The Pentagon’s New Map
Thomas P. M. Barnett
426 pp., including extensive notes

Reviewed by Chet Richards
Defense and the National Interest
Revision 2: March 5, 2005

[Note:  This is an important and influential book.  After hearing Tom Barnett give a 2-day seminar on it and having had the opportunity to discuss it with him, I feel that my original review may have left some readers with a misleading impression of Barnett's ideas.]

The late American strategist John R. Boyd noted that “Interaction permits vitality and growth while isolation leads to decay and disintegration.” Boyd worked out an effective strategy for isolating an enemy physically, mentally, and morally in order to produce his disintegration and facilitate his destruction. In his new book, Barnett asks, rhetorically, why are we treating one-third of the world’s population as our enemies?

His solution would also be familiar to Boyd: Start doing whatever it takes to integrate that third of the human population, which he calls the “Non-integrating Gap,” back into the rest of the world, the “Functioning Core.” If this could be done, Barnett claims, the result would be an end to the forces driving global “terrorism,” which would diminish to the nuisance level as just another form of international crime – disturbing, but not threatening the future of Western or any other Core society.

The genius of Barnett’s concept is that it avoids the two major pitfalls that most plans for winning the “global war on terrorism” fall into: Either a reliance on military force as the primary tool, or an appeal to social theories about the causes of “terrorism.” The problem with military force, per se, is that there are few cases short of genocide where an established insurgency was defeated by conventional military force. The problem with the theories is that they are theories, with counterexamples for virtually every one.

Barnett takes a higher level approach, without ruling out any of the others as useful tools. He says, simply, that it’s the system – the world system – that keeps the Gap isolated, and so if we want to make real, lasting, long-term change, we have to change that system. Rather than propose his own utopian scheme, he prescribes “perturbing” the Gap out of its depressingly stable state and then guiding its redevelopment to ensure connectivity and democracy. New social, political, and economic systems will emerge in the different Gap countries, but they will all be guided by the principle of connectivity with the functioning core, to which they will all eventually belong.

As societies of the Gap accept, or are restructured to accept, the “global security rule set” and emerge into the Core, their standards of living will increase dramatically as will their contributions to the economy and quality of life in the rest of the Core countries. Support for “terrorist” organizations will decrease as fewer people will see any point in supporting organizations that are working against their interests and those of their children.

It is a wonderful vision for humanity, at least as seen from the Western world, and if he had just stopped there, there would be little to argue over. But then he wouldn’t have had a very long book.

But he didn't stop there, and embedded within it is a cornucopia of ideas, from recognizing Harry Truman as the architect of victory in the Cold War to schemes for reforming general officer promotions. One stands out from the crowd: the need for an organization other than a traditional military force for the purpose of rebuilding Gap counties and integrating them into the Core. This “systems administrator” (Sys Admin) force is the crucial idea in the book. Without such a force, we might—through massive military effort—perturb a Gap country’s system, but we will have no mechanism to steer it into the Core. We are seeing this in Iraq today where the initial surgery on the country was successful, but both the patient and the surgeon may succumb to the post-operative infection.

Iraq is the most mystifying element of the book and some may use it to attempt to discredit his basic premise. Barnett’s rationale for Iraq, however, actually lies outside the concept of perturbing the Gap. He does make a weak claim that the invasion was a perturbation to force change in the Middle East, but this is belied by the effort extended – enough, but just enough, to take Baghdad and eventually capture Saddam. Certainly not enough effort to guide the transformation of the Middle East.

The problem is that it is not true, as Barnett claims, that “when the United States perturbs the system, we set the conditions under which the new rules emerge.” This is wishful thinking, as shown, ironically, by the example he chooses to illustrate his point—Iraq (the manuscript was completed in the Fall of 2003).  When we perturb the system, we put the country in play with us as one of the players. What happens next depends on how skillfully we play the game. If we act fast and begin the hard work of shaping the new system while the situation is still perturbed, we may stand a chance. This is what the Sys Admin force is supposed to do. Without it, perturbation will be followed by chaos or re-descent into the Gap.

His other, and probably his real explanation for Iraq is that Saddam was bad and so the war was justified. Such an argument is an after the fact case of ends justifying means, offered only when the original justifications – WMDs and collaboration with al-Qa'ida – turned out to be what can charitably be called “mistakes.” Considering that we had no Sys Admin force on the books, the results are exactly as he should have predicted. His basic argument – shrink the Gap by means of perturbation exploited by a robust Sys Admin force – is compelling and sound.

To get the Sys Admin force into position, Barnett recommends a restructured military, and here he begins to stray from his forte of grand strategy. He has an abiding faith in the efficacy of military force.  Ours in particular will always win, and win quickly, through an application of maneuver warfare and high technology. “We no longer,” he proclaims, “need strategic surprise to defeat a well-armed enemy.” Well, maybe, but such a claim would carry more weight if it were based on something other than the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a pathetically weak opponent debilitated by the 1991 Gulf War and 12 years of sanctions. It also fails to give future opponents any credit for being able to watch and learn.

