Global security guru Thomas P.M. Barnett is in the unique position of being embraced by Pentagon officials and top U.S. military commanders as a visionary strategist -- even as he openly blames the defense establishment for botching post-invasion operations in Iraq.
Barnett's best-selling 2004 book, "The Pentagon's New Map," offered a thesis on the American military's future global role that the Defense Department found so compelling and easy to grasp that it has invited him to advise and brief hundreds of senior appointees and officers on strategy. His book sold as many as 85,000 copies, and his prolific blog entries -- which mix humor with often cutting insights on Pentagon strategy -- are closely read in military and intelligence circles.
Now Barnett is back in Washington to unveil his sequel work, "Blueprint for Action," in a closed-door speech this morning to a select group of about 500 up-and-coming military officers and defense officials at the National Defense University.
"No one ever said, 'cut it out' or 'shut up,' or ever put a squeeze on me," Barnett said in an interview. (In a typical Web log, or blog, entry yesterday, he wrote: "Iraq is doing just fine given [a] poorly planned occupation (F to the neocons, C+ to the officers doing their best in a crappy situation on the ground.")
Barnett spoke fresh from a tete-a-tete last week with the U.S. four-star general who oversees the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, and Abizaid's personal think tank. Col. Mant Hawkins, director of the think tank, called Barnett's ideas "significantly visionary."
Barnett, an expert on Russia and the Warsaw Pact who holds a Harvard doctorate in political science, was a professor of strategy at the Naval War College and adviser to the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation when he devised a PowerPoint briefing that catapulted him to prominence after Sept. 11, 2001.
He says that since the end of the Cold War, the biggest threats to America and its allies come from underdeveloped, chaotic regions of the Third World -- which he terms the "Gap" -- a zone disconnected from the economic and technological advances of globalization.
To promote peace and combat terrorism, Barnett says that the U.S. military and its partners in the world's developed "Core" must take on a far more ambitious role in policing and nation-building in the Gap. This would require the U.S. military to split into two distinct forces: a high-tech military, termed the "Leviathan," capable of overthrowing rogue regimes, as well as a larger corps of follow-on troops, called the "System Administrators," specialized in peacekeeping and rebuilding.
Barnett's underlying agenda is to "bring the military back into society. They became very detached during the Cold War, like a separate caste," he said. "They became very divorced after Vietnam, [saying] all we're going to do is kill people -- not this nation-building stuff."
In his new book, Barnett offers a detailed plan for putting his ideas into action, including a six-point program for transforming politically bankrupt states. "Bad states go in, better states come out," he writes in his characteristically flippant style.
It's a controversial concept that Barnett readily admits people have tended to love or hate. "I was either a naive idealist or the cruelest sort of realist, a wide-eyed prophet of global peace or the most chilling, warmongering neocon they had ever seen," he writes.
Barnett doesn't shy from far-reaching statements in "Blueprint." In the preface, he calls the U.S. military "a force for global good that I believe has no equal." He forecasts the potential for "the most peaceful period in human history, where war as we have known it for centuries is banished from the strategic landscape."
But at the same time, Barnett, who backed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, offers hard-nosed analysis of the war in Iraq, instability in the Middle East, and the rise of Asia. He's especially critical of the Pentagon's "extremely spotty planning" for the Iraq occupation, which he says "enabled the rise of the disastrously efficient insurgency."
Barnett says his biggest detractors -- one called him "insane" -- tend to be Army officers averse to the peacekeeping role, as well as Navy, Air Force and Army officials who see his thesis as undermining their justifications for fighter jets, warships and expensive ground combat systems. His advocacy of a U.S. security partnership with China, in particular, galls some officers who see that nation as a major threat.
"You get people who want to sell $15 billion aircraft carriers, and his vision is not so compelling," said Shane Deichman, chief of the capabilities department for the U.S. military's Joint Forces Command, in Norfolk, Va., which has incorporated Barnett's ideas in future planning.
"It's kind of a joke," Barnett says. "How many Sea Wolf submarines did it take to recapture Fallujah? Not enough."
Yet despite the controversy, requests for brainstorming sessions with Barnett keep rolling in -- including those from Abizaid, who aides say "absolutely" will ask him back, Gen. Bryan D. Brown, chief of the secretive U.S. Special Operations Command, and from foreign militaries.
"Tom's grand strategic vision is not doubted at all," Deichman said. "With his new book, he has described exactly what we're trying to do with all levels of government." Perhaps most valued is Barnett's ability to stimulate debate in a military still defined by its war-fighting, Deichman said. "He's a catalyst."