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Opinion

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.

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The speed of onset and the breadth and depth of impact mark strategic shocks as distinct from run-of-the-mill surprise. After all, Saddam Hussein surprised everyone by invading Kuwait. Yet, the US did not have to fundamentally alter the way it did business to eject Iraq’s Warsaw Pact-equipped army from territory it illegitimately seized by invasion. It was a war the US had prepared for since the end of World War II. The only substantive changes were the specific opponent and the venue. Contrast that with the experience of Iraq circa 2006 to 2007 and the wholesale reorientation on counterinsurgency that ensued.

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Indeed, most shocks really aren’t surprises at all. Instead, they spring either from known threats whose hazard is grossly underestimated or that unexpectedly defy prediction about when they will manifest. The latter suddenly emerge mature with very little strategic warning. In short, a strategic shock most often comes from an unforeseen escalation or mutation of a widely recognized hazard. These hazards are both observable and probably actively observed by someone. However, somebody more important along the way devalued their likelihood or strategic impact and, thus, limited detailed consideration of their potential for far-reaching harm or disruption.

What's really surprising? Our lack of preparation.

A thought experiment is in order here. Was it really surprising that terrorists attacked New York and Washington? Was it really a surprise that the attacks emerged from Afghan sanctuary? Or, that intervention there would collide head-on with a tradition of successful irregular resistance? And, in the current context, is it really surprising that decades of authoritarian rule, a growing Arab youth bubble, and an uncontainable social media revolution might combine into a dislocating Pan-Arab political wildfire? On all counts, not really.

What is surprising in almost every instance is our collective under-preparedness for high impact events that occur without the benefit of adequate policy-level anticipation and that promise fundamental disruption. This is an apolitical blind spot. It knows no party distinction and is born of a bureaucracy captured by the inbox. There is no shortage of blue-ribbon findings on this subject. Yet, sadly, we are getting a clinic on it again.

Six countries in the Arab world where 'winds of change' are blowing

It is high time we recognize the value that advanced consideration of strategic shocks holds for success in the 21st century. In reality, there probably are only a handful of true, game-changing strategic shocks for the United States. Contagious disorder and insecurity across the Middle East is certainly among them. With no other alternative now but reacting to it – doing our best to identify the breadth and depth of its impact and the loci of its likeliest aftershocks – it would be useful to begin asking “What’s next?” more systematically. Past experience indicates that flying blind into crises of this magnitude is no longer an option. The world is moving too fast, and the costs are too great.

Nathan Freier is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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