His intervention force, “Leviathan,” contains smaller editions of the four services, but employing hardware even more top-of-the-line than DoD is buying today, “the few and the expensive.” Given the nature of Defense R&D and procurement, the “few and expensive” will become the “few and very expensive,” and one can only envision the debates in Congress over a $400 million F-22. A more practical idea might be to realign the Cold War era force structure into something else, simplified and streamlined to form the point of the spear that Barnett envisions (I made a few modest proposals in A Swift, Elusive Sword.)

He assumes that once we’re in, the locals will recognize that they have lost and give up. He makes the curious claim that “we know our enemies cannot defeat us in extended conflicts,” even though history has shown that protracted war is exactly where we are most vulnerable. Barnett's view of war better describes the Third Generation (to his credit, to be sure, given the Second Generation nature of much of our force), which if executed well often produces quick victories.  But he has no vision of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW).  In 4GW, the defeat of a state army by an invading 2GW or even 3GW force is prologue to the main act. Other entities – tribes, cartels, nations without states (e.g., the Kurds), and transnational ideological and religious groups (e.g., al-Qa’ida) – are now waging war, and as we have seen in Iraq, they can pick up where the state leaves off. And they can keep it up for a very long time. All the high tech whiz bang $400 million fighters are useless in such a struggle because they won’t have targets to shoot at, and what they do hit will provide recruits for the opposition. What will prove useful is a massive Sys Admin force on the ground, which of course is what we don’t have in Iraq. [Note: Barnett does take up the question of 4GW in some of his more recent writings.]

A few minor points. Barnett informs us on at least four occasions that he is Catholic. He's certainly entitled to any religion that he wants, but his choice is not germane to the arguments of the book and like any extraneous material should have been caught by the book's editor. And then there’s that map. It needs to go. In addition to placing virtually the entire Muslim world prominently into the Gap, the Pentagon’s new “expeditionary theater,” as he calls it, it is also wrong. Israel and Dubai, for example, are in the Gap, while North Korea lies in the Functioning Core. His explanation is that he wanted to make the map simple to draw. Fair enough, but it is probably more important not to distract from the basic arguments.

My recommendations:

There is a lot in this book not to like. At 426 pages, it seems long, perhaps because Barnett regales us with story after story about his glorious career as a Pentagon briefer and how he charms skeptics around the globe (which may well be true, but it does get old.) The tone can turn priggish and sometimes even arrogant. “I see the future worth creating and I choose to embrace it,” he announces at one point. Osama bin Laden could make the same statement—such moral certitude makes it difficult for the rest of the Core to trust that we will use our power wisely, an essential condition for success as Barnett notes many times. And his attempt to retrofit Iraq into his scheme, when it is more properly seen as verification of what happens when we do not operate according to his paradigm, may lead many to write him off as garden variety neocon.

You can, however, ignore his endorsements of both himself and of Iraq and disagree with every one of his conclusions about the composition of the Leviathan intervention force and still stand in awe of the power of his fundamental thesis: Perturb and integrate the Gap. This is the first work since Boyd to offer a coherent vision for action from national goal to grand strategy and down to strategy, operations, and even tactics. It is breathtaking in scope and in hope for the human race. If there is a significant shortcoming in the book, it may be that Barnett  seriously underestimates the effort needed to perturb a system as large as a country, much less the entire Gap. As he notes, “For a System Perturbation to be triggered, peoples' worlds need to seem turned upside down.” Remember, we're talking some two billion people whose worlds need to be upended. The real work of this perturbation is not done by the military component, the Leviathan Force, but by the System Administrators. Leviathan just puts Sys Admin in position to get started. So how big should the Sys Admin force be?  Since nothing on this scale has ever been tried, no one can give a definitive answer.  It is simple, though, to do a back-of-the-envelope estimate that will illustrate the rough size required.

The Sys Admin force must be large enough to take full control of countries before fourth generation wars have time to ignite as one now has in Iraq.  After a ramp-up period, components must be deployed in large portions of the Gap simultaneously, to prevent backsliding and to attempt to manage the resulting perturbations.  If there are indeed more than two billion people in the Gap, and IF we follow the "invade, destroy, and rebuild" model that we used in Iraq, then one could envision the need for an international Core Sys Admin force of some 20 million members [applying Shinseki's ratio, which in light of recent events may be conservative, and Barnett's own estimate of what may be needed to close out Iraq.] At any given time, this would provide a deployable reservoir of 5-7 million personnel, trained and funded to take control of failed societies and guide their rebuilding not as Western, Christian democracies but as connecting members of the World Core in all its myriad forms, each respecting all the others as long as they continue to connect. A force this size, properly funded and trained (as bears endlessly repeating), might give the Core a fighting chance to manage the inherently unpredictable nature of large scale system perturbations.

Although a force of 20 million may seem impractical, it is only marginally more than the 16 million Americans who served in WW II.  It amounts to 0.5% of the population of the Core, or only one inhabitant out of every 200.  It is comparable to the number of military forces, active and reserve, that the Core already possess, counting Israel in the Core.  This does not seem an undue burden upon those benefiting from life in the Core, considering that eliminating the Gap is the most critical factor in their, that is, our continued well being and perhaps of our continuing to exist at all.

[If this number stills seems high, perhaps the invade-destroy-rebuild paradigm needs further examination.  I offer some ideas of my own, which I don't think are incompatible with Barnett's vision, in the last section of Conflict in the Years Ahead.]

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