Leviathan and SysAdmin, and the Spirit of America

Friday, November 25, 2005
Not being by nature much of a strategic thinker, it was with great pleasure that I learned of, and starting reading, Thomas P.M. Barnett. His two books are essential (in my necessarily naive view ) for understanding where we need to go in reacting — in a constructive way — to this world for which we are both, perhaps, the major player and, to a greater extent than we might prefer, responsible. On his weblog Barnett quotes an email from a retired officer that rather well articulates how our armed forces, superbly trained to fight, are being called on more and more to reconstruct ravaged societies (I quote only a part of this long letter):

As [America is] the only heavyweight doctrinal fighter in the world, nobody [has been] willing to step into the ring with our military. America's enemies learned that they would have to come up with new and creative ways to jab at us while avoiding our right hook. They exploited weaknesses that we did not even know we had. Terrorism made the revolutionary leap from criminal nuisance to strategic threat.

I recently left the Army and I am now working for a defense contractor. I have a personal interest in seeing big budgets for net-centric warfare, leap-ahead technology, and futuristic weapons. I strongly believe that those things are in America's best interest too. It is the Defense Department's obligation to prepare now for any possible future contingency. It is true that many of the weapons being developed today will have little application in the Global War On Terror (GWOT) but we must maintain our Leviathan status through leadership in the quality, quantity, and technology of our weapons and intelligence. That is the shield that makes prosperity possible and the big stick to make it Global. We can never afford to risk losing that advantage. The world is full of irrational leaders, and we will always need our Big Stick to keep them from derailing progress.

What is missing is the “Sys Admin” force. Right now, we expect one Army to fill both roles with one set of equipment. We can see how well that is working in Iraq. I have discussed this very issue with my peers since I was a cadet at West Point. Soldiers are less than ideally suited for Operations Other Than War (OOTW) but right now there is nobody else better suited to do it. American soldiers are intelligent and flexible and will do their best at anything we ask of them, but it is costly and wasteful to expect soldiers to be proficient at two very distinct jobs. My soldiers, trained as a tank crewman to identify and kill enemy armor at a distance, had go through significant re-training before being qualified to walk through villages and build relationships with tribal leaders. Once that mission was completed, their skills as armored crewman were so diminished that they had to go through significant re-training before being certified again to perform their primary duties.

The Sys Admin force is desperately needed. As an armor officer I was primarily trained to defeat enemy armor. Yet, in Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo, my soldiers and I had responsibility or oversight for such varied areas as: commercial farming and irrigation, water purification, road and bridge repair, infrastructure assessments, opinion polls, public opinion shaping, educational assessments, electrical power distribution, organizing elections, advising local governments, refugee relocation, riot control, traffic control, training police, providing medical care, restoring essential services. . . the list goes on, but the point I want to make is that in order to succeed, we had to do all of those things while simultaneously fighting an insurgency. “Simultaneity” is a major buzz-word for commanders in Iraq and the first time I heard it the meaning was clear - something is missing - the Sys Admin force. Some have argued that the Army has always gone back and forth between Big Stick and Sys Admin (civil war reconstruction, frontier outposts, WWII constabulary, etc). That doesn't make it right.

One of the biggest things saving us right now in Iraq is the institutional level of “Sys Admin” skills developed accidentally as a result of mission creep in the Balkans. Frustrated and saddled with open ended peacekeeping commitments in the Balkans that were distracting us from the “real” business of training for the next major war, Army leaders took on additional responsibilities to move things along faster. Once the fighting ended, there was nobody really pushing for economic progress, democratic institutions, reconstruction, and the list of other things which must take place in order to set the conditions for military withdrawal. Sure, there was the UN and OSCE and other NGOs but they just were not organized enough to be able to find their way to work every morning. To the benefit of all, the Army took a broader view of our mission and applied our surplus organizational skills and manpower to ensuring the success of many of the NGOs. We were not trained for such tasks but Americans see a need and pitch in. That experience is paying off in Iraq, where there are no NGO's and the Army is going it alone.

The Sys Admin half needs to be run by the State Department or some future successor to it. It needs some MP-type foot soldiers and a lot of military advisors and trainers, but most of all it needs expertise in the systems and functions of government to train and develop indigenous populations. It needs cultural and language experts; electrical, civil, and agricultural engineers; natural resource developers; communications experts … basically, everything we lack right now in Iraq. Much of this can not be contracted as we learned in Iraq.

The lieutenant's letter continues, and is worth reading in full.

