Further Thoughts on Barnett’s Proposed SysAdmin Force and State-Building

My previous post about Thomas Barnett’s book The Pentagon’s New Map was so well-received (see the comments to that post), that I decided I’d put down a few further thoughts on it.

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.

12 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Barnett’s Proposed SysAdmin Force and State-Building”

  1. In many ways the model for SysAdmin is not so much the 19th Century British colonial army as it is the Imperial Indian Police and the other colonial constabularies that were very effective in creating local orders. But the real issue (and one I’m not sure there is an answer to) is how do you get Americans used to the idea that some number of these SysAdmin people are going to get killed in the line of duty, year after year? In the old days people accepted the idea that some number of Marines got killed on China duty every year; today each death is reported in realtime.

    On the other hand, the US public tolerates (and in fact is not really aware of) the substantial number of police killed on duty every year.

  2. I read Mr. Barnett’s article months ago, and rejected it for the reason that it makes a mess of American domestic and foreign policy. Once we had this Sysadmin department he wants how could we ever disengage from the world when the threat was over? How we declare peace?

    Does the American voter want us to become an Empire? That is what we would become if we followed Mr. Bartnett’s advise. Would we voters get a chance to pass on the issue? I think not. Our problems in Iraq are not due to America being too large, but from having a powerful cabal in the State Department of MidEast experts who are opposed to us winning the war.

    This war is fought on many fronts; defeating the terrorists and the nations that aid them may be the minor part. The Cold War has ended, but the world has not yet realigned. Old Europe tried to game us; it tried to create a world government under their control of the UN using the US as muscle. That is why the World Court, ABM and Kyoto Treaty’s became controversies. Clinton paid them lip service but Bush would not.

    The Soviet Union was defeated but Socialism struggles on pointlessly. The current war is as much about that as anything. The war forces people to take sides; there will be winners and losers. The Socialists are lining up with the terrorists and will pay the price for doing so.

  3. Lex, you are absolutely right, this could be popular. I am part way through the Foreign Service hiring process (like they need 43 year old civil lawyers!), but only because I am too old at this point to sign up for US Army Civil Affairs, which is the group that actualy does this type of work today. Where do I go to get hired by the Neo-Indian Civil Service?

  4. @Louis
    I think you miss Barnett’s point. I also don’t think the Cold War played out against socialist per se, but against communists, who were a wholely different group, much more akin to fascists.

    I can’t tell if you’re being facetious or not. I’m guessing you are. I would say in response that lots of folks thought the all volunteer army would be a farce too. It’s turned out to be quite the opposite.

  5. Michael – actually I am very serious. Fergeson (sp?) says the US DoD is the only organization in the US that is doing this type of thing, and we need someone else – for all the reasons Lex and others have mentioned. I agree, not because I want an Empire, but because for me at least the lesson of 9/11 is that we cannot be isolationists any more (much as we might like to be) – the world will find us in spite of that.

  6. “Once we had this Sysadmin department he wants how could we ever disengage from the world when the threat was over?”

    Louis: We wouldn’t disengage from the world. That is the idea. Your question contains a false premise, that we are not already doing this stuff. We are. And we are misusing the existing military to do it. The idea is that we are going to continue to do these missions, as we have since the beginning of the country. See Max Boot’s book The Savage Wars of Peace and Andrew J. Birtle’s U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1860-1945. Barnett is not the wooly-headed idealist. He is a realist about what our military can and cannot continue to do, and the need to do this category of job better is extremely apparent in light of our inadequate job planning and executing the reconstruction of post-war Iraq.

    Jim: An all-volunteer SysAdmin force would go in with its eyes open, and the public would know what it was and what it was there for. The problem is that we have a combat-oriented Army, and when it is doing stuff that doesn’t look like war, then people wonder why people are dying. Making clear what people are volunteering to do would make the risks and costs more, not less, tolerable to all parties. Or so I see it.

    Andrew, I am serious that there could be a big demand for positions in the SysAdmin force, which would mean that it could be selective and pick good people. There are many, many mature people with good skills who are not thrilled with their careers or who would like to do something they think is good and important beyond making more a little more money this year than they did last year, or increase widget sales by 5.397% over third quarter last year, or bill 87.25 more hours. How many recently divorced cops are there who’d say, shit yeah, I’ll go to Sierra Leone for two years, why the Hell not? How many lawyers would bail out of a practice and help set up a court system in some Hell hole somewhere? How many experienced nurses would go to some place to train people to run clinics and provide basic care? I am only half serious when I suggest I would go — Too many mouths to feed. But the fact that it appeals to me shows supports me in thinking that sufficient recruitment would be a problem at all.

  7. Would a “SysAdmin” force for policing, reconstuction, administration etc. be separate from the military or a branch within it?

    Because while these functions are likely to be necessary, there is still going to be a need for specialised fighting/security forces too.

    Such units will need the ability to fight hard, but also to specialise in these sorts of “not major war” operations.

    In either case, the Army is going to have to operate two very different types of force, and to overcome a lot of internal pressures to focus primarily on the major wars function: for one institution to combine Leviathan and (at least part of) SysAdmin.
    Or both Wehrmacht and British Imperial Army.

    This is going to take a lot of bludgeoning of generals, I would guess.
    (Interestingly, one force that has tried to combine both roles, on a much smaller scale, is the post-war British Army.)

  8. “Army is going to have to operate two very different types of force” That is exactly what Barnett is proposing, though he may want to make the SysAdmin a separate Department. As he says repeatedly in his book, we used to have a Department of War and A Navy Department, the latter of which amounted to a “department of everything else”. That is the division he is talking about restoring. Working out the institutional details will be, um, interesting, to say the least.

  9. Since I’m on Barnett’s blogroll, I thought I might comment here before I broke out my own thread.

    Some things to keep in mind:
    1. The SysAdmin force is a failure mode. The preferable solution is peaceful democratic reform and gradual entry into the Core at whatever pace the society can tolerate the massive changes this entails. Since the SysAdmin force’s entry is a mark of failure, fixing the problems means that they will leave. Permanent garrisoning is neither desirable nor feasible.

    2. A great deal of what the SysAdmin force does will be sociological and psychological. Some of it may even be remote capable so honey may not have to go to Somalia as hubby’s presence there may be a telepresence.

    3. Eventually, the job of the SysAdmin force will largely be done. When the depths of Africa become part of the Core, there will likely be no Gap states left. Leviathan will continue to drill and practice for high intensity war but SysAdmin can’t do its job in the Core. It ends up competing with the private sector.

  10. Our military is too large. It should be used to protect that continental US only. Otherwise, we go abroad looking for monsters to slay. I am unwilling to sacrifice my children to the miltary to spread globalization. I don;t want to be globocop.

  11. Lynne, a lot of people agree with you. But we have been going abroad in search of monsters to slay since at least 1898, when we annexed the Phillipines. Moreover, our enemies are basing themselves in places like Afghanistan. Failed states on the other side of the world present a security threat to the United State. If we are going to keep doing this type of job, and we are, then we should become competent at it.

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