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Conventional Wisdom & the Next Unknown

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From the Spring 2015 issue "The Unknown"

By Jack Devine and Amanda Mattingly

Despite our inability to anticipate or predict it, intelligence analysts across the public and private sector are constantly on the lookout for the next Unknown. In fact, the role of the intelligence community is to identify future threats, collating all the intel available on potential crisis areas and then backing it up with state-of-the-art computer capacity and robust human analysis rooted in expertise from every corner of the globe. 

But even with this capacity, the one predictable and immutable reality is that there will continue to be intelligence failures in the future. It is inherent in the business. Just as many view the September 11 terrorist attacks as an example of an intelligence failure, so too is the recent terrorist attack in Paris on the satirical news outlet Charlie Hebdo. Both were Unknowns. While the landscape of Unknowns spreads dangerously before us, there are precautions we can take if we are wise in our approaches, both strategic and imaginative in our thinking.

Looking back over our years in this business, from the most remote stations to the leadership suites of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, the common thread that runs through genuine failures is an overreliance on conventional wisdom and a reluctance to properly weight more imaginative possibilities.  

That said, let’s look at the current world situation through the lens of distilled conventional wisdom to briefly outline from an intelligence perspective what might lie ahead in arguably the top geopolitical challenges we are facing today. After that, for the sake of argument, it would be useful to look at two potential forces that could throw this analysis totally off kilter and produce the next unwelcome Unknown. At the same time, it would be beneficial to highlight a few possible intelligence steps that might help get in front of seemingly fast developing situations. 

THE MIDDLE EAST

For the foreseeable future, it is very likely that there will be terrorist events directed against American and European interests, and regrettably some probably will be successful, though hopefully not on the scale of the 9/11 attack. These attacks, however, will not fundamentally change the dynamics of the Middle East. We will continue to see terrorist forces at work, nasty Sunni-Shia sectarianism at play, and the United States entangled in the region’s problems because of our key national security interest. IS and Al Qaeda will not establish a caliphate; in fact, they may well have reached their high water mark, and will diminish in influence as it becomes increasingly clear that they do not have a winning ideology with broad based appeal. In the end, the vast majority of Arabs will not sign onto their barbaric strain of Islam. 

While public officials are not prepared to espouse it, we have drifted into a policy of containment in this region and further afield in the Muslim world, which is starting to look like the policy we used against the Russians during the Cold War. Basically, we will be holding the line until the extremists run out of steam or debilitate each other. This will take time. After all, it took decades for the Soviet Union to collapse. So it will be with Islamic radicalism, though it is likely to collapse sooner because its foundations are weaker than those of the Soviet Union.  

At the same time, the other long lasting struggle in the Middle East is between Israelis and Palestinians. It is hard to see how this situation will improve or deteriorate in a meaningful way in the years ahead. Over the past 25 years, there have been a series of well-intended initiatives, including Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy last year, which have all come up short. In fact, the positions seem more intractable than ever, and there is no cause for optimism today. 

RUSSIA

The dispute with Russia in Ukraine is shaping up as another place where we have slid into a policy of containment, which is likely to go unchanged for the foreseeable future.  It is unlikely that President Vladimir Putin will pull back from Crimea or abandon support for rebels in eastern Ukraine until some arrangement is worked out to provide the Russian-speaking people in the East some autonomy from Kiev. Meanwhile, Putin will continue to use covert action to keep Ukraine weak and divorced from the West. Still, the Russian economy is highly dependent on a robust economic relationship with Europe and the United States.  Faced with sanctions and falling oil prices, he can only push his agenda so far before the political and economic backlash at home becomes unsustainable. 

CHINA

Turning to China, we are likely to witness a continuation of the status quo, albeit in the context of an ever-increasing militarization of its armed forces. To be sure, China wants to be taken seriously as a world power, and in many ways, President Xi Jinping’s instincts about nationalism and China’s role on the world stage are not dissimilar to Putin’s view of Russia—a highly nationalistic force to be reckoned with. However, it is very hard to imagine a scenario where China’s leaders use military force in Taiwan or the disputed Senkaku Islands to resolve their long-term designs on these areas. China’s robust economy inevitably has led to military expansion and the flexing of muscles, but like Russia, its economic ties to the West are so great that any military adventure would surely do irreparable damage to China’s economy and much of the world’s economy for that matter. The Chinese fully understand this. 

OTHER HOT SPOTS

Similarly, we could look at several other hot spots to round out conventional wisdom about the future. North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela are all places where analysts may reasonably conclude, despite the periodic tugging and pulling, that our most effective policy will also be one of containment without any major shift in the current dynamics. It is a fairly safe bet that the preponderance of intelligence community analysts will come down in this general area as they evaluate these hot spots. 

