The Future Behind Us

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Spying on the Future
The U.S. Intelligence Community as Seers Without Sizzle
By Tom Engelhardt

The year is 2010 and, yes, Saddam Hussein is gone and there are no American troops in Iraq, but, as the report suggests, “the challenge will be to see whether a modern, secular successor government emerges that does not threaten its neighbors” — especially since those dogged Iraqis are back at work on their nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, the national security agenda of American policymakers, who face no conventional military challenges, is dominated by five questions: “whether to intervene, when, with whom, with what tools, and to what end?”

Surveying the world in 2010, we find a Russia irredeemably in economic decline, a China beset by too many internal problems to hope for military dominance in Asia, and a North Korea so transformed that military tensions have vanished from the Korean peninsula (along, evidently, with the North Korean nuclear program). Oh, and those food riots that swept the globe recently, they never happened. After all, it’s well known that food production has kept up with population pressures, and energy production has been more than a match for global energy needs. As for global warming? Never heard of it. On the bright side, the key to the future is “international cooperation,” led, of course, by us truly.

An alternate universe from a missing Star Trek episode or that new sci-fi novel you haven’t read yet? Not quite. Thanks to the best brains in the many agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community or IC, it’s been possible for me to venture into the future, just as our own world is being shaken to its roots — into the years 2010 and 2015, to be exact.

There, surprisingly enough, life is relatively calm and the United States remains the preeminent Power of Powers. There, you aren’t likely to hear the words “deep recession” or “depression” on anyone’s lips.

In that far perkier future our intelligence analysts sent me to, you can exist forever and there will never be those four jets, box cutters, and 19 hijackers. The Bush administration will never barge into the world “unilaterally.” The U.S. will not be renowned for torture techniques or an offshore secret prison system of injustice, and nothing will contravene then-Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Ben Bernanke’s 2005 assessment that soaring housing prices were due to “strong economic fundamentals.”

In neither 2010 nor 2015 will anyone have heard of the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the giant insurance company A.I.G. In neither year will newspapers have headlines like “Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight.” In neither will anyone know that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, conducting two bankrupting wars that refused to end.

Think of it as the blandest, tidiest, least-likely-to-occur future around. And it was even paid for with your tax dollars.

Planting the Stars and Stripes in Future Soil

In a world where shock has repeatedly been the name of the game, where tall towers fall in clouds of toxic ash, investment houses disappear in the blink of an eye, and a black man is the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States, the American intelligence community has been straining to imagine a future without surprises or discontinuities. As its experts summed the matter up in 1997, “Genuine discontinuities — sharp nonevolutionary breaks with the past — are rare, and our focus is on evolutionary change.”

Lucky is the country that didn’t bet its foreign policy on that bit of intelligence wisdom. Of course, in the long decade of hubris, from the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 (something American intelligence neither predicted nor expected) to the moment American troops entered Baghdad in April 2003, it seemed obvious enough in Washington that a generational Pax Americana was settling over the world.

As a result, the futures the IC’s analysts produced back then were remarkable mainly for their inability to imagine what was stirring under the surface of the obvious. As a result, when you visit those futures, you’re not likely to have the urge to throw away your Arthur Clark or Isaac Asimov or Philip Dick or William Gibson classics. But maybe you’ll still be curious, as I was, to know what that “community’s” top minds missed when they peered ahead. Think of it as a window into the limits of our intelligence services when they tried to grasp the real nature of U.S. power by forecasting the future.

What’s strange is that the distant future was once the province of utopian or dystopian thinkers, pulp fiction writers, oddballs, visionaries, even outright nuts, but not government intelligence services. Peering into it was, at its best, a movingly strange individual adventure of the imagination, whether you were reading Edward Bellamy or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin or H.G. Wells, George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. That was, of course, before the Pentagon and allied outfits began planning for the weaponry of 2020, 2035, and 2050; before war turned nuclear and so, with the exception of two cities in 1945, could only be “fought” in think tanks via futuristic scenario writing; before names like Complex 2030, Vision 2020, UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] Roadmap 2030 were regularly affixed to government programs. In fact, the U.S. government has been planting the Stars and Stripes deep in territory previous left to sci-fi dreamers for quite a while.

In the process, regularly analyzing the distant future has become almost as much the duty of the 18 agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community as doing National Intelligence Estimates on Iran. Ever since the 1990s, they have been hard at work preparing committee-made futures that simply won’t happen. To judge by their work, they are a community of seers without sizzle, and yet the next of their fantasy futures, for the distant year 2025, is about to be made public.

