Sunday, November 06, 2005

Confusing the disease and the cure

Stand well back, please, because I'm about to bloviate a tad. In the last few days I've been participating in a couple of fascinating comments threads, over at Phil Carter's Intel Dump, where they've been having an open Iraq thread, and also on John Robb's Global Guerrillas with regard to the Palestine Hotel attack and such. Now, the upshot, I think, is that it's a good moment to review some of the ideas we're getting perhaps too used to.

John Robb's ideas on "4th Generation Warfare", distributed development as applied to war, systems disruption and such are now well enough spread around the Internet that I don't think I need to go into great detail, and anyway, those of you who are unfamiliar with them can get them from the horse's mouth here. Equally, Thomas Barnett's so-called "Pentagon's New Map" has already nearly reached the status of conventional blogosphere wisdom (he has a blog here). Barnett and Robb essentially agree on the importance of functional networks rather than territorial views of strategy, but essentially differ on the role of the state and the dynamics involved. Robb believes that the national state is doooomed, Barnett divides the world into the highly connected, economically integrated "core" and the dirt-poor, chaotic zone without the walls - think Raymond Aron's world of order/world of chaos dichotomy, with the Internet.

My point is that I think Robb is right on most things, especially the role of open development models, networks and such, and the growing capability of non-state forces to do things that in the past only states (and powerful ones at that) could do. But, I suspect he is confusing the disease with the cure when, for example, Robbo advocates "outsourcing counter-insurgency to Shia and Kurdish loyalist paramilitaries". Imitating the enemy seems like a good idea when they are winning, but it can also be a dangerous source of strategic delusion. After all, the mix of largely independent small groups, open communications, low-cost technology and the ability to create an unofficial war economy (think VB) that we are all going on about and that has proven so deadly is, if anything, specialised on manufacturing the chaos in which it can survive. Robb speaks of "controlled chaos" as an exit strategy from Iraq, but a continuing semi-failed state in Iraq will be poison to everyone involved, and anyway I doubt whether the chaos can be controlled. We've already seen (see Ranter passim) that a variety of highly profitable mercenary and criminal networks have moved into Iraq, as well as the jihadis. What happens when the class of people created by the war start exporting their revolution from the economic base Iraq gives them?

Throw in the problem that neither the Shia nor the Kurds really have an incentive to destroy the insurgents (after all, the insurgency is creating the conditions under which they can pursue their own political aims and seems well on the way to getting the Americans off their backs - the controlled chaos strategy works both ways), and this sounds like the second engine on the plane whose role is to get you to the crash -site.

Barnett's response, of course, is to argue that the answer is to expand the "core" of highly integrated states - which, in a mad way, might have been what some people hoped for from the invasion itself. I personally think that the best we can hope for is to prevent too much damage to the core from this ill-advised intervention outside it. In a sense, what the Barnett partisans really want is an economically and technocratically integrated world of interlocking alliances...or, to put it another way, enlargement of the European Union to include Japan and South Africa. Seriously, I don't know if Barnett had this in mind when he coined his "new map", but his arguments are uncannily like those of Jean Monnet. (TYR to Rumsfeld: your new favourite intellectual is a Eurosexual! Ka koi cauchemar!)

I don't necessarily think there's a basic contradiction between the guerrilla networkers and the new mappers, though. Even Robb agrees that anyone who isn't smoking crack would choose the expanding core over the weakening state. If the national state is losing importance after its unnerving post-1989 revival, that importance doesn't have to transfer to al-Qa'ida or some shadowy western terrorist structure, a sort of White International redux. International integration and cross-border democracy has something to say in this debate. The question: how to use the tools of the Robbites to extend and maintain the world of order?

Although you can get together over the Internet to swap more effective IED designs, you can also prepare satellite maps with disaster relief data or trace arms dealers' aircraft through open development. The most promising areas for change, I think, are exactly the ones that are most dangerous right now - because it's exactly where the nig networked systems that make up the "core" lap over the edges of the political environment, the society of states, that makes them possible that the problems emerge. It's at this frontier, the interface of the two, that a maximum of creativity is possible, whether for good or bad - organising terrorist attacks or collaborating on alternative energy devices, trading in weapons or in help.

The last thing we should be doing, though, is anything that promotes the development of the dark networks, which is why "controlled chaos" is a bad, bad idea.

Right, I think that's enough bloviation..

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