UPENDING FROM UNKNOWNS

History suggests that most of this conventional wisdom will pan out. But it is also a pretty safe bet that at least one of these estimates will fall on hard times because of the syndrome of the Unknown. In our recent history, we have seen conventional thinking upended quickly in the face of rapid economic, political, and social change. Examples of this range from the toppling of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 to the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. Going back further to the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union came much quicker than conventional wisdom believed in the late 1980s, or in Chile in 1973. 

In Chile, conventional wisdom held that the nation’s military would not move against socialist President Salvador Allende after the failed coup attempt known as the tancazo, or “tank putsch,” coordinated by insubordinate, lower-ranking soldiers. The intelligence and policy community scarcely believed there would be another uprising against Allende, and instead, directed its energies toward the next election to help the moderate Christian Democrats mount a credible challenge in 1976. Even in the weeks leading up to the actual coup in September 1973, there were diplomats in our own embassy in Santiago and top analysts in Washington who did not believe information about the impending coup. Despite hearing and reporting coup rumors for weeks, no one believed it would happen until we received solid, corroborating information from reliable sources the day before the coup. 

Conventional thinking was that Chile was a democracy, and the military would not intervene. But indeed, the economic situation in Chile had become so dire, protests on the streets so frequent, and there was enough dissent within the ranks, that the generals took it upon themselves to restore order in the country. Washington welcomed the coup when it happened, with little understanding of the brutal and repressive consequences to come under the Pinochet regime.      

History also demonstrates that conventional thinking can be the result of an overreliance on prominent exiles or singular sources of intelligence—concealing Unknowns that were lying hidden in plain sight. Exiles are a key source of such concealment and may have the ear of important political figures and policymakers. By virtue of their distance, however, they are rarely in a position to provide accurate intelligence of the situation and, moreover, have their own agendas that may hardly correspond to our own. Recall that we were scarcely welcomed as “liberators” when we went into Iraq in 2003, a consequence of several prominent exiles convincing high-level American officials.

TILTING THE PINBALL

What factors should we be pondering now that would tilt the pinball machine in current global hot spots? There are two major factors to consider. One scenario would be a major economic downturn, due to continued low energy costs, or a more general recession, most likely brought about by a significant slowing of the Chinese economy, which is long overdue. The other somewhat more amorphous concern is the likely and unanticipated impact of social media on political systems, especially on autocratic governments should they face a sustained economic decline. 

In the Arab Spring uprisings that led to Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt in 2011, followed by the ouster of President Mohamad Morsi in 2013, the Internet and social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, played an important role in bringing down these governments. The protests organized via social media demonstrated that populations across the Middle East are becoming less willing to follow leaders who fail to provide for their needs and deprive them of economic and political freedom. Today, citizens are able to triangulate information fed to them by those in positions of power. This trend will increase as the methods used to communicate grow and governments’ ability to circumvent them contract, especially in authoritarian states. While this trend is clear, the Unknowns that remain are the pace and reach of such methods.

In this context, it is critical to understand just how politically unstable all these trouble spots are because they are fundamentally autocratic states without authentic popular political roots. In essence, they rely heavily on the personalities or the popularity of those running these states to hold the populace in check. This works reasonably well until they have to face grave economic problems and the accompanying increase in dissidence and unrest—complex mixes that are of their very nature Unknowns, indeed all but unknowable until they are nearly upon us. It is most difficult to calibrate just how intense this discontent will become since it will depend on the severity of the economic problems they confront and the real disconnect between leaders and their people. Therein lies the darkest heart of the Unknown—an age-old problem greatly aggravated with the advent of social media as we observed in the collapse of the autocratic governments in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

Virtually all these hot spots try to erect high walls to limit the effectiveness of social media because they know instinctively just how threatening it can be, and just how vulnerable they are to it. We are not rooting for such dramatic change anywhere because of the unpredictability of its outcome—one of the many Unknowns concealed within another Unknown, not unlike the matryoshkas, or Russian nesting dolls, one inside the other.  Any one of these could prove most chaotic and deeply damaging to our own national security interests. Indeed, the universe of the autocrat is less stable and more at risk than ever before, its outcome increasingly Unknown and thus more likely to produce surprises.

THE AUTOCRAT & THE UNKNOWN

Autocratic governments, such as those in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or Venezuela, seek to centralize power over the people in all aspects of life—from their economy to civil society, including the media. The centralization of power and the accompanying control over the purse strings inevitably leads to corruption and unrest during tough economic times. As we saw during the Arab Spring, discontent in Egypt and Tunisia radiated outward from unemployed youth and disenfranchised students who felt powerless to effect any substantive economic or political change. In a nation under international economic sanctions—Iran, North Korea, or Russia—or in a country facing a stalled economy and downward trending oil revenue—think China and Venezuela—even a hike in bus fares can spark widespread discontent that can spread faster today via social media than ever before. 