Barnett's vision is compelling. Breaking the world down into the "Functioning Core" of developed, politically stable states and the "Non-Integrating Gap," (those states which are either partially or completely "failed"), in the second of his two books, especially, Barnett lays out a comprehensive strategy for bringing more and more of the failures in the direction of success. One of the things that struck me about Barnett's thinking is how our tendency to conceive peace and war as diametrical opposites sets up a false dichotomy, especially in this era of Fourth Generation Warfare. Thinking from the left end of our political spectrum especially suffers from this limitation. From Barnett's point of view, our military has to be thought of only in part as an overwhelmingly powerful quick-strike force (the "Leviathan"), focused on suppressing hostile governments and nongovernment entities. To a much greater extent it will function in an administrative capacity, assuming responsibility for facilitating the transition of "gap" systems into the "core." Read Barnett to learn how we might retool our military to more effectively carry out the kind of reconstruction which has proved so problematic in Iraq.


And think, too, in this holiday season, of giving to Spirit of America, where each of us in our own small way can become part of the "SysAdmin" force and, for example, help to set up a teaching hospital in Najaf; contribute to bringing women's centers to Iraq in general; or assist Marine Civil Affairs Groups in setting up an agricultural co-op in Al Anbar...


MeaninglessHotAir said...


Having observed you through your writings for a year or two, I have to say you're a great guy. You're very bright, very motivated, and sincerely want to make the world a better place. You're a sterling human being. So what follows is in no way a reflection of my opinion of you.

That said, I think Barnett is basically full of it. Yes, there are successful and failed states. It doesn't follow that all the successful states will hold hands and be friends. Actually, it's quite the opposite. Germany, France, and Great Britain were all successful states circa 1905 and there were many Barnetts at the time writing books about how the ties that bound modern states were making war unthinkable. We know how that ended. And why did it really happen, in the final analysis? Simply because both GB and Germany wanted to be boss, and because they were rougly equal in abilities. Had one of them been able to completely predominate there would have been far less carnage. It's human nature to fight for dominance in the absence of a clear, ineluctable hierarchy. It's animal nature, actually. The late-Nineteenth Century European situation was metastable.

The same is true today, on the global scale. My view is that the US and China are headed for a similar confrontation and the consequences will be far worse than the Great War. Quite the contrary to Barnett's rosy scenarios, I think the odds are we will lose. We have far fewer people, far less determination, and the Chinese are rapidly gaining all of our technological advantages by both legal and illegal means. Further, they have no concern for human rights and are not living in a fantasy world about the nature of the human species, as vast swaths of the American population seem to be.

As for the need for the military to have a redevelopment corps, no, I don't agree with that at all. That simply represents the American wish to not have to fight in the first place, to not have a fighting corps. The fundamental American urge is to completely disarm and be protected by our oceans. To just be good guys and have everybody love us. They won't. The military should focus on doing its job of killing our enemies or it won't be able to. We take our military predominance for granted, and we do so at our peril. If we want to have a country-redevelopment corps we should create it separately, explicitly for that purpose. But, seriously, what would it be for? Which countries are we planning to invade and redevelop? Afghanistan and Iraq were both flukes; George Bush ran originally on a platform advocating not rebuilding countries. I believe it's a fantasy to think that there would ever be widespread poltical support within the US for massive long-term country rebuilding.

Finally, another problem with Barnett's model is that it simply possesses no place for countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran. Are they failed states or successful states? A little of both. They are very successful by some measurements. and very unsuccesful by others. But they are players, whether we like it or not, simply because of what's in the ground. There simply isn't any place in his model for such countries. It's not a very good model.

Jamie Irons said...


I told you I was naive!


Many of the objections you raise (which are excellent and persuasive) you will find addressed in Barnett's books and his blog. But Barnett's rejoinders are just arguments, and are probably fallible.

I think time will tell.

You rightly point to our historical tendency toward isolationism.

But is not China's much longer history of a much more airtight isolationism also relevant?

China, too, has tremendous problems with enormous "unassimilated" regions of its own territories, and a history of crippling corruption (see Strategy Page on this issue) which vitiates its miltary potential.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


You raise some good points. China does have its problems. But we're completely in denial that there is a looming confrontation whereas China is actively planning for it and specifically building and installing weapons systems to defeat the United States.

As for isolationism, the modern Chinese have incorporated the vast territory of Tibet into their state, a country which was never part of traditional China. They have set their sites on Taiwan (only made part of China a few hundred years ago) and Japan. That's for starters.

