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Blast from my past: "Mr. President, Here's How to Make Sense of Our Iraq Strategy" (2004)

Mr. President, Here's How To Make Sense Of Our Iraq Strategy

One of the architects of the Pentagon’s New Map of the world offers a most important guide to a) why the boys will never be coming home and b) why this is the first step toward a world without war

By Thomas P. M. Barnett

EsquireJune 2004, pp. 148-54


Is this any way to run a global war on terrorism? The new conventional wisdom is that the warmongering neocons of the Bush administration have hijacked U. S. foreign policy and sent the world down the pathway of perpetual war. Instead of dissecting the rather hysterical strain of most of that analysis, let me tell you what this feedback should really tell us about the world we now live in. And as opaque as the administration has been in signaling its values and true motivations, I will try in this piece to explain what Iraq should mean to us, why all the pain we have encountered there is the price we must pay to ensure a peaceful century, and why this is the birthing process of a future worth creating.

There is no doubt that when the Bush administration decided to lay a “big bang” upon the Middle East by toppling Saddam Hussein and committing our nation to reconnecting a brutalized, isolated Iraqi society to the world outside, it proceeded with virtually no public or international debate about the scope of this grand historical task. I, however, see a clear link between 9/11 and President Bush’s declared intention of “transforming” the Middle East.

In the March 2003 issue of this magazine, I published an article called “The Pentagon’s New Map” [available at], which was about work I had spent years doing at the Naval War College and the Pentagon to figure out the true threat environment for the United States in a post-cold-war world. The answer? Most of the world is peaceable and functioning. I call that the Core, and it is basically the parts of the world, including China, where globalization has taken root to some degree. The rest of the world, which had never been considered by the Pentagon to be a direct threat, much less the gravest threat we face, is made up of the countries that remain disconnected, either because of abject poverty or political or cultural repression: the Caribbean Rim, virtually all of Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and much of Southeast Asia. This I call the Gap. The primary goal of the foreign policy of the United States should be, in my view, to shrink the Gap. Nothing about our Iraq experience has changed this view.

The only way America can truly achieve strategic security in the age of globalization is by destroying disconnectedness. We fight fire with fire. Al Qaeda, whose true grievances lie wholly within the Persian Gulf, tried to destroy the Core’s connectedness on 9/11 by triggering what I call a system perturbation that would throw our rules into flux. Its hope was to shock America and the West into abandoning the Gulf region first militarily, then politically, and finally economically. Al Qaeda hoped to detoxify the region’s societies through disconnectedness.

But the president decided correctly to fight back by trying to destroy disconnectedness in the Gulf region. We seek to do unto al Qaeda as it did unto us: trigger a system perturbation that will send all the region’s rule sets into flux. Saddam Hussein’s outlaw regime was dangerously disconnected from the globalizing world—from our rule sets, our norms, and all the ties that bind the Core together in mutually assured dependence.

Disconnecting the great disconnector from the Gulf’s security scene is only the beginning of our effort, because now Iraq becomes the great battle field for the soul of the whole region. That second victory will be far more difficult to achieve. Our efforts to integrate Iraq into a wider world will pit all the forces of disconnectedness in the region against us. Therefore we must enlist the aid of all the forces of connectedness across the Core—not just their troops but their investment flows and their commercial networks.

America needs to demonstrate to the Middle East that there is such a thing as a future worth creating there, not just a past worth re-creating, which is all the bin Ladens will ever offer Muslim populations—a retreat from today’s diminished expectations. If America cannot muster the will—not to mention the Core’s aid—to win this struggle in Iraq, we will send a clear signal to the region that there is no future in the Core for any of these states, save Israel.

History’s clock is already ticking on that great task. As the world progressively decarbonizes its energy profile, moving away from oil and toward hydrogen obtained from natural gas, the Middle East’s security deficit will become a cross that not even the United States will long be willing to bear. The bin Ladens of that region know this and thus will act with increasing desperation to engineer our abandonment of the region. Like Vladimir Lenin a century earlier, bin Laden dreams of breaking off a large chunk of humanity into a separate rule-set sphere, where our rules hold no sway, where our money finds no purchase, and where our polluting cultural exports can be effectively repelled. Bin Laden’s offer is the offer of all would-be dictators: Just leave these people to me and I will trouble you no further.

