of grave threat posed by unseen, stateless enemies capable of striking fatal blows against the modern world yet impossible to defend against. He was criticized as being perhaps unrealistic. Now the entire world knows he was right, and now the United States is in an escalating war, with a military that has significant adapting to do.

"We really haven't been a nation at war since World War II," Barnett says. "We always did it on the side, so to speak. We networked ourselves with the outside world so much that our definition of national security started moving beyond the war paradigm to something else--crises that threatened our connections with the outside world." So in the late nineties, he began thinking larger. He teamed up with the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald and asked a question: How would the U. S. military react to a hypothetical, interconnected catastrophe like, say, a terrorist attack on Wall Street? "People heard our brief," Barnett says, "but everyone thought we were too apocalyptic, too out-there."

No more. Within weeks of September 11, 2001, Barnett was called to the Pentagon and installed as the assistant for strategic futures in the Office of Force Transformation, Office of the Secretary of Defense. Since then, he has been relentlessly briefing high-ranking members of the intelligence community and brass from all branches of the military on the next world and how to manage it. "September 11 was crystallizing," he says. "We all just went, This is what we were talking about--a peacetime, war-like event that's so profound it forces us to rethink everything."

Barnett breaks the big world down thusly: "core" countries, those that promote or align themselves with the larger global community through a relatively free flow of trade, people, direct foreign investment, and security; and "gap" countries that either refuse to or can't work with the core because of political instability, cultural rigidity, or extreme poverty. It's not as if he's making it up. He drew a map of the world and highlighted our military responses of the past three decades--from Iran, Lebanon, and Libya to the Gulf war, Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia--until the logic emerged: The U. S. military rarely needed to respond in the core countries. The gap was another story, not only in terms of warfare but also because of exports like terrorism and illegal drugs. "The goal," Barnett says, "is not to contain the gap countries but to bring them constructively into the core. It's what we've been doing, and the only question is how long it takes us to recognize it and articulate it." And for Barnett, it's hardly hopeless: In the numbers game, there are four billion people within the core, two billion in the gap.

The future likely means that the U. S. military bases set up last year in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will develop into more-permanent bases like those in Europe. It will mean an "export of security," which involves everything from joint military exercises to long-term occupation. As we've seen in Afghanistan, it means few front lines and, when things get rough, dropping in "a small number of guys with immense power and leaving almost no footprint on the ground," Barnett says. "War is assassination on some level--all wars. The goal is to be able to do it to a point of discretion that's pretty amazing."

Barnett has the brass's ear, and the brass is listening. "When people start using your words--core and gap, system perturbations, exporting security--you know you're getting through," Barnett says. "In Washington and in the Pentagon, battles are won one room at a time."

--ANDREW CHAIKIVSKY

Then, a couple of years later, in the third annual "B&B," Esquire ran this update:

From "obscure Naval War College professor to strategic rock star," THOMAS P. M. BARNETT catapulted into the limelight after his appearance in Best and Brightest 2002. His March 2003 article for Esquire, "The Pentagon's New Map," outlined his grand strategy for the United States in the post-cold-war era, which, in expanded form, became a New York Times best-seller this spring. And Barnett's blog,thomaspmbarnett.com, is now required reading throughout the political and military establishment. Barnett says, "Up until Best and Brightest, I was slaving away in relative obscurity in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on a proposed grand strategy for the United States in the global war on terrorism." He added that his presentation, although well received in policy circles, "wasn't getting a lot of traction. Now, well .. ." Barnett's work articulates a bracing new vision and lexicon to confront security challenges in our drastically changed world. He now works as the senior concept developer at Joint Forces Command, advising the four-star general running Special Operations Command and working with other "change agents" within the intelligence community. In the June 2004 issue of Esquire, Barnett wrote a follow-up to "The Pentagon's New Map" titled "Mr. President, Here's How to Make Sense of Our Iraq Strategy."

Reader Comments (4)

'Within weeks of September 11, 2001, Barnett was called to the Pentagon and installed as the assistant for strategic futures in the Office of Force Transformation, Office of the Secretary of Defense.'

I wonder how many Pentagon staff reviews of Barnett work before 9/11 had the phrase: 'these new strategies and tactics could be subject to criticism.'

In the 1980s most transformational initiatives were 'filed for future possibility' after administrative brass read such warnings.

August 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlouis Heberlein

The criticism just means you're threatening vested interests, meaning you're within range of target. So you just take that as a compliment.

More realistically, though, you know that ideas alone rarely change anything--and many times shouldn't when you're talking warfare. So you ready your answers, spread your gospel, and then events do the rest of the work for you. If the course of events don't validate the thinking, it wasn't going to go anywhere anyhow.

We build the SysAdmin force now and have for these past few years because events forced us to, not because of some funky brief.

All the vision guy can do is provide the soundtrack and some of the imagery, but under the right circumstances, that can be impactful and have its useful place.

Change in anything as large as the DoD involves a cast of thousands spread over a generation.

August 15, 2010 | Registered CommenterThomas P.M. Barnett

It was not just the power of the Leviathan establishment that was a problem. It was more its ability to establish a broad illusion of the need and effectiveness of its priorities and methods, at the expense of manpower and resources for real problem solvers, often patching old/surplus resources to deal with brushfire gap conflicts, and crises. It also involved distorted management tools. Desktop computers needed for real crises were rejected in favor of obsolete complex base level big IBM type computers justified for headquarters down management of the 'big wars.' Unit commanders of real problem solver units diverted base funds to pay for the needed practical equipment.

Practical involvement of workers involved in early warning systems were rejected for voluminous obsolete or oversimplified checklists that military bureaucrats felt they could could understand and therefore made it their mission to have them used constantly, whether they found/solved problems or not. When a commander of a key base authorized that the checklist reports be 'square filled' to obtain time for workers to do more effective testing and preventive maintenance, a headquarters special inspection team was sent to 'find the truth.' They found the system was better than it had been for many years, and they took the worker ideas and methods back to be evaluated by a contractor engineer team. But their formal inspection report only indicated the system was better because 'the workers had finally used the old checklists correctly.'

When 1980s tanker aircraft units were told to be ready for small, short, no prior notice deployments to Gap countries, the SAC folks indicated they needed large numbers of military transports to deploy complex materials handling equipment to on/off load deployed tankers. So we had Marines demonstrate how they could use landing craft loading nets to form a manpower chain to on/offload the boxes. The Marines had done that way back during the Cuban missile crises, and had been doing it for decades, but Leviathan brass never noticed.

A tremendous amount of time of working units was diverted to practice and demonstrate their ability to perform the theoretical big war plans, often at the expense of real problems/crises. The realistic Leviathan brass members would sometimes admit the negative consequences of their power and methods, but their justification was often that their approach was needed to convince the Russian power structure and public, made unstable by their historical experiences, not to risk conflict with US.

There is also a point at which analysis can become ideology.

Thomas More's work Utopia begins with a pragmatic dialogue in which his key players show how ignoring the real unexpected problem consequences of idealistic domestic and global economic and social control by elite folks can create worse situations. They are ignored because they don't fit the 'model' of the political/social/religious thinkers. One of the things I like about Barnett approach is the pragmatic realism. It only took the Europeans a few centuries to get More's message. So the current foreign/military transformation policies are very quick ... even though there is a media call of: "Are we there yet?"

August 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlouis Heberlein

One last thought on More's insights. His philosophy asked government "to make as little bad as possible that which cannot be made entirely good."

August 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlouis Heberlein

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