Sunday, May 21, 2006

Link Preface:

"Primary loyalties in Basra" by John Robb

"Robb's weak day" by Thomas P.M. Barnett

"Barnett Bites Back? " by Federalist X

"Barnett Dings me Too" by John Robb

"Unpacking the connectivity straw man" by Thomas P.M. Barnett

"The Global Platform: Connectivity can be both Good and Bad" by John Robb

DC, a commenter, asked me the following question:

"where you stand on the basic difference between JR / TB, as it looks, on whether the US is (i) in principle capable of connecting a country like iraq or (ii) whether in principle such difficult/complex 'imperial' tasks are beyond a modern democracy itself wired to media and system that enforces transparency to a large degree and therefore inevitably torpedos difficult projects..."

First, I have to allow myself a caveat that I understand Thomas Barnett's ideas probably better or more comprehensively than I do John Robb's for the simple fact that Robb's book hasn't come out yet and I have not had the same opportunity to enjoy his laying out a methodical argument. John's blogs have given me a decent grasp, I think, on his strategic analysis but the book will give me a better one. So, while I will do my best, I am more than open for correction from John if he believes I've misunderstood or forgotten an important aspect of Global Guerilla theory.

My interpretation of the basic differences between Tom Barnett's and John Robb's approaches to analysis is determined first, by selection of perspective and timeline; secondarily, through the emphasis of a particular operational dynamic, though there remains a lot of overlap between the two ( my kingdom for a venn diagram designed by Dan of tdaxp !).

As an object will look different when viewed with a telescope or with a magnifying glass, a geopolitical situation can give you a significantly different concern depending on what point of the strategic hierarchy you care to view it. Barnett and Robb are both experts and capable of giving you chapter and verse on Iraq, or Afghanistan or wherever from the tactical level upward to the enunciation of grand strategy. By inclination, education and background, Tom tends to focus on long term strategic outcomes and grand strategy while John is generally more over the board but definitely edges toward tactics, grand tactics and scenarios with shorter time horizons ( incidentally, this focus is better suited to blogging as a medium. I expect John's book will be more strategic in outlook than some of his daily readers of his blogs are used to, but that's just an intuitive guess on my part).

In terms of dynamics, Robb frequently refers frequently to the negative potentialities and implications of systemic disruption, an approach I once categorized as entropic. Dr. Barnett tends to look beyond tactical disruptions until you reach the "Big Bang" level of magnitude, a full-fledged system perturbation. Tom's focus on the effects of connectivity is an investigation into nonzero sum outcomes, an evolutionary and somewhat economically deterministic perspective. John too recognizes the power of the evolutionary paradigm in his discussion of "open-source" developments, though on military topics he's usually talking about something destructive like rebels or terrorists becoming more efficient at wrecking havoc.

Are Barnett and Robb writing about mutually exclusive variables? No. Are these variables all interacting at once at varying and constantly changing degrees of scale and situational importance ? Yes. Is the interrelationship of the variables perfectly discernable and easily conveyed ? Hell, no ! That's what they are arguing about. You're an impressive intellect if you can get even part of the comprehensive picture right most of the time ! There's a lot of room to debate even if you agree on a conclusion.

Now for the second part of DC's question:

Do democracies have the grit or persistance to endeavor to undertake long term and comlex tasks of strategic policy without undermining themselves through the intrinsic nature of media drenched democratic politics ?

Democracies are more politically resilient than we tend to give them credit for being. Containment was undertaken for a half century despite numerous catastrophes and misfires along the way. One of the worst debacles, American involvement in Vietnam, was by itself a seventeen year project. European integration was nearly fifty years. German reunification, from Brandt to Kohl was twenty years. Democracies can muster longitudinal will to carry out a policy with greater endurance than can tyrannies but what democracy cannot guarantee is that the policy will be carried out with either wisdom or ultimate success The media is a factor, yes, but not a primary variable. It is a method of communication, the content of the message still matters and facts of a certain strategic importance can neither be finessed nor spun.