By taking down Saddam Hussein and turning Iraq into a magnet for every jihadist with a one-way ticket to paradise, America has really thrown down the gauntlet in the Middle East; it has finally begun exporting security to that part of the world for real. In the past, we always had ulterior motives: to keep the Soviets out, to keep the oil flowing, to keep Israel safe. But reconnecting Iraq to the world is so much bigger than any of those goals. It is about creating a future worth living for a billion Muslims we could just as easily consign to the past.

Powell Doctrine, R.I.P.

What does this new approach mean for this nation and the world over the long run? Let me be very clear about this: The boys are never coming home. America is not leaving the Middle East until the Middle East joins the world. It’s that simple. No exit means no exit strategy.

One of the worst strategic concepts the Pentagon ever came up with was General Colin Powell’s notion that America should never intervene militarily overseas unless and until an exit strategy is clearly defined. The legacy of that dictum has poisoned the U. S. military’s strategic planning ever since, generating the force we have today—perfect for drive-by regime changes and understaffed for everything else.

Fortunately, the Powell doctrine has died with Operation Iraqi Freedom, and with it dies America’s decades-long tendency to blow off all the suffering and instability that plagues the Gap, or what we used to call the Third World. What is so amazingly courageous about what the Bush administration has done in trying to generate a “big bang” throughout the Middle East is that it has committed our nation to shrinking a major portion of the Gap in one fell swoop. By doing so, I believe this administration has forced America to finally come through on promises repeatedly offered during the cold war but never delivered upon. The irony, of course, is that the administration is guilty of such grotesque dissembling over its rationale for the war that it is unable to fully take credit for this historic achievement. And its dissembling has also aroused the passions of the empire crowd.

The concept of an “American empire” is very chic right now in literary and academic circles, and since the Bush administration never seems to offer a sufficiently comprehensive answer to the question weighing on most Americans’ minds (“Where is this all leading?”), many of our best and brightest have connected the relevant dots and declared Washington the de facto Rome of a new imperial age.

This is all nonsense and bad history to boot. Empires involve enforcing maximal rule sets, in which the leader tells the led not just what they cannot do but what they must do. This has never been the American way of war or peace and does not reflect our system of governance. We enforce minimum rule sets, carefully ruling out only the most obviously destructive behavior. Our goal must be to extend the Core’s security rule set into the Gap and, by doing so, shrink the Gap progressively over time. This is not about extending America’s rule but about extending the genuine freedom that collective security provides. All this talk about empire mistakenly seeks to impose a nineteenth-century simplicity upon a twenty-first-century complexity. In short, this era’s version of globalization comes with rules, not a ruler. To deny that achievement is to discount the vast improvement America brought to the system administration of globalization following World War II compared with earlier, deeply flawed efforts by Europe’s monarchies—Britain included.

There is no doubt that many governments in the Core still view the world system as a balance of powers, and so any rise in U. S. influence or presence in the Middle East is seen as a loss of their influence or presence there. Too many of these “great powers” are led by small minds who prefer America’s failures to the Core’s expansion, because they perceive their national interests to be enhanced by the former and diminished by the latter. They prefer the Gap’s continued suffering to their own loss of prestige, and they should be ashamed of their selfishness.

But America is far from alone in this great historical quest. As we realign our global military-basing structure to better reflect our continuing role as military Leviathan throughout the Gap, we leave behind old friends in Western Europe and embrace new ones in Eastern Europe. We increasingly trust East Asia to police itself while we export security to West Asia. We even go so far as to imagine and work toward future bases sprinkled throughout the African continent, a region long abandoned by the West to suffer decades of endemic conflict and disease.

