Barnett’s call for a distinct SysAdmin force to handle peace-keeping, stability operations, nation-building, etc. is probably his best idea. These tasks will not go away. We can either do them well or do them badly. We can either allow them to erode our military’s core function of war-fighting, by misusing a war-fighting military to undertake tasks it is not trained or equipped to do, or make sure we have the full range of capabilities in place. The very good article Why Great Powers Fight Small Wars Badly. Its author, Maj. Robert M. Cassidy makes this point.
[t]he military organizations of great powers …embrace the big-war paradigm, and because they are large, hierarchical institutions, they generally innovate incrementally. This means that great-power militaries do not innovate well, particularly when the required innovations and adaptations lie outside the scope of conventional war. In other words, great powers do not win small wars because they are great powers: their militaries must maintain a central competence in symmetric warfare to preserve their great-power status vis-à-vis other great powers; and their militaries must be large organizations. These two characteristics combine to create a formidable competence on the plains of Europe or the deserts of Iraq. However, these two traits do not produce institutions and cultures that exhibit a propensity for counter-guerrilla warfare.
Moreover, however dire the need for low-intensity and reconstruction capabilities may be, the Big War capabilities must be created and maintained, a point which Barnett is very clear about.
Steven Biddle puts it very well in his brilliant recent book, Military Power: Explaining Defeat and Victory in Modern Battle. Biddle’s focus is on what he calls “mid- to high-intensity conflict”, i.e. conventional warfare in “the middle part of the spectrum ranging from guerilla warfare at the low end to global thermonuclear war at the high end.” He then asks: “Why this focus? Is this just irrelevant ‘old thinking’ in an ere of counterterrorist warfare, ethnic conflict, coercive strategic bombing, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)?” The answer:
The answer is no. While major conventional war is only one among many important missions, it remains far more important than some now suppose, and it will be for the foreseeable future. It will also remain the most expensive mission to fulfill, it will remain the central purpose for the majority of the U.S. military, and it will continue to occur between other parties in other parts of the world.
In the emerging war on terrorism, for example, counterintelligence and police work against terrorists hiding in the shadows will be accompanied by periodic major warfare against states who harbor them. …
[A]mong America’s most powerful escalatory threats is the ability topple regimes by invading and taking political control of their territory — that is by fighting and winning a major conventional theatre war. … Even where this ultimate sanction is unused, its existence makes other more coercive means more effective …
Nor are concerns with major warfare limited to great and regional powers, or wholly superseded by ethnic disputes, guerilla warfare, or other low-intensity conflicts elsewhere. The recent wars in Bosnia, Croatia, Eritrea, Zaire/Congo, Rwanda, Azerbaijan and Kuwait were all mid- to high-intensity conflicts I which combatants sought to take and hold territory in conventional ways.
So, we clearly need Leviathan and will continue to do so for the imaginable future — probably forever.
However, we do not yet have a well-developed suite of low-intensity capabilities to complement Leviathan. Major Cassidy cites to a report from the United States Institute of Peace, which contains excerpts of interviews with senior U.S. Army officers who participated in operations in Bosnia. “The USIP report also concluded that peace operations are the new paradigm of conflict that will confront the army in future deployments as more failed states emerge and peace enforcement and nation-building become staples of the senior military leadership diet.'”
The USIP report quotes General Shinseki as saying:
Army doctrine-based training prepared him for warfighting and leadership at all levels, but “there wasn’t a clear doctrine for stability operations. We are developing it, using the Bosnia experience, to define a doctrine for large stability operations. But it is this absence of a doctrine for a doctrine-based institution that you walk into in this environment. There you are in a kind of roll-your-own situation.
Cassidy also quotes “[a] study, [in which] the former Implementation Force chief of staff expressed the need to “build a military capable of many things—not just the high end.” That study, A Force for Peace and Security U.S. and Allied Commanders’ Views of the Military’s Role in Peace Operations and the Impact on Terrorism of States in Conflict(1999) is here. A more recent update of the report is here. These studies, which I have only skimmed, appear to give a good overview of what the SysAdmin force would, at least in part, look like.