Predicting America’s Diminishing Power

Every few years the National Intelligence Council (NIC) is mandated to provide “‘over the horizon’ estimates of broader trends at work in the world.” Just in case you’ve never heard of the NIC, it describes itself as “a center of strategic thinking within the U.S. Government, reporting to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and providing the President and senior policymakers with analyses of foreign policy issues that have been reviewed and coordinated throughout the Intelligence Community.”

Sometime in the 1990s, its analysts embarked on a project, released in 1997, called Global Trends 2010, a best-guesstimate about the nature of our world 13 years hence. In 2000, Global Trends (GT) 2015 came out, followed in 2004 by GT 2020.

As the 2020 project proudly described the process, the IC “consulted experts from around the world in a series of regional conferences to offer a truly global perspective. We organized conferences on five continents to solicit the views of foreign experts” In other words, no prospective stone was left prospectively unturned to keep top U.S. policymakers up to speed.

Recently, this Washington Post headline caught my eye: “Reduced Dominance Is Predicted for U.S.” As the Post’s Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus noted, the latest of the NIC’s reports, Global Trends 2025, due out this December, was previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, “the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst.” Officially, he’s the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis as well as the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The report is already supposedly being briefed to presidential candidates McCain and Obama.

Indeed, talking to the 2008 Intelligence and National Security Alliance Analytic Transformation Conference, Fingar praised the IC for its job restoring “confidence in the product” (a not-so-subtle reference to what the Bush administration did to its reputation back in 2002-2003) and hyped the IC’s “17 years of forecasting and scenario building.” He then previewed the upcoming “product” on the futuristic intelligence block, “intended to shape the thinking of [the] new administration,” and here was his prediction of America’s fate as 2025 approaches:

“[T]he U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that American dominance will be much diminished over this period of time the overwhelming dominance that the United States has enjoyed in the international system in military, political, economic, and arguably, cultural arenas is eroding and will erode at an accelerating pace with the partial exception of military. But part of the argument here is that by 15 years from now, the military dimension [that] will remain the most preeminent will be the least significant”

I’d have to guess that NIC members are, at this very moment, doing a little rewriting on this issue as the known world descends around our projected ears. Anyway, just how useful was Fingar’s “news,” even before our financial system plunged into the maw?

Let’s face it, if the Post headline had said: “America [or China, or a clique of petro-states] Predicted to Rule World in 2025” that might have been news. But if you’ve been paying the slightest attention to your daily paper, Fingar’s speech offered a hint of a future hardly more illuminating than a headline saying, “Water predicted to remain in Indian Ocean in 2025.”

Birthed by the T. Rex of global intelligence combines, his revelation represents, at best, a hen’s egg of knowledge. Admittedly, such a prediction might have taken real insight back in 1997 when the U.S. was riding high, and only a handful of declinist scholars like Immanuel Wallerstein were considering the possibility that American power was not on a path to new heights. But in 2008, did anyone really need costly conferences on five continents to imagine a future in which that power would be in decline, a forecast that is now a commonplace of bestselling book titles and could have been read at websites like this one years ago?

The Future Behind Us

Still, I couldn’t resist zipping back to 1997 and then 2000 just to get a sense of what — when Washington was riding high — the IC thought lay ahead in 2010 and 2015.

Three years after it made its 1997 findings public, the NIC’s analysts saw nothing but signs of the increasing dominance of American power in the global future. Like the new administration of that moment, they were bullish on America, so much so that they even critiqued the NIC’s seers of 1997 as weak-kneed on the U.S.: “The effect of the United States as the preponderant power is introduced in GT 2015. The US role as a global driver has emerged more clearly over the past four years, particularly as many countries debate the impact of ‘US hegemony’ on their domestic and foreign policies.”

While, in 2000, there seemed no serious obstacles to the growth of American power 15 years in the future, poor Russia remained a declinist state which, fortunately, would “continue to lack the resources to impose its will,” and China faced “an array of political, social, and economic pressures that will increasingly challenge the regime’s legitimacy, and perhaps its survival.” And here was yet more splendid news from the NIC’s point of view: “The global economy, overall, will return to the high levels of growth reached in the 1960s and early 1970s.” Even better, “[i]nternational cooperation will continue to increase through 2015.” (Evidently, they forgot to brief top Bush administration officials on that particular prediction!)