The New Strategic Paradigm: Disconnectedness Defines Danger, or, Kiss Those Dictators Goodbye

So, why all the dissembling on the part of our political leadership? Well, the truth is, we are just coming to terms with a new grand strategy for the United States, the historical successor to containment, and our government doesn’t yet have the words to explain this vision to the world. So we come off as dishonest, which is a terrible mistake, because this vision describes a future worth creating: making globalization truly global. This is something to be proud of, not something to run from.

The defense community spent the entire post-cold-war period scanning the strategic horizon, desperately searching for the fabled “near-peer competitor” that would someday replace our late beloved foe, the Soviet Union. About eight years ago, most defense strategists fell in love with China, convincing themselves that here was an enemy worth plotting against. Since then, the great bureaucratic push to “transform” the U. S. military into the high-tech warrior force of tomorrow has focused almost exclusively on that conflict model—basically China’s invasion of Taiwan in 2020.

It was a beautiful dream, one easily sold to a Congress whose only interest in national-security planning is “Will you build it in my district?” It also corresponded to the Bush administration’s view of the world prior to 9/11, which focused exclusively on great powers while expressing disdain for the Clinton administration’s feeble attempts at nation-building in Third World wastelands. Frankly, it made everyone in Washington happy, because casting China as the future enemy provided the national-security establishment with a familiar villain: big, bad, and communist.

Naturally, the defense and intelligence communities reshaped themselves for this “new” challenge. We hired China experts by the barrelful and scripted all our war games to feature a large, unnamed Asian land power with an unhealthy interest in a small island nation off its coast. You want to know why we don’t have a clue about what goes on inside the Gap? Because our military strategists spent a decade dreaming of an opponent that would not arise, for a war that no longer existed. We’re the drunk looking for his lost car keys under the streetlamp instead of near his car a block away, because “the light’s better over here.”

The new rule set here is a simple one: We need to refocus all of our war-planning and intelligence systems from the Core to the Gap. This doesn’t mean we still don’t maintain a hedge against possible Chinese mischief. It just means a new strategic paradigm rules the roost: Disconnectedness defines danger. You want to locate the real danger in the system? Focus on those countries or regions most disconnected from the global economy, not those desperately working to integrate themselves with the outside world—like China.

What the intelligence failures on Iraq and al Qaeda should tell the Bush administration (and any that follow) is that it’s time to get explicit with the American people and the world about how there are simply two very different security rule sets in the world today: one that corresponds to the stable and overwhelmingly peaceful Core, and another that corresponds to the violence-ridden and increasingly unstable Gap. What scares most people about the Iraq war is the sense that the Bush administration lied to them in order to whip up sufficient popular support for taking down Saddam Hussein. The White House comes off like the cop who yells out, “He’s got a gun” and then airs out the “suspect” with a barrage of shots, only to discover later that he was just pulling out his wallet.

Without reopening the entire debate on Saddam, who I think we’ll all admit had multiple priors and a number of outstanding warrants for his arrest, just take a minute and ask yourself why this administration felt it needed to hype its case for “present danger” to such an unseemly degree. The majority of Americans had already expressed support in polls for removing Saddam simply because of all the bad things he had done and continued to do to his people. So why all the unnecessary drama?

I’ll tell you why. The international system today lacks any sort of recognized institutional rule set for processing a politically bankrupt state. We have one for economically bankrupt states, and it’s called the IMF bailout and rehab process. We may argue incessantly about that rule set, but at least we’ve got one. So when an Asian financial “flu” disabled a number of states in 1997, the system processed that entire crowd within a couple of years.

What do we have for the Saddams and Mugabes and Kim Jong Ils of the world? Just a toothless UN Security Council whose only “weapon” is sanctions that inevitably kill innocent civilians while doing nothing to change the behavior of the regime. The UN is at best a legislative branch for the global community, whereas the U. S. is clearly the closest thing we have to an executive Leviathan able to prosecute criminal actors across the system.

