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“The Age Of Carriers Is Over.” (Sort Of.)

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The transcript of Part 2 of my eight part interview with Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of The Pentagon’s New Map, is now posted, as is the audio.

The transcript of Part 1 is here and the audio here, and the transcript of our short introductory interview is here, and the audio here.

One teaser from yesterday’s exchange:

HH: Dr. Barnett, when we went to break, we were talking about China and the American Navy. We have these 10 Nimitz-class carriers out there, which are really our force projection power. If China develops the ability to attack from land via cruise missiles, could that not vanish overnight, though?

TB: Well, you know, frankly, my gut reaction is that, to that scenario, is to say the age of the carriers is really gone, because of cruise missiles, and because of other capabilities. I think we’ve held onto the myth that carriers are the sine qua non of our ability to project power, simply because nobody’s building them. And it seems like such an obvious advantage, and because we have control of the seas, park our airports right next door to something and fly at will. But with long range…the ability to refuel, and with the fact that we don’t seem to have any trouble finding bases around the world…we worry about a lot, but when we lose one, we get another. And it’s usually one closer to the fight we’re interested in. The truth is, we don’t need carriers in the way that the Navy will tell you that we do. And so the perceived threat of could the Chinese blow them up with cruise missiles? Sure, I think they could. But would it make a difference? No.

HH: Well, that’s consistent with what you wrote. That’s what I was getting at. So basically, we’re oversized with carriers and we’re oversized with submarines. Do we need…what do we need for a navy, Dr. Barnett?

TB: Well, I wouldn’t get rid of carriers, because they’re so cool, and because they’re so versatile, and they last for almost ever. I would have fewer submarines, I would keep an eye on the Chinese submarine development, but I could go…and it’s hard to go much less than we have now. What we need to get, though, is to understand that we need to, and you see the current chief of naval operations making this argument for a thousand ship navy, we need to think the many and the cheap, instead of the few and the absurdly expensive, and I would argue, the absurdly vulnerable.

The point of this series is to try and do some heavy lifting for the audience on the strategic context in which the war in Iraq is unfolding.  Dr. Barnett is not an Administration spokesman by any means (quite the opposite, in fact), but he is a serious and very competent national security professional whose book is widely read and debated throughout the Pentagon.  Powerline’s John Hinderaker is generous when he states that it is a “great pleasure to listen to such high-level discussion of military and strategic matters. You won’t get this kind of quality in any other medium.”  What I think he is saying that no voice is allowed an extended opportunity to persuade the public of anything.  Even most C-Span programs are panels chopped into four minute presentations, and most speeches are instantly under attack or turned off.  Most long reports in newspapers go unread, and even crucial books are not read by the same people at the same time.  The attraction of the Barnett interviews is not only the intelligence of the guest, but the sustained nature of the opportunity he has to explain his worldview, an opportunity almost never seen in present day media.  (It isn’t the questions –these are the obvious and basic questions that any serious interviewer would pose if he or she had actually read the book.)

One of the byproducts of a close reading of the Barnett book is the recognition that one of the few places where sustained, high level policy debate goes on in Washington is within the Pentagon, where daily arguments over the nature of the world and the threats and opportunities it poses are going on.  My long-ago time at the Department of Justice and the White House did not include any such forums, and the nature of most agencies preclude them as well.  The forums organized by think tanks rarely approach this level of seriousness because they are staffed, for all their brains, by outsiders looking in.  If State holds these exercises, I am unaware of them, and the same is true about the CIA.

So, if you want a glimpse of the unique debates underway within the government, go back and read (or listen) to parts 1 and 2, and then tune in next Tuesday for Part 3.


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