On April 11 the New York Times published a remarkable interview with Dr. Stephen Cambone, the Defense Department’s new Under Secretary for Intelligence. Cambone is the first person to occupy the position, created in recognition of the central role that intelligence is expected to play in every facet of future military operations. He told reporter Thom Shanker that a major challenge the government faces is to “recover the lost art of strategic warning,” so that it can anticipate threats a decade or more into the future. He said such information is essential to making wise choices about which weapons to buy and how to organize forces.
Cambone’s views matter. He is one of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s most trusted advisors. His intellect and energy are widely acknowledged — and feared — within the Pentagon. And unlike some political appointees, his assessment of future military needs is informed by a sophisticated understanding of history and human nature. So the fact that he sees strategic warning as an important function of his office guarantees more attention to that activity. As reporter Shanker points out, the Pentagon already manages 80% of funding for the National Foreign Intelligence Program. Cambone will be a key player in deciding how that money should be spent.
Cambone is certainly right that strategic warning needs more focus. However, there are fundamental difficulties in projecting long-term demographic, technological and political trends that make any intelligence assessment, no matter how rigorous, a weak basis for defining military needs. Consider the examples of weather forecasting and stock-market analysis. Despite the limited range of possible outcomes and access to supercomputers processing terabits of data about past experience, experts routinely fail to predict next week’s weather or the performance of the New York exchange. So how likely is it that anyone can foresee global security conditions a decade from today, given the infinite range of possible outcomes and the far more complex interaction of variables?
Secretary Rumsfeld himself made a convincing case for how unknowable the future is in a point paper passed out to legislators two years ago, when he was explaining the need for a “capabilities-based” rather than threat-based defense posture. The May 2001 paper, entitled “Thoughts About Planning for the Future,” listed the many times in recent history that policymakers have failed to anticipate important developments only a decade away. These included, inter alia, the rise of fascism, the Great Depression, the Japanese threat in the Pacific, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the fall of the Shah in Iran, the collapse of communism and, oh yes, the threat posed by Iraq.
Sounds like there’s actually no “art of strategic warning” to rediscover — policymakers pretty much always get the future wrong. It isn’t just what they don’t know, it’s what they don’t want to know. For example, if rigorous analysis concludes that global warming is a serious security challenge, will the Bush Administration listen? What if it predicts that Taiwan’s geopolitical situation is hopeless? And what will the Pentagon do when analysts report that unmanned combat vehicles and digital networks are easily disabled by resourceful enemies? Even if the future could be foreseen, that would still require leaders willing to listen and act.
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