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.