The issue of corruption is interesting. Why is it endemic in Mexico, Chicago, New Jersey, and South Florida, but not in most of the United States? Pondering the question is more important than any answers I might proffer, but my own personal belief is that it comes down to religion. Not traditional religion, of course, which I, in contrast to Knucklehead, view as simply the tip of the religious iceberg. We generally have a national belief system derived directly from Protetantism in which corruption of any sort is ipso facto an evil. We consider it intolerable and do not tolerate it. For religious, i.e., fundamentally inxeplicable reasons, not because it's always in our self-interest. Confucian society stresses self-interest first, abstract principles second. That is prone to corruption.

Balanced against those facts are that, first, the "religion" of the United States is decaying and fewer and fewer people believe in anything except themselves. This is reflected in, for example, the increasing propensity to run yellow and even red lights as one example, and in the willingness of the Democrats to flat-out lie about what they actually did as another. Both indicators, and their are hundreds of such, bode very poorly for the future of the country. We're becoming increasingly corrupt even as our publicly-stated ethics are ratcheted up to higher and higher levels.

Second, China is no longer a traditionally Confucian society. It has "got religion" in the form of Communism and that militates against corruption. Corrupt people are executed--happens all the time--and everybody's fine with that.

So, no, counting on Chinese corruption to save our lazy bacon is probably a big mistake.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

"Sites" should be "sights".

Oh, and I want to emphasize I could be completely wrong here. In fact, I hope I am. But my nagging conscience is telling me otherwise.

terrye said...

The Chinese considered the English to be barbarians and look at where that got them. They failed to recognize the threat and modernize.

I think the US runs a great risk of underestimating the Chinese. The Maoists were willing to sacrifice 70 million Chinese to be victorious 60 years ago and they will be prepared to do so again if they think they can dominate the world.

But.... let's not forget India, the fastest growing democracy in the world with a voracious appetite for technology. India could swing the balance as well. Hopefully in our favor.

One thing I do think is true, except for commerce, most Americans just want to ignore the world.

terrye said...


Maybe it is because I live in Indiana and am surrounded by midwestern people who still go to Church and pay their taxes etc, but I don't think America is as corrupt today as it was in the day of the robber baron or Prohibition or for that matter Huey Long in La and the Mafia in Las Vegas.

The propensity for politicians to lie about what they did and said is nothing new either.

After all, whatever became of the America Firsters or the pioneers of Eugenics? They joined the ranks the 'Who Me?' Army.

I just think we are more cognizant of it today because we see the threats and the nimrod lefties and far right isolationists are refusing to grow up and face the world as it is.

Skookumchuk said...


As a person who now works in the area of disaster logistics, but who spent some 15 years prior to this working on infrastructure projects in the Balkans and elsewhere, the SysAdmin Corps idea has a lot to recommend it, both in the overseas military support role but also in domestic disaster logistics. There are many similarities and both activities use many of the same people (though normally at different stages of their careers). You have the same skill sets, you mobilize quickly, you coordinate all manner of resources, and you can just as quickly demobilize to get ready for the next one. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit and hope to make it a future essay post, if it sounds interesting to you guys.

Once I join.

Jamie Irons said...


I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit and hope to make it a future essay post, if it sounds interesting to you guys....

That would be terrific.

I thought you had joined?


truepeers said...

MHA, yes conflict with China is inevitable on some levels. But China is surrounded by nuclear powers or nations readily capable of quickly becoming such. Short of unusually suicidal leadership, a full-scale global war with China seems unlikely. And in any collapse of the global trading system, a lot more CHinese than Americans are likely to be put in desperate positions and die, threatening local leadership along the way. The Chinese leadership are more scared for their personal and familial safety than the average American politician. You are right that they are attuned to such hard realities.

I don't want to judge Barnett who I have not considered in depth, but in general I think he has the right idea. Decadence, moral decline, is a perennial problem in human socities - and yes there is enough evidence for corruption in America now - but the solution to it is always to remain creative and immersed in networks of exchange; the more exchange and rewards for creativity, the less room for corruption. Today the field of exchange is global and must be pursued as such.

Don't forget that the American protestant religion was always fueled by millenial fervor. We have to get over the more dangerous millenial or utopian thinking, but we still need a sense of striving for greater truth and freedom in some open-ended global system.