Indeed, it is worth remembering that amid a backdrop of falling oil prices in the 1980s, a nationwide hike in bus fares in Venezuela in 1989 sparked widespread protests known as the caracazo, roughly translated as “the big one in Caracas.” The rioting, looting, and violence that took place over the course of more than a month resulted in great political instability, anti-establishment sentiment throughout the country, and ultimately, the rise of another strongman promising relief, Hugo Chavez. Today, Venezuelans are again facing tanking oil prices and a dramatically deteriorating economic and security situation. Under these circumstances and in the age of social media, it’s not hard to imagine another caracazo, potentially with graver consequences, and President Nicolás Maduro’s government falling apart at the seams.

The capacity of autocratic governments to contain large-scale unrest across the country or violence in the streets will greatly depend on the loyalty of the military brass and law enforcement—in other words, their troops’ willingness to fire on their own people in defense of the government. This is where there can be an often Unknown divergence in support, and why intelligence analysts have long studied the alliances between autocrats and the militaries that support them. Along this line of thinking is the following Unknown—the likelihood of the Russian military supporting President Putin or conversely turning on him in the face of violent protests in St. Petersburg, rioting and looting in Moscow, or strikes by Gazprom workers across the country. So far in Iran, the Revolutionary Guard Corps has remained loyal to the hard-liners of the regime, but potential divisions in the ranks could provide an opening for opposition forces to exploit under certain economic conditions, accompanying a groundswell of support for regime change. When the vast mass of bazaaris—the small businessmen of Iran’s urban bazaars—turned on the Shah in 1979, the monarch was destined for the dustbin of history.

The next important Unknown in scenarios like these is the circumstances accompanying a sudden power vacuum. In autocratic governments, institutions tend to be weak and can come easily undone when the political pendulum swings away. Our intelligence analysts need to know the vulnerabilities of institutions like the central bank, the state-run oil company, the judiciary, or the press. Understanding potential opposition forces and leaders—be they good or bad from a Western perspective—who might step in to fill the void in a sudden regime change is equally important. Who or what could come to the fore following political and economic upheaval in any of these countries would greatly impact vital American or Western interests, presenting new challenges and opportunities, and making it all the more crucial for our policymakers to have the intelligence necessary to craft sound policy and positively influence events as they unfold.

ROBUST NETWORKS

The likelihood for rapid change in our globalized economy requires more than ever that we have robust intelligence networks around the world. We need to invest heavily in sources of information that can tell policymakers about government plans and intentions, but also in sources in all the potential areas of dissent in these countries so that we are in a position to understand and evaluate the influence and impact of these social networks. In each case we must do our best to minimize the Unknowns. Moreover, where necessary, we must lay in the covert action plumbing—that is to say, we need already established on-the-ground sources and reliable partners who are ready and able to act in a fashion consistent with our national security in a crisis. Rather than relying on prominent exiles or singular sources removed from the countries in question, we need a vital network of sources inside to help our intelligence community determine on-the-ground conditions and find legitimate local partners needed for any covert action plans. 

As an example, after our military withdrawal in Afghanistan, we should by now have a large network of reliable partners and trusted sources so that we are in a position to ramp up covert activities with tribal leaders should it appear the Taliban is overwhelming other factions or liaising with Al Qaeda after our withdrawal. Instead, what we have is a vast black canvas of Unknowns. An Afghanistan where the United States has little influence or visibility will remain a haven for extremist groups that can threaten the United States and our allies, much as in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal from that country.  

Iran is another example where, despite the challenges for recruiting, building networks, and obtaining on-the-ground intelligence, it is crucial that we are not simply relying on exile sources or conventional wisdom. The stakes in Iran are high, and if our efforts to secure a nuclear deal with the Iranians fail, the risks of escalation will rise rapidly and dramatically. We should position ourselves now to encourage and take advantage of trends within Iran—this includes robust intelligence collection, the establishment of a flexible and responsive network of sources within the political opposition, and the cultivation of potential leaders who could help govern Iran if and when the current regime collapses.

Considering the possibility of rapid political and economic change in any of these areas of the world and the potential fallout are precisely why we have slid into a policy of general containment. Stung from years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq where we actively sought regime change and tried to export Western democracy, we have come to this policy naturally. The pendulum swings here as well. But a policy of general containment and a reliance on conventional wisdom can only get us so far, and our intelligence community and policymakers need to be actively planning for all possible scenarios of the Unknown and using covert action to influence outcomes in our favor.

By definition, it is all but impossible to determine where the next Unknown will emerge, but it is safe to say there will be one and sooner than we think. 

*****

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Jack Devine is a 32-year veteran of the CIA, president of The Arkin Group, and author of Good Hunting: An American Spymaster's Story, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2014). Amanda Mattingly is a senior director at The Arkin Group and former foreign affairs officer at the State Department. 

[Photo courtesy of Ahmad Abd El-Fatah]

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