Iraq has been carried out, after the initial, brilliant, military operations, about as poorly as can be imagined short of the destruction of the American Army. On the other hand, if you look at Kurdistan, you see how "connecting" the Gap might work when the Core's efforts are in sync with the aspirations of the residents we are trying to help ( if anything, the Kurds are far more enthusiastic than we are, given our sensitivity to the concerns of the Turks and Saudis) instead of in violent opposition to a significant minority.

The learning curve has been costly.


More posts today... I will try to update if /as more develops...other bloggers besides Tom or John who are also commenting can email me a link and I will include your two cents as well.

"Unpacking the connectivity straw man (II) " by Thomas P.M. Barnett

"Barnett and Robb " by John Robb

"The dangers of the blogosphere dialogue" by Thomas P.M. Barnett
A nice summary.

Although, to me it looks like you should take the third player : Lind into account.

You can see Lind as the real anti-Barnett. Whereas long-term, grand strategy, Barnett is optimistic about connectivity. Long-term, grand-strategy Lind is the pessimist: leading to his conservative view of cultures as impenetrable and isolation as the only defence.

I see Robb as the pragmatist in the middle : willing to talk about both the good and bad of connectivity. (When Robb talks about "market state" I think he's using the term with approval. He's talking about states reorganized around a looser networks style of organization.)

That means he's often best at identifying the devilish details that Barnett or Lind might gloss over.

The other thing that sets Robb apart is that he isn't only a military commentator, but steeped in internet culture as well. That's why he's able to draw on the examples of "open source" vs. proprietory software or the blogosphere over main-stream media for evidence of networks coming into conflict with hierarchies.

I don't suppose Barnett or Lind would take such examples seriously as evidence for anything. Robb does, which I think is his secret strength.
TB seems to be in lash-out mode... He has just posted the following -

"Here is the most absurd reductionism: 'If we fail in Iraq, then that proves disconnectedness is not the problem, and that all attempts to cure that through connecting failed or rogue regimes will trigger greater threat.'"

This creates the false implication that the quote is from JR - which it certainly isn't in the posts you identify.

TB does himself no favours by often falling back on ad hominem attacks when challenged. In my view, there are serious and non-serious criticisms of TB. JR is manifestly serious. TB often seems to think that because he has a Chinese kid and "chooses" to be optimistic everybody else has to be optimistic or we're proto-fascist. This is foolish.

TB is right to argue that "shrinking the Gap" is an approach worth taking seriously. He is wrong to argue that anybody who argues that America / the West will prove incapable of it is necessarily a fool or knave. JR is certainly historically correct to argue that connectivity is morally neutral for obvious reasons - Goebbels / Munzenberg and the Commie infiltration of western academia / audio tapes helping the 79 Iranian Rev / internet helping OBL etc etc.

What is often missing from TB is an acknowledgement that culture / religion / path dependent tradition combines with evolutionary features of the human brain and nervous system to produce violence / hatred - and this cannot just be dismissed by him as "irrational"... TB therefore often seems as irrational himself as the early 20th C Socialists who thought that mankind "naturally" wants to treat non-kin identically to kin. We now know enough evolutionary psychology to know this is naive rubbish.

On the other hand, we know from the success of Hayekian markets that they can be a profoundly transforming and beneficial force - so if they cd be deployed to "shrink the Gap"...

Anyway, thanks for your post Mark. I will post a comment later tonight with a few thoughts.

Hi Phil,

Good points regarding William Lind and a Barnett-Robb-Lind strategic triad. Robb does mediate between the two being more futurist and optimistic than Lind

I have mixed feelings about Lind's ideas, after having read everything by him that is posted at DNI.

On the positive side, Lind regularly offers some incisive criticism of flawed tactics that disconnect from political variables or the larger strategic dynamic. 4GW, whether you can regard it as a " universal" phenomenon coming from a decline of the state or not, it has more than enough regional and operational applicability in COIN to be taken seriously.