So Americans still must pursue ways to take a leadership role in the new world order and not be put off by the rampant anti-Americanism. That does not mean being utopian lotus eaters, or trying to save everyone right now; but slowly and carefully insisting that tyrannies give way to expanded participation in the global marketplace is a much surer road to avoiding future deadly conflicts. Tyrannies always sooner or later hit a brick wall and explode, adn they are getting more explosive every year. We simply can't tolerate them much longer. The prospect of changing the half of America (and the global left) sunk in moonbattery strikes me as much more likely in the long run than surviving the global status quo with the Irans and Saudia Arabias. And besides, projects to expand "the core" will provide us ways to demand accountability, performance and moral leadership from our own domestic leaders, not simply from seemingly hopeless cultures abroad. If we want to live (have future generations) we have to change our present depressing reality, one step, one word, at a time.

Syl said...

I think, in many ways, Barnett is just as Utopian as any master planner (but capitalism and free markets replace communism in his version of utopia--not bad, when you think about it). But, he also has some terrific ideas and I think the SysAdmin corps is one of them.

We sure could have used one in Iraq.

As for Saudi Arabia being in the Gap or the Core. It is definitely in the Core. The Core is defined by connectivity mainly in economics.

He has some specific ideas that would take a helluva a lot before they would even have a chance of being accepted: Tell Tawian, we're with you until the moment you defy China. He says China doesn't really want to conquer Tawian--it just wants the option open.

Also he thinks NoKo is an utterly failed state and a tragedy for its people and we should simply invade and take down the regime.

The other thing, which is even hard to take at the moment, is that he feels we should allow Iran to have nukes. He's got his reasons.

(I'm waiting to see what Iraq does re nukes itself.)

Also, Barnett doesn't like the idea of all this talk of democracy. He believes that economics/trade alone will cause the peoples to demand good laws and good governance. I don't quite agree with that. Sometimes people just don't know any better and I don't remember (or I'm not sure I ever knew) what Barnett's thinking on how these people gain property rights and the capitalistic use of them in the first place.

I'm beginning to ramble a bit. Oh, as mentioned, he does think groups of Core nations should decide together on whatever. That, as we know, doesn't always work very well.

But, on the whole, his thinking is exciting because the approach is so different from everything else we hear. The spread of capitalism as the eventual 'equalizer'.

There's certainly lots of good stuff there to consider.

neuroconservative said...

I agree with Syl re: Barnett. SysAdmin is the best of his ideas, but others appear to be trotted out just to make Barnett look clever. He is at his most annoying when he tries to seem smarter than all neocons, realists, liberals, and conservatives combined.

MHA is correct that Americans typically lack the imperial instinct to spend large amounts of time and resources living in and with 3rd World countries. (Oh how the Kossacks would roll their eyes at that sentence!) But I think that all-out isolationism has lost both intellectual respectability and political traction (how many votes did Buchanan get?). And Americans have gotten used to maintaining a presence in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Re: China --- When I hear the word China I immediately think demographic timebomb. Without extreme repressive measures (which the ChiComs are likely becoming less capable of), the excess of males will be a strongly destabilizing force on their society over the next 20 years. The comments section at Future Pundit (linked above) notes parallels with the problem of "surplus males" in polygynous societies in the Arab world. Moreover, the aging of the Chinese population will strain their economy in ways that will inevitably tug on America (cf the current yuan controversy).

One can speculate on all sorts of nasty scenarios: Perhaps the Communists will force the "surplus males" into slave labor to support the unpensioned and bare-branched elderly. Or maybe they'll just start a big war with India, which will be experiencing similar demographic trends. The exact outcome is impossible to predict, and hopefully can be managed wisely. But the demographic forces are, at this point, utterly unstoppable.

neuroconservative said...

And, BTW, many thanks to all of you for your kind welcome onto this blog.

Barry Dauphin said...

Not having read Barnett very closely, his Sys Admin sounds like what Niall Ferguson trots out about American empire, that we have (or are) an empire but don't know it and therefore don't prepare ourselves as one.

I appreciate what Barnett says about soldiers doing two completely different kind of jobs and think that we should be better prepared adminstratively. But perhaps we have to have flexibility, first and foremost. Although the results in Iraq often seem "not pretty" at times, perhaps they are close to as good as was realistically possible. The military is capable of this kind of flexibility. In addition groups like Spirit of America spring up. Might the volunteerism of America quietly pay dividends over the course of time. It will be interesting to do a total review of the Iraq situation when they are on their feet and we are on the way out.