The new rule set on this one is relatively straightforward but difficult to achieve; we need an IMF-like international organization that is set up to process dangerous Gap leaders who have ruled beyond their expiration date. It’s not a long list, but imagine how much better a world we’d have if we could somehow manage to ditch all these dictators in a manner the entire Core could buy into—even the French.

As for the American public, what the intelligence failure on Iraq should translate into is a new and frank understanding of the limits of arms control. Again, different worlds (Core, Gap) require different rule sets on security. Getting any state from the Gap into the Core means, first and foremost, getting that state to accept the Core’s fairly clear rule on security with regard to WMD—basically “just say no.” I know it’s hypocritical for nuclear powers to tell smaller states to “Do as I say, not as I do,” but on WMD I think that it’s better to err on the side of order over justice.

What Americans need to understand about the potential (and real) proliferation of WMD inside the Gap is that all the arms-control treaties in the world won’t do a damn thing to stop it. All such treaties reflect the conventional wisdom of life inside the Core, where mutually assured destruction has basically ended great-power war. That logic, or that security rule set, simply does not penetrate the Gap. So when states or transnational actors inside the Gap make moves in the direction of acquiring WMD, the new security rule set called preemptive war not only makes sense, it is imperative. If the Core lets the Gap’s lawlessness on WMD infect our long-standing stability on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, then we will be doing nothing less than throwing away the cold war’s most important peace dividend.

Pentagon vs. Pentagon: Why We Will Soon Have Two Militaries, Not One

The second reason why so much of the world is unhappy with the current state of affairs in Iraq is that it’s now clear that the Bush administration did a terrible job of thinking beyond Saddam’s takedown. In effect, it is guilty of planning for war within the context of war when it should have been planning for war within the context of everything else. This is an acute and continuing problem for President Bush himself, who has gone so far as to color his reelection campaign with the imagery of his being a “war president,” when both the public and the world at large clearly want evidence that his administration isn’t myopically focused on this global war on terrorism but instead has learned to locate that much-needed security effort within the larger political, social, and economic context of globalization’s advance—or everything else.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t lay all the blame for this sad state of affairs on the Bush administration alone. The Pentagon has spent the last decade and a half willfully ignoring its growing workload throughout the Gap. We’ve spent the entire post-cold-war period engaging in what are derisively known throughout the defense community as “military operations other than war” (MOOTW, or Moo-twah to insiders), and yet we have adamantly refused to rebalance our forces—especially our National Guard and Reserves—to account for this dramatic uptick in the Gap’s demand for our services. Simply put, we currently have a military that can do two or three Saddam-style takedowns every year but cannot pull off even one Iraq-style occupation.

But that is changing rapidly, and for the better. Already, senior Defense Department leaders are pushing for the creation of a “stabilization force” component within the U. S. military. A year ago, such a proposal would have been summarily rejected, but today it strikes most serious defense analysts as a crucial task of defense transformation. In this new era, our military interventions will be judged primarily by whether or not we leave the country more connected to the outside world than we found it, not whether we generate an instant democracy or win the war in record time.

The importance of this new direction within the Pentagon cannot be overstated, because it signals a “back to the future” outcome that will return America’s national-security establishment to the structure that served our nation so well prior to the historical aberration known as the cold war. Before we created the all-encompassing Department of Defense in 1947, America had two very distinct security establishments at its disposal: a Department of War and a department of everything else called the Department of the Navy. The War Department served as the “big stick” force that we busted out as required, while the Navy Department (especially the embedded Marines) served primarily as the “baton stick” force that we employed around the world on a regular basis.
Why did America fuse these two entities into a unified whole? As the cold war was beginning, defense strategists correctly foresaw a decades-long hair-trigger standoff with the Soviets over nuclear weapons. In effect, national defense (War Department) and international security (Navy Department) became interchangeable and virtually indistinguishable; to defend America was to deter the threat of global nuclear Armageddon.