“Rolling your own” is something we cannot do in the future. The postwar situation in Iraq has a distinct “roll your own” feel to it. It is imperative that the United States do better at these things.
These same concerns are also addressed in this recent article, The Army’s Dilemma, which concludes:
It is essential to remember that the US Army, the premier land force of the world’s sole superpower, must maintain primarily a warfighting focus in its culture, organization, training, and modernization plans. That is unassailable as the Army’s central focus. The issue for the Army is one of balance. Given the changing realities in how the United States will conduct future joint operations, plus the fact that mid- to low-intensity missions will clearly dominate in the coming decade or more (and the Army is the optimal force for such missions), the Army has to reexamine how it will balance its traditional focus on high-end combat operations with the need to perform the other missions that will predominate in the coming years.
Answering this question is exactly what Barnett is doing, with his suggestion a separate force with its own identity “to perform the other missions”. These authors suggest that the resolution is “…nothing less than a cultural change, and these are neither lightly undertaken nor easily accomplished, particularly in conservative military organizations.” I like Barnett’s idea better. Keep the Leviathan culture just like it is. It is good at what it does. If you need a different culture to do a different job then create a different entity which can embody that different culture. Barnett’s proposal makes a lot more sense. Let the warriors be warriors. When you really need a warrior, nothing else quite does the trick.
A breakthrough for Barnett’s sales pitch in the Pentagon will come when the Army realizes that SysAdmin is not a threat to their warrior culture. Rather, it is the only way for them to preserve their warrior culture.
It occurs to me that this need to undertake two functions, one fighting major wars, one dealing with lesser contingencies in the Gap, has some analogy to a historical case. Specifically, Britain’s performance in the last 150 years or so sheds some light on what the United States is going to need to do in the future. (And even if the analogy is not so strong, it is an interesting digression so sit still and read it.)
The very short version is this. Britain rose to preeminence in the mid-19th Century and started the 20th Century as a very wealthy and influential world power. It lost its Empire and became a second rate power as a result of costly participation in major wars. Some of this decline was inevitable, possibly. But the way it happened was not. Britain had two distinct groups of security challenges, (1) policing its Empire and the Empire’s frontiers, and (2) deterring and if necessary defeating major-power threats to its Empire or to Britain’s home island itself. It did the first task decently well and cost-effectively and humanely, at least in comparison to other colonial powers. But as a consequence of the disastrous human and material costs, and initial defeats, in the major wars it was compelled to fight, Britain could no longer sustain its Imperial enterprise. The British failed to master what Biddle calls medium- to high-intensity war. They failed to make the necessary investment to build continental-scale military forces prior to either world war. Despite early, episodic insights into modern warfare, the British failed to develop appropriate doctrine or equipment and failed to teach, buy and train as needed. The lessons about charging machine guns that they taught the Sudanese dervishes at Omdurman were lost on them. (See Daniel R. Headrick’sThe Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century.) The lessons they learned about attacking infantry armed with magazine rifles, which they learned the hard way from the Boers (and which were captured in Swinton’s Defense of Duffer’s Drift) were lost. The British thus failed to acquire an army which could deter Germany in 1914, or which could fight as effectively as possible if committed to battle.
