A 15-year-old intel report predicting the world of 2020 has been hailed for its accuracy, but much of the future it describes was already underway in 2004. Could today’s hyper-politicized intelligence community see even that much?
Rolling out a list of “eerily prescient” predictions in order to brag about their accuracy – no flying cars here! – the National Intelligence Council (NIC) report is just what one might expect from an intel community desperate to shore up its reputation ahead of what’s sure to be a hotly contested presidential election.
Intel vets have lamented that the intelligence community has become politicized, to the point where it has affected their ability to accurately and objectively describe the reality in front of them – never mind the world 15 years in the future. The NIC paper may thus represent a lost art of apolitical prognostication, a skill willingly sacrificed in the rush for modern spooks to prove themselves “team players.” After the near-fatal blow to its credibility dealt by the three-year Russiagate debacle, US intelligence has a long way to go to build its reputation back.
But US intelligence has played enough of a role in crafting the world of 2020 that at least some of the report’s predictions have to be viewed as plans and suggestions rather than prognostication. Revelations about the CIA’s role in funding and training Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, supplying weapons which often ended up in the hands of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorists through Operation “Timber Sycamore,” cast the report’s “fictional scenario” about “a new caliphate” whose adherents include Osama bin Laden’s grandson in a more sinister light. Like IS, the fictional caliphate described by the NIC inspires “non-practicing Muslims” from Europe and America to return to their ancestral homelands and take up arms against the “infidels”; also like IS, they seize large swaths of territory in an Iraq weakened by years of war. With plans to regime-change “seven countries in five years” in the Middle East already underway in 2004, according to retired General Wesley Clark, both imagined and real caliphate dovetailed nicely with US foreign policy aims of remaking the region in its image.
Meanwhile, a scenario titled “Cycle of Fear” in which an “Orwellian world” arises from crippling fear of terrorism is almost a wink to the reader, coming just a few short years after the September 11 attacks spawned the Patriot Act and a draconian reduction in Americans’ civil liberties. The NIC report was published years before NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the disturbing extent of the US surveillance state, and Americans in 2004 were for the most part blissfully ignorant about how much they were being spied on – but the NSA, which consulted on the NIC paper, certainly wasn’t.
Other predictions are so obvious that holding them up as a sign of predictive genius is almost laughable. Anticipating a US confrontation with North Korea didn’t take any special skills – then-president George W. Bush had labeled the country part of the “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran in 2002, presumably tagging it for eventual regime change. Nor did predicting China’s growth and dominance in the world economy require any great insight – it was already the second-largest global economy in 2004, with its GDP growing at over twice the rate of the US. And a warning against nation-building – a failure the US had already experienced in Afghanistan by 2004 – is hardly prescient; it simply hasn’t been heeded in the intervening 15 years.
Sure, the report nailed a shift in global alliances, with rising economies like the BRICS countries increasingly making their presence felt on the geopolitical stage. But betting global alliances will shift within a 15-year timeframe isn’t exactly clairvoyance.
Unfortunately, the NIC chose to end on an optimistic note, coincidentally the least-likely scenario – a so-called “Pax Americana” in which Europe, devastated by a series of terrorist attacks and “more unified than some of our American friends imagined,” runs into the arms of the US “imploring America to get tough on terrorism.” Even looking beyond the name – “Pax” means “peace,” something a nation with military bases in at least 80 countries knows little about – this hypothetical future has aged particularly badly in the era of Brexit encouraging other European countries to mull seeking independence from the union.
“Even as the existing order is threatened, the United States will have many opportunities to fashion a new one,” the report concludes. The stubborn optimism of the intelligence community of 2004 – just three years into what has become nearly two decades of non-stop war, triggered in part by that community’s own intel failures – is much more “eerie” than any resemblance of its fortune-telling to the real world of 2020. It’s not hard to see how the slight disconnect with reality on display here mushroomed into the chasm separating today’s intelligence community from the real world.
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