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Egypt crisis: Why was the US caught flat-footed -- again?

The uprisings in Egypt are just the latest in a slew of strategic shocks the US has found itself reacting to, rather than predicting. But these hazards are observable, and the US must better consider game-changing crises in advance.

By Nathan Freier / February 11, 2011


Failure of imagination strikes again. From a national security perspective, the political contagion sweeping across the Middle East has an air of déjà vu to it. Haven’t we been here before? More than a few times. In a decade punctuated by serial strategic shocks that included 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies, and the global financial meltdown – the United States is yet again caught flat-footed by a seismic challenge to the status quo. This is all occurring as if disintegration of the Soviet bloc 20 years ago wasn’t enough to energize a more systematic US government approach to asking “What if?”

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Unfortunately, failed imagination alone isn’t the culprit. Politics and political sensitivities stifle reasoned and imaginative appraisal of all possible strategic shocks as well. Often when prudent planning for very real worst-case conditions is raised as an option, a range of obstacles are thrown up by well-meaning stakeholders inside the bureaucracy. The most common among them: “If this gets out, we might offend country X, make others believe we intend or hope that X happens, or believe with some certainty that X will occur and that we are preparing for it.”

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Thus, we find peace in pretending that the worst case simply will not come to pass, or we over-generalize analysis to the point of rendering it useless. Though a common fault of successive administrations, failure to discreetly ask and answer impolitic questions and identify their most dangerous implications is in fact an abdication of government’s core responsibility to protect the country’s long-term interests by tirelessly peering over the next hilltop.

In practice, this means we persistently find ourselves hoping for the best, while it seems we are constantly reacting to the worst or most disruptive circumstances with only blank stares and shake-and-bake power point presentations to guide crisis planning. We may thrive on calamity. It just may bring out the best in our senior leadership. But surely taking each crisis as it comes with very little advanced consideration can’t be the preferred approach to policy development, when almost all foundational assumptions are suddenly laid bare as flawed or fundamentally wrong. Perhaps Egypt will change the way we look into the future. But probably not.

What strategic shocks look like

We know what strategic shocks look like. We have a lot of recent experience with them. They are sudden, watershed moments in history that force governments to fundamentally reorient strategy, irrevocably changing the way they, their institutions, their friends, and their competitors do business. They are “game changers” precisely because they suddenly and permanently alter the context, object, and rules of the game. In this regard, football becomes soccer, catching less vigilant teams totally unaware in the middle of a contest. Then, often just as suddenly, soccer becomes rugby, eliminating the last vestiges of recognizable structure.


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