Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:47 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:47 | SYDNEY

COIN: Between the 'how' and the 'why'


Sam Roggeveen


19 June 2009 12:26

Thomas Barnett is these days a regular columnist at World Politics Review, and his latest effort is typical of what can be so engaging and frustrating about him. To start with the latter, there is his seemingly endless appetite for jargon, a habit my colleague Michael Fullilove pointed to in a rather cutting Washington Post review of Barnett's last book.

Barnett doesn't just mash prevailing corporate-speak with Pentagonese, he makes up his own language. And this column has a beaut: has there been an uglier word invented this year than 're-symmetricizing'?

That said, I find Barnett a persistently interesting thinker and I follow his blog closely. This particular column tries to defend the use of drones in the AF/PAK war, against the Kilcullen argument that the remote-control strikes against the Taliban do more harm than good.

As usual with Barnett, he makes his case in a highly original way, arguing that these relatively cheap and increasingly ubiquitous drones even up the fight (hence 're-symmetricyzing') against an enemy that can strike stealthily at any time and in any place. It shows that the US can apply its technological prowess to counter-insurgency (COIN), and thus sends the message to adversaries that you can't bleed America by taking the war off the Clausewitzian battlefield and into the streets.

But Barnett's column is premised on what he regards as the uncontroversial truth that America should be engaging in these kinds of operations. For Barnett, the endless counter-insurgency is just a fact of life, only moving occasionally from one 'theatre' to another:

Again, the post-Cold War record -- going all the way back to Operation Just Cause, dropping Manuel Noriega's regime in Panama -- is clear: America conducts police actions against bad actors on behalf of the global community. Think about it: Somalia's warlords, Haiti's military coup plotters, Milosevic's cronies in Serbia, the al-Qaida/Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, the "deck of cards" in Iraq. We've spent the last two decades playing sheriff, rounding up bad guys and then trying to fix the resulting situation, which in turn often leaves us dealing with insurgencies.

But of course, it doesn't have to be that way, and given the pretty miserable success rate of US interventions in the countries Barnett lists, you'd think there would be a case for asking some tough questions about whether it can ever work. To his tremendous credit, Barnett is devoted to the idea that the best guarantee of global security is to bring developing countries into the globalised economy. Maybe he's just in too much of a hurry to get there.

Photo courtesy of US Air Force.