On the negative side, Lind's political preference for organic conservatism driving him toward strategic isolation is a mistake. I can think of no society that has successfully isolated itself as a defense - Tokugawa Japan, Ming and Q'ing China, Paraguay (early 19th cent.),America in the 1920's and 1930's - and emerged the stronger for it.

Nor is it feasible economically. Nor can isolating ourselves from "centers of disorder" be accomplished without the cooperation of the disorderly governments. The only reason we did not have a Russian mass migration in the 20th century is the Soviet border guards shot those who tried to leave. It simply won't work.
Hi DC,

You are welcome. And thank you for alerting me to the new posts, I was caught behind the curve.

I read Tom's opener as his paraphrasing his critics generally but since that wasn't made explicit John's right to say
" Hey - that's not me" and clarify.

The whole picture vs. worst-case scenarios is a valid point though in terms of analytical methodology. It isn't optimism vs. pessimism ( or, as you put it, " proto-fascism" ) but includuding scenarios alongside their relative probabilities in a decision-tree format.

Without that kind of balance, linear reasoning will stampede you into overestimating particular scenarios based solely upon their consequences ( that does NOT mean,however, that you exclude the worst case scenarios from the mix - you need them as much as the best case).
Agreed that extreme strategic isolation is not doable. But I think you could take Lind's emphasis on defence and non-engagement as something along the lines of a "first do no harm" (to the centres of stability) doctrine.

I agree that an ideal is to have decision trees (and scenario planning) giving probabilities to different outcomes. What's difficult is to actually get some numbers or something to pump the intuitions here.

And that's why I'd like to see a real debate between Barnett and Robb, forcing them to put more of their cards on the table in terms of expectations, weightings given to the likelyhood of different tactics working or events happening.

I was encouraged by Barnett's first "straw man" post, less so that he seems to have gone so random in the second.

I haven't read either of TB's books, so I may be way off here. But the impression I get is that his SysAdmin idea for reconstruction is highly implausible in terms of the political will that would be required to do it sufficiently well.

It's not that he's wrong in theory, but the figures just might not add up. In this sense, Robb has less to justify because it doesn't cost much to cause systems disruption.

All this back-and-forth, to-and-fro, is interesting, and I think a closer analysis of all the names mentioned, and their philosophies, will be good in the long run -- although, maybe not good for those mentioned as long as they refuse to "hear" what the others are saying. Hearing means, in this context, listening between the lines. I want to post about this, tie it into the discussion of resilience and consilience, but the beast has grown so large and I'm afraid I'll probably have to step out of the train(s) of the conversation just to get my bearing.

For now, I just want to say: Barnett's post about the Blogosphere should be renamed: "Barnett Against Connectivity." That post, more than any other I have read from the man, displays his blind eye. Okay, so he gets many other things correct with his two eyes focused on the conventional three dimensions; but this third eye is dead to the other dimensions of the world.

He complains about the descent into "mob mentality" on the Blogosphere and yet claims to understand the significance of connecting Iraq?

I don't want this comment to descend to the level of "taking pot shots" -- a phrase I've now read on TPMB and ERMB in the span of a week. My fingertip feeling, at the moment, is that the macroeconomic approach for connectivity perhaps ignores the real domain that will shape future dynamics, since it influences and affects everything from economics to politics to strategy, etc.: i.e., meme transference, or media. More and more, I'm thinking that ideas concerning 5GW are on-track.
I've expanded my criticism here.

Lind is on better ground with offensive vs. defensive warfare, speaking to a general rule.

I'd like to see a panel like that -Barnett, Robb, Lind, Arquilla, Echevarria, Chet Richards -perhaps some historians/writers like John Keegan,Robert Kaplan, Ralph Peters somebody sharp to talk about NCW and EBO, guys from the field like Colonel H.R. McMaster and General Petreus. That would be great.
Won't happen though.

Pick up PNM and BFA when you get a chance. A lot more depth than the blogospheric spin portrays.
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