The British by the end of World War I had made huge strides in developing doctrine, tactics and equipment (e.g. tanks, which they invented) needed to survive and to attack and to prevail in modern warfare. (See Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack, 1916-18.) The British proceeded to squander all of this knowledge, won at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, during the period before World War II. Even the victories of the last 100 days in 1918 were forgotten as soon as possible and only the massacre on the Somme was remembered. In light of these memories and its pre-existing biases, the possibility of fighting the Third Reich was greeted in the 1930s with horror. The British leadership recoiled from that prospect and sought technological panaceas such as “strategic bombing”. So they again failed to create adequate military power to deter war or to wage it in a tolerable fashion if deterrence failed. When they were compelled to go onto the Continent after all in 1939, they had to enter that conflict in a condition even less well-prepared than they had been in 1914. They extemporized, and that doesn’t work against professionals. They were repeatedly smacked silly by the Germans. They never completely got the hang of major, high-intensity war, and the British army generally performed poorly most of the time throughout World War II. The section in Russell A. Hart’s recent masterwork Clash of Arms describes this inter-war failure by Britain in harsh but fair detail. (If you read one work of military history in the next year, read this one.) In other words, the British Army’s institutional bias was a large factor in their disastrous performance in and preparation for the major wars against Germany, both of which they did not so much “win” as barely survive. (A classic book on this topic which I read recently is Michael Howard’s The Continental Commitment: The Dilemma of British Defense Policy in the Era of the Two World Wars.)
The United States must not and will not follow in Britain’s path, of course. We must always maintain Leviathan and keep it current and devote the human and material resources needed to make Leviathan second to none. We must always have a force which can deter conventional war, or prevail if deterrence fails, or make credible threats and deliver on those threats if necessary. We are however, faced with the challenging task of learning to do things Leviathan cannot do, things that the British used to do fairly well — police and build institutions in what Barnett calls the Gap.
The British Army in the 20th century was too distracted by and bound up with its Imperial policing role, its proto-SysAdmin role. It did not want to do high-intensity warfare, i.e. spend the money and effort to learn to be Leviathan. To the old-time British army “normal” soldiering was running around in Waziristan or Somaliland or in the highlands of Burma. Our Army’s institutional bias is the other way — it has no nostalgia for chasing the Apaches or the Moros (to say nothing of the Phoenix Program). It’s hallowed memory is of the clattering, green juggernaut which rolled over the Wehrmacht in 1944-45. Frankly, if there must be bias, ours is better. Better to mishandle the threats which are not existential. But even better than that, and best of all, would be to create a military which is organized to carry out well all of the tasks which it is ordered to undertake. The knowledge of how to carry out the low-intensity end of the spectrum exists. A distinct arm of the military charged with those functions is Barnett’s best suggestion, and I think we may see it come into being. I hope so. (But call it something other than “System Administrators”. Give it a more appealing name. Send all suggestions directly to Barnett. Ha.)
Of course, Barnett wants his SysAdmin team to do more than win counter-insurgency struggles. In fact, they may not get involved until Leviathan has finished at least the heaviest part of that heavy lifting. SysAdmin’s true tasks would get underway as the shooting died down, and it began to function as a security force, and to build a local police force, and then schoolhouses and hospitals … . Barnett wants it to have a large inter-agency component, be multi-lingual and deal with foreign governments and NGOs. “The SysAdmin force will not be in a hurry to leave, and will remain until the locals are ready to assume control or the UN mission is up and running. All the broken windows will be fixed before this force departs, and the American public will come to understand that these are the troops who remain after we bring the boys home.” I could quote at length his description of the proposed SysAdmin force, which is fascinating.
One element of the SysAdmin force that Barnett doesn’t mention is that it could become … popular. There are a lot of people who want to “make a difference” and have some adventure in their lives, but are not young and rock-hard enough to be a paratrooper. For one thing, old guys like me, too old for Leviathan, could maybe work for it. (I wonder if they need any monolingual 41 year old lawyers with prostate problems? Honey, great news! I’m taking an 80% pay cut and we’re going to Somalia!)
This all begs the question I raised in the prior post of whether we really know what the Hell we are doing if we try to do state-building. Do we really know how to get Gap territories organized for participation in the Core? I will mention here that Francis Fukuyama’s short book State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. I read this a few months ago. I strongly recommend it. (So does Max Boot, in this review.) (I’ll note that Fukuyama is a very reliable writer. All his books are good. He is condemned by those who haven’t read him for his “End of History” thesis, but he is more right than wrong even on that point, properly understood.)