As one small part of humanity that survived the madness of the cold war, let me be the first to applaud that historic decision. But let’s be clear: The dangers to system stability that we face today do not involve global nuclear war among great powers; they involve undeterrable rogue regimes and transnational actors located exclusively inside the Gap, with the exception of the cold-war tailbone known as North Korea.

What the Iraq occupation is making clear throughout the defense community is that we currently have a Department of War and a Department of Everything Else—the latter underfunded and overworked—coexisting uncomfortably inside the Department of Defense. Over time, a great divorce will occur because no house divided against itself can long stand. This progressive bifurcation of the U. S. military into a Leviathan force focused on waging wars and a System Administrator force focused on winning the peace has been years in the making, but it took the painful lessons of Iraq to really get the ball rolling.
What this splitting of the force will mean to future presidential administrations is clear: greater flexibility in dealing with the world as we find it. The Leviathan force will remain your father’s military: testosterone-fueled, lethal, and not subject to civilian law. The Sys Admin force will end up being more your mother’s military: supportive, nonlethal, and willing to submit to recognized authorities such as the International Criminal Court and the UN—Teddy Roosevelt meets Woodrow Wilson.

What this bifurcation offers the rest of the world is twice as many opportunities to contribute to America’s current scattershot efforts to export security throughout the Gap. The Leviathan is the classic come-as-you-are coalition of the willing, and since this flies-on-eyeballs crowd will feature Special Operations Forces as the pointy end of its spear, any nation able and willing to contribute its own small contingent of tough hombres can join this bandwagon on a first-come, first-to-serve basis.

But contributing to the war-fighting half of the pie won’t be the only way to gain a seat at the table, because the follow-on Sys Admin effort will allow those nations unwilling to field combat forces in certain situations to nonetheless participate in the peacekeeping force that must necessarily stand watch over the longer haul. Having both forces is crucial for this reason: There is a strong temptation for any administration—especially the pointlessly vindictive Bush White House—to tell allies that if they do not join in the war effort, they cannot participate in the rebuilding that follows. What having both forces means is that we will be able to tell potential allies not only to “come as you are” for the war but also to “come when you can” for the peacekeeping.

As we have learned in Iraq, America can lose about 150 soldiers in six weeks of combat and/or lose about 500 soldiers to terrorism to date in the ensuing occupation. Either way, it hurts just the same. If any country is willing to help out on one side of the war-peace equation, we should simply be grateful for the sacrifice offered, not picky about the timing.

Here’s what this splitting of the U. S. military means to the American people: The National Security Act of 2005 tentatively sits on the far side of this national election. I fully expect that if Bush is reelected, this piece of legislation will be profound, moving America down the pathway of seriously reordering its national-security establishment for the better. Does that mean a Kerry administration wouldn’t do the same? Not at all. In fact, that administration may well be the far better choice to pull off such a dramatic reorganization, given the growing distrust of many Americans and the world regarding the Bush administration’s integrity on matters of security.

My point is not to tell you how to vote, but simply to make sure you ask the right questions. If you think “preemptive war” and all that violence in the Gap are going to go away simply by voting Bush-Cheney out of office, you’re kidding yourself. The next administration is going to have its hands full with international-security issues no matter how much it may want to focus on other things. So don’t let either ticket off the hook on how it proposes to reshape our national-defense establishment for the big tasks that lie ahead.

As Americans seeking to choose our next president, we all need to understand better the stakes at hand, for it is not the danger just ahead that we underestimate but the opportunity that lies beyond—the opportunity to make globalization truly global. America stands at the peak of a world historical arc that marks globalization’s tipping point from a closed club of the privileged few to a planetwide reality. Making that strategic vision—that happy ending—come true will end war as we know it.

America has made this effort before and changed the world. Now is the time to rededicate this nation to a new long-term strategy much as we did following World War II, when we began exporting the security that has already made war only a memory for more than half the world’s population, enabling hundreds of millions to lift themselves out of poverty in the last couple of decades alone. It is our responsibility and our obligation to give peace the same chance in the rest of the world.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is the author of The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, just published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. From November 2001 until June 2003, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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