Six centuries ago, cartographers would scrawl in the blank space on their maps, "Here Be Dragons." Primitive navigation charts often featured sea monsters wriggling at the margins and ships plummeting into oblivion as known oceans met unknown ends of the Earth.
Post-Sept. 11, the Pentagon snapped up Thomas Barnett's Information Age rendition of Known and Unknown Worlds. Barnett, in a seminal article in Esquire magazine's March 2003 issue, astutely labeled his Known World the "core" (connected and relatively stable places) and his Unknowns "gaps" (disconnected, isolated places potentially filled with 21st century dragons like terrorists and rogue states with nuclear weapons).
"Disconnectedness defines danger," Barnett wrote. "Outlaw regimes" -- and Barnett specified Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an example -- are "dangerously disconnected from the globalizing world, from its rule sets, its norms and all the ties that bind countries together in mutually assured dependence."
In Barnett's configuration, London, Paris, Washington, even Moscow and Beijing form connected or connectable "cores." The Taliban's pre-9/11 Afghanistan and Pakistan's Tribal Areas in mid-2009 are gaps writ large. Barnett presented his theory as a post-Cold War alternative to framing the world as Soviet East Bloc versus the West. Osama bin Laden offered an alternative map: a global Muslim caliphate. I imagine bin Laden could steal a lick from Barnett and have his own "gaps" -- geographic space disconnected from Islamist control marked "Lands of the Infidel."
Conflicting visions of how to organize human life on earth -- whether philosophic, economic, ethnic or spiritual -- are a very ancient cause of war.
As theories go, Barnett's geo-strategic model has utility. Toppling Saddam began a process of nation-building and global integration in Iraq that is closing a "gap" created by tyranny. How much Iraq's democratic experiment influences anti-regime activists in Iran is not a comfortable question for the Obama administration, but for 6,000 years or so Persians and Mesopotamians have been influencing one another for better and worse. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's democratic government certainly offers a Shia Muslim-led alternative to Iran's corrupt and stagnant Shia-led Islamic Revolution. Iranians are aware of that.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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