Fukuyama appears to summarize much of the current wisdom on the topic, with many good footnotes to current scholarship. He breaks “state-building ” out into building various interconnected institutions, some harder than others to construct. He makes a distinction between “strength of state institutions” and “scope of state functions”. The ideal is a strong state with limited scope — i.e. a state which is very effective at its core competencies (law enforcement, protecting property rights, honest and efficient tax collection being rock-bottom basics) and which does not get too mixed up in other stuff. The old Soviet Union had too much scope and too much strength in the wrong areas. Zaire has neither. Both are bad. Fukuyama refers to four “aspects of stateness”, all of which must function, in increasing difficulty of importation or imposition: “(1) organizational design and management, (2) political system design, (3) basis of legitimization, (4) cultural and structural factors.” He notes an important fact — foreigners who go into Gap locations frequently destroy local institutions in their zeal to quickly do good. For example, rather than try to reform a corrupt, under-funded and incompetent local public health agency, they just step in and take over the function, hiring the few able locals. The local capacity withers entirely. Fukuyama also notes the basic challenge of measuring public sector outputs, a point with larger application.
All in all, Fukuyama’s book offers the unspectacular but positive news that we know a fair amount about state-building on the level of administrative and political organization, but less on providing legitimacy and the cultural end of the spectrum. So, there are some things we don’t know and others we can’t know, and if we undertake these tasks we can count on them being difficult and providing us with surprises. A particular complicating factor is the extent to which cultural factors prevent the “connectivity” which Barnett sees as critical. In other words, if you can install the top of Fukuyama’s chart, the superstructure, can you also generate or impose a cultural foundation which will support it if what is there already is not working? How hard is it to have foreigners create a government and then have people who live there think it is legitimate? Anyway, Fukuyama’s short book is a good guide to the challenges that the SysAdmin force will be facing in the mid- and late-occupation phase.
Another point more specifically related to this blog and its small-l libertarian cousins comes to mind. Fukuyama quotes Milton Friedman, who said after the fall of the Soviet Union that the best course was “privatize, privatize, privatize”. Friedman later conceded that he “was wrong” and “the rule of law is probably more basic than privatization.” This points to a larger point, which is the growing consensus of the imperative need for effective government, and how its absence is the worst thing going on in the world. Those of us of a libertarian cast of mind need to adjust our thinking somewhat. We reflexively think: Government Bad. I know I do. Plus as Fukuyama points out, most of the 20th Century was a tale of bad deeds by too powerful governments. However, the mere fact that a state is a state does not make it “Our Enemy”, as Albert Jay Nock famously called it. The State may never be our friend, but its necessity is apparent, especially when you look at places which don’t have one. There is an optimal middle ground on this. Providing the Gap with Good Government is the foundation needed to get the people in these areas on the road to a better life, and ourselves a more peaceful world. How much we can really do to make this happen is an open question.
This need for functioning government, and much else of value, is summarized very well and in detail in Martin Wolf’s brilliant new book Why Globalization Works. (Stellar review in the Economist, here.) The one sentence version: “Good markets need good governments.” (Once I finish this book, I may have more to say about it on this blog.) Wolf’s section on the initial wave of globalization, its collapse in 1914-45 and its Postwar resurgence is superb, and worth the price of the book alone. Wolf is the Chief Financial Commentator at the Financial Times. His recent Hayek Memorial Lecture is an appetizer-sized portion of the book, which should make you go buy it and read it.
Another book which I just finished reading also focuses on these issues — but it looks at the true “first round” of state building in the Middle Ages — Joseph Strayer’s On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Strayer wrote the book with the state-building of the decolonization-era then going on in the 1950s in the background. In one comment on contemporary affairs, Strayer noted that those former colonies had armies but not much else. This did not bode well at the time, and subsequent events have not been happy. The first things the early kings of England and France put in place were law courts, both to impose peace and to sort out property disputes and enforce property rights, and they organized tax collection so it was systematic rather than predatory. The very first functions of the very first (and most successful and longest-lasting) modern states were the same core functions which Fukuyama identifies as the basics for state-building today. Some things don’t change. Or not much, anyway.