Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thomas P.M. Barnett on Robert Gates' New Defense Paradigm

Thomas P.M. Barnett in Esquire, H/T John Robb.

Don't get me wrong: I love owning the world's biggest gun. But when our ability to possess that gun depends — to a stunning degree — on the rest of the world's willingness to finance its construction and use, then America cannot appear unresponsive to a changing global market for our Leviathan services. In past decades, it was enough to deter larger prospective warriors like the USSR; today America is back in the business of settling globalization's many untamed frontiers, whether we like it or not.

Gates understands this nuance of modern warfare, too. So he wants to create a home for today's warfighters — the Dances with Wolves guys who get stuck manning those tiny forts in southern Afghanistan. He wants the Pentagon to stop looking down upon them, to stop haphazardly welding so-called "hillbilly" armor onto vehicles that lacked such basic protection. He wants America to stop casually trading their lives in the here-and-now fight against real insurgencies for theoretical casualties in dreamed-up, there-and-then fights against, I dunno, the Chinese or something. He wants, ultimately, to show them the money.

In response to his "radical" vision, Gates is preparing for the Know Nothings — those same national-security figureheads who have long sung his praises from the Capitol — to put him through the meat grinder. He will be dubbed, with all appropriate indirectness, "na├»ve" and "reckless." His opponents, all of whom fear that the loss of home-district defense jobs will ultimately end their congressional careers, will suddenly accuse Gates of disregarding this or that "disturbing trend." Try not to laugh out loud when you spot these security neophytes on TV, spouting absolute nonsense fed to them by staffers smarted-up by Google searches.

Most pointedly, Gates will be rhetorically indicted for putting "America's sons and daughters at risk" — not today's version, mind you, but some mythical future cohort of starship troopers armed with over-engineered combat systems that we can't possibly afford to buy, much less maintain.

A favorite recent example: Georgian senator Saxby Chambliss declaring to the Wall Street Journal that it would be shortsighted to think "we're going to be fighting terrorists for 50 years and we're not going to be engaged in a conventional war." Let me deconstruct that statement a bit, because it's a loaded one: "Conventional war" here is code for a major war against another great power, not the kind of overmatch situations against regional rogues that we've encountered these past couple decades — much less the concentrated counter-insurgency operations since 9/11, in which terrorists typically are problem No. 1 (thus the already frequent accusation that Gates is "fighting the last war").


But make no mistake: Gates's budget preview arrived last week like a shot across the bow of the big-war camp. He came down — quite explicitly — on the side of the small-wars Army and Marines, stating he would no longer tolerate big-war demands for ruinously expensive ships from the Navy and aircraft from the Air Force. Future scenarios, Gates warned, cannot include analytical wedges that assume our great-power opponents possess unlimited resources and time — much less unlimited technology.

Case in point: All of this bureaucratic reorganizing at the Pentagon coincided with our Navy's slow-motion (but ultimately elegant) rescuing of a ship from Somali pirates. Eventually, we sent in a destroyer with enough firepower to lay waste to everything of value in Somalia, and yet the endgame consisted of SEAL snipers dispatching of three teenagers who arguably never had a chance for any better outcome in life.

These are the snips that I liked. More at the link.

That piracy reference rings true with me.

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