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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.