Despite some discussion of non-state actors, loose nukes, and a potential “trend toward greater lethality in terrorist attacks” — after all, two American embassies in Africa and the USS Cole had by then been devastated — the IC saw no global wars on terror ahead. Terrorism was an outlier in a heady world of “globalization” that, in 2015, was remarkably sunny-side up when it came to us.

As with any document by committee, many of the report’s reigning predictions were carefully qualified elsewhere in the document, a familiar kind of cover-your-butt-ism in which you bravely predict the obvious — and (just in case) its opposite. The exuberant U.S. economy, to take a typical example, was also described as “vulnerable to a loss of international confidence in its growth prospects that could lead to a sharp downturn, which, if long lasting, would have deleterious economic and policy consequences for the rest of the world.” There was even an appendix (“Four Alternative Global Futures”) that offered modest scenarios in which U.S. power might “wane” somewhat, but here was the IC’s money paragraph for 2015:

“Experts agree that the United States, with its decisive edge in both information and weapons technology, will remain the dominant military power during the next 15 years. Further bolstering the strong position of the United States are its unparalleled economic power, its university system, and its investment in research and development — half of the total spent annually by the advanced industrial world. Many potential adversaries, as reflected in doctrinal writings and statements, see US military concepts, together with technology, as giving the United States the ability to expand its lead in conventional warfighting capabilities.”

Sigh In the future that’s now behind us, we know just where that sort of thinking led.

By 2004, of course, things were beginning to go sour in Bushworld, and so the 2020 study had a somewhat more dystopian edge to it. (It could pose the question, “U.S. Unipolarity — How Long Can It Last?” even if the answer was: a long time.) And finally, this December, it seems, the “waning” of U.S. power will make it, just a tad late, out of the appendices and into the bloodstream of the future.

Handmaidens of Delusion

What’s undeniably fascinating about these futuristic exercises is the degree to which they reflect the limits of the world of the present as seen from Washington; they reflect, that is, just what Washington has been (and largely still remains) incapable of grasping about the nature of power — and danger — on this planet. In this way, the IC’s analysts remained handmaidens to delusion, not just when it came to foreign powers, but when it came to our own country. The Global Trends reports will remain significant documents for future historians who want to chart just how glacially slow was Washington’s realization that the collapse of Soviet power didn’t actually mean American power was destined to be transcendent on Earth.

In its predictions, it’s clear that the IC had little better luck getting its agents embedded in the future than it did getting them inside al-Qaeda or into Iran. Not surprisingly, given what we know about the bureaucratic morass that is American intelligence, the GT reports have all the faults of intelligence by committee and negotiation — which is why H.G. Wells, Arthur Clark, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, and others, who caught something of the strangeness of possible futures, would never have had a chance in hell of succeeding in careers in the IC. Wells’s Martians with their poison gas and flying machines, Orwell’s Big Brother with his “memory hole,” and Huxley’s “feelies” would have been left on the negotiating room floor. Far too quirky. Far too many “discontinuities” involved for the IC.

Better to forecast what the people you brief already believe, raised to the highest predictive power and squared, and skip the oddballs with their strange hunches, the sorts who might actually have a knack for recognizing the shock of the future lurking in the present. Don’t pay any mind, for that matter, to FBI agents reporting the truly strange in the present — like, say, “a 33-year-old French citizen of Moroccan descent” at a flight school who wants to learn how to fly a commercial jet, but not how it takes off or lands.

What the Global Trends documents represent, then, is not a deep dive into the mysteries of the future, but a series of belly flops by an unbearably obese IC into a barely grasped present. Let 18 intelligence outfits proliferate and one thing is guaranteed: in some future, maybe even tomorrow, no matter how powerful you are, you won’t know what hit you.

If I were the next president, I might prefer to skip the IC, spend a few nights with a little science fiction, peer into the darkness, muster some commonsense, and take a wild guess or two.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has recently been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn’t covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

[Note on Readings: The Global Trends reports are all on line. You can read them by clicking here: Global Trends 2010, Global Trends 2015, Global Trends 2020. You can read both of Thomas Fingar’s recent speeches by clicking here (pdf file — and fair warning, despite his billing as the “top analyst” in the U.S. Intelligence Community, they are almost unbearably banal, soporific, and remarkably incoherent). Finally, I wrote about Global Trends 2020 when it came out in 2004. For any of you who might find that of interest, click here.]

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt