Mongols start your pencils
Max Boot, writing in the LA Times, argues in an article entitled Are we the Mongols of the Information Age? that American government has yet to master the forces of the Information Revolution which catapulted America to global dominance. "It may sound melodramatic, but the future of U.S. power rests on our ability to remake a government still structured for Industrial Age warfare to do battle with decentralized adversaries in the Information Age."
The need for the US government to adapt to the 21st century is a theme often articulated not only by Donald Rumsfeld, but also by any number of pundits, not all of them conservative. But the key issue is not whether a 'government structured for the Information Age' is possible but whether it is desirable. The argument may be made that the US government doesn't face a single state adversary adept at the Information Age. It has no need to improve in competition with other governments. What American government actually faces is nongovernments foes and it is reasonable to ask whether the decentralized architecture which has proved so useful in allowing the enemy to exploit the information age will ever been an attribute of government, however hard we try.
The historical power of government lay in its ability to centralize effort by centralizing control. It is this centralization of control which is the essence of government. But the power of groups like al-Qaeda stem from their ability to centralize only certain aspects of its control -- akin to defining the interface or creating a standard -- and letting local organizations write their own compliant applications. In the familiar words of business, the America's enemies in the Information Age can Think Globally but Act Locally. And this makes them powerful.
In fact, terrorist groups rather than America may currently have better claim to being the Mongols of the Information Age. The historical Mongols were able to assemble to strike and disperse before they could be cornered; maintain communications over long distances and live off the land. This gave them unprecedented mobility and allowed them to defeat the greatest states of the day notwithstanding the fact that they were socially primitive and materially poor. The dominance of the Mongols ended when societies, I will not say states, adapted their methods against them. The Mongol's enemies eventually understood that their strengths were also their greatest weaknesses. The horse gave them mobility but it also dictated their actions; their decentralized structure gave them evanescence but it made them prone to squabbling and fracture.
Maybe America's decisive weapon will eventually consist not of a government "adapted to the information age" but of private organizations fostered under a central government which will allow them act with greater effect than the nongovernment organizations which threaten civilization today. In other words, in a victorious strategy government should not attempt to become a counterterrorist app so much as an operating system within which counterterrorist apps can be written. This means that the way forward lies not so much in creating technology heavy versions of 20th century government but of creating new versions of 18th century government; a kind of retro future where we are all settlers on the Information Frontier and Washington is but a city of marble and of dreams, and distant as only a vision can be.