Congressional hand-wringing over America’s inability to forecast the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts is unsurprising given the foreign policy hubris that dominates in Washington today. How can it be, the cry goes out, that America, was blindsided by these earthshaking events? Doesn’t “exceptional” America see further and act more wisely than other nations?
Sadly, that arrogant and delusional mindset is unlikely to be changed even by this latest “intelligence” failure. Rather than questioning whether anyone could have predicted this kind of event—let alone whether we should be trying to control the future of other societies—the response is likely to be: let’s throw more money at the problem!
In fact, this “failure” is part of a broader, failed effort to know and control the foreign policy future, led by groups like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS).
As Noah Shachtman
points out (h/t Dan Nexon
), this project has gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yet its predictions are no better than those of a handful of area specialists—or, probably, a cup of tea leaves.
In that light, ICEWS and DARPA are useful primarily to keep Defense Department and “intelligence” budgets growing. What better way to generate a constant flow of dollars than having not only trumped up “threats” like terrorism–but also ” crisis forecasts” that would require immediate, costly “readiness” efforts?
Consider, for instance, what might have happened if ICEWS had in fact foretold Mubarak’s resignation a year ago? What could the U.S. have done with that information?
First of all, unless the system was 100% accurate, it would no doubt have been dangerous or at least unpredictable to do anything. In any case, doing something would no doubt have screwed up the model itself. But leave aside that trifling matter. Better yet, invent a technological fix, a feedback factor! If the seers of DARPA can predict the future, let’s also allow them to feed any reaction into their computers and predict how it would affect the model, again with 100% accuracy.
A year ago, our good ally and Hillary Clinton’s dear friend
, Hosni, seemed untouchable.
Autocratic “stability” reigned supreme in the Middle East–just as America has long preferred.
In that case, top U.S. officials, perhaps Hillary herself, would no doubt have tipped him off to his predicted end.
Yet I somehow doubt that Mubarak would have taken the news submissively, cowed by some pointy-headed modelers.
Rather, he would have unleashed a wave of additional repression against those he deemed likely to foment unrest.
What if we’d kept the prediction to ourselves? Would the U.S. have started quietly pulling diplomatic staff from Egypt, discreetly advising tourists to head to Cancun rather than Cairo, or at least tipping off the hotheads in Congress who are desperate to be ahead of the curve? Perhaps.
But one thing is certain: There would have been a large uptick in defense department contingency planning and spending—justified by “science,” but to little useful purpose.
What about a seemingly beneficent example of forecasting the future—to take the most extreme one, predicting when genocide will occur with the idea of preventing it? Certainly, that would be a wonderful thing and could save countless lives—if, again, it could be done with 100% accuracy.
But, just as in the Egyptian revolt case, there are far too many unknowns to predict this kind of result far enough in advance to prevent it. Certainly, there may be “warning signs”—like a repressive government suddenly issuing cards identifying all members of a nation by ethnicity, or preparing a plan to systematically slaughter them. But do we really need massive computer programs to pick these things up?
Our tools for doing anything in the face of these signs are in any case crude—though peaceful conflict prevention measures would probably be worth trying in some cases.
But what about a massive military intervention before
a genocide had started?
This seems infeasible—and in fact likely to trigger the very thing it is aimed to halt.
Milosevic’s reaction to the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 after the Rambouillet ultimatum is a case in point
—perhaps not genocide, per se, but certainly mass expulsions prompted by international actions against him.
Major events like the fall of a government or genocide are highly unpredictable beyond a very short time frame. And, if one does not have 100% certainty, taking any action pre-emptively will often make matters worse.
In short, programs like ICEWS are yet another case of spending huge amounts on efforts whose overt benefits are questionable—even if the covert benefits, for the government contractors and military, are huge. Whether for good or ill, godlike efforts at predicting the future are sinkholes of squander. Admittedly, they are small-scale in the deeply cratered landscape of wasteful defense department spending. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if a few Congressional gadflies critiqued such programs not for their failures to predict the future–but for their very conception?
The underlying mindset is even riper for critique.
The self-styled deities of our foreign policy establishment do not rest content with predicting the future.
Their real intent is to play God—to control
Consider just one irritating example, Aaron David Miller, on NPR yesterday morning
(I do not know Miller and use him only as an example from among many possible figures who have made similar statements in recent weeks.)
In his view, the U.S. is “in the worst of all possible worlds with grand expectations and supporting very important values, but without the capacity and leverage to implement a preferred American outcome or even an outcome in Egypt that we can control.” According to NPR, Miller believes this is a part of a long-term trend in which U.S. credibility is reaching all time lows. “We are neither admired, respected or feared to the degree that we need to be in order to protect our interests, and the reality is — and this is just another demonstration of it — everybody in this region says no to America without cost or consequences [Afghanistan’s] Hamid Karzai says no, [Iraq’s] Maliki on occasion says no, [Iran’s] Khamenei says no, [Israel’s] Netanyahu says no. Mubarak says no repeatedly.”
The leaders of independent states, even our own client states, say No to us!
Our vast “hard power” doesn’t put the “fear” of God into our enemies—or our friends.
The “very important values” we supposedly support don’t generate respect.
(Remind me by the way, what those values are, given likely extension of the Patriot Act
, continuing detentions at Guantanamo Bay, rampant drone strikes, etc., etc.)
If only we had the right DARPA model!
Maybe then the people and the leaders of other countries would do our bidding.
In fact, the idea that the Gods of Government can control the politics of other lands, when they can’t even control our own, would be laughable if it weren’t so costly in dollars and lives.
And that conceit, unfortunately extends well beyond the Beltway to the broader foreign policy “elite”
in our country, as I’ve written about
Don’t get me wrong. As a social scientist, I think it makes sense to do research to understand and explain the world. Public policy should be based on the best available information, and in some cases, it may be wise to make large public expenditures on the basis of predictions. But controlling and even predicting human societies except in the broadest of generalities is a fool’s errand.
So, today, notwithstanding my happiness at Mubarak’s resignation and my admiration of the protesters, I can only hope–but certainly not predict–that Egypt will in fact develop a more democratic government in the future. I can say that the Egyptian army, like militaries around the world including our own, is not exactly know for its democratic values. I can say that “people power” may be able to keep the trend toward democratization going. But in the end, the next stages of the Egyptian revolution are as unpredictable as any major social phenomenon–notwithstanding the fond dreams of the wannabe DARPA deities and their avaricious acolytes.