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Fisking McCaffrey’s Futurism

Yesterday, The SWJ Blog ( and blogfriends on Twitter, one of whom characterized it as “weak”) aleted me to a futurist slide by General Barry McCaffrey with his predictions of potential national security events faced by the United States in the near term. I’m certain this was in the context of a much larger presentation, given to a specific group with stated policy concerns; unfortunately, those particulars are unknown to me:


My commentary:

First of all, one notes the number of “safe” predictions in the sense that none of these represent even the likeliest of outliers much less scenarios representing true, statistical rarity, “Gray Swans”. There’s a certain probalistic logic to doing so – the status quo more often than not in any given scenario will continue uninterrupted except by minor adjustments. On at least half of this list, given the breadth and/or vagueness, I’m certain that McCaffrey will be able in five years to say that he was more right then wrong. Unfortunately, the narrow number of domains from which he is extrapolating – nothing on cutting edge tech, applied science, the environment, macrodemographics, religious fundamentalism or interesting “intersectional” possibilities – leaves  policy makers with a vision that may be more susceptible to a Black Swan event than before by reinforcing previously held expectations.

Sidebar: I’d love to see Art Hutchinson, Tom Barnett, John Robb , Michael Tanji and the gents at Kent’s Imperative also critique the slide.

Now, in fairness, to the good General, a few of his bullet points are more interesting than others. I think McCaffrey’s called a hard landing for Cuba correctly unless Raul Castro has a secret admiration for Deng Xiaoping and the comprehension of economics to execute a Deng-like transition. It will be difficult for Cuba to really open up without the economic logic of the American market and favorable asylum policies for Cubans immediately kicking in as it did for the East Germans when the other Soviet bloc states ceased cooperating with Honecker’s repressive policies. With Chavez too, I think General McCaffrey is correct given that there is a little remarked friction between Venezuela the oil producer and America the refiner of Venezuelan oil ( refining capacity is itself a choke point along with oil production nor is all crude created equal; some is more expensive to refine than others). Finally, the temptation for al Qaida to “send a message” to the new administration and create downstream political effects may prove well-nigh overwhelming; it may even override their present policy of waiting until to pull off a catastropic level act of terror.

How do you see it ? Comments, questions, rants are all welcome.

15 Responses to “Fisking McCaffrey’s Futurism”

  1. Eddie Says:

    Absolutely correct nothing here is a "black swan" or even "gray", though given the foreign policy narrative offered by Bush, the media and the main candidates some of these propositions would be rude awakenings for the American people and Congress, especially:
    1- Nuclear Iran
    2- Collapsing Cuba
    3- NATO’s collapse in Afghanistan (i.e. no forthcoming help from the Euros)

    Several are contradictory, how will relations with Europe improve if they leave us hanging in Afghanistan? How can relations with China continue to improve given the self-righteous (McCain) and populist (Clinton & Obama) policies likely to be pursued in the next 4 years? 

    I give him credit for putting N. Korea’s collapse in there… though Barnett and others would tie this to improved relations with Japan… then he adds nothing in there about the effect that would have on Korea, Japan and China…

    What Pakistani support?  I keep hearing this and according to the facts we know from various media and government sources its highly questionable. Indeed Pakistan is a key reason why Afghanistan remains such a mess.  From one larger broken state with dying dreams of grandiosity to its weaker neighbor…

  2. Michael Says:

    In the sense that McCaffrey was not/is not known as a futurist/forecaster then I don’t know how harsh we should be in lambasting this weak-*** slide. On the other hand, if he is selling this to anyone but Hudson High students then clients ought to ask for a refund.

    On a very fundamental level you aim to give at least "most likely" and "most dangerous" scenarios in any serious analysis. The idea being the consumer gets both extremes of potential outcomes and can plan accordingly. Even so, "most likely" does not necessarily mean "what is expected." Consumers know what is expected, that’s why they pay analysts the big bucks: to tell help them avoid surprise, or more accurately minimize its impact.

    Its work like this, very safe and benign, ensures that anyone to accepts it is going to be stepping in Cygnus atratus poop sooner rather than later.

  3. Eddie Says:

    His Iraq briefs were more realistic and likely to be appreciated.  Great points Michael…

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Eddie,

    With nations like Pakistan we need to get out of the lazy mental habit of regarding their de jure borders in the same way we look at the borders of nations like Denmark or Uruguay. Excepting the border with India which is demarcated by hard power, Pakistan’s borders are fictive as well as artificial and arbitrary. We need to map these countries according to whose writ actually runs where.
    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for the comment brother! Well said. I’m now quite curious if this was merely a "throw-away" slide of expectations in order to set up some other point by McCaffrey or if this slide was representative of the brief itself.

  5. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Is he a polymath, master of all fields?  Or perhaps this the result of a multi-disciplinary team?  Otherwise I agree with Michael, "he is selling this to anyone but Hudson High students then clients ought to ask for a refund."  Staying within one’s knowledge domain is a mark of professionalism.

    The alternative is the "psychic master" prediction.  The general stares into his crystal, an image forms …

  6. Joe blow Says:

    “Staying within one’s knowledge domain is a mark of professionalism.”

    If that is the case then what gives you or I the authority to judge McCaffrey’s futurism?

  7. John M. Says:

    Extremely safe predictions here.  The farthest out on the limb he goes is with the breakdown of North Korea. Many of these aren’t really predictions; they’re reiterations of current conditions.  The language is vague, almost timid.  Relations with Japan more intense? What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?
    This leads me to ask: what’s the time window we’re talking about? ‘Near term’ doesn’t tell me enough.  Is it the next presidential term?  If it was for next year or two, that would color the predictions much differently than if it was for the next five or ten. 
    I have to agree with Eddie concerning those predictions that would have the strongest effect on the American public, especially the nuclear Iran and collapsing Cuba scenarios, though I might edge ‘terrorist strike’ into the 3 spot. Personally, I’m worried more about the instability in Pakistan than the others.
    Concerning swans:  What makes a swan white, grey or black changes over time with the accumulation and coordination of information and experience and the continued emergence of other grey and black swans.  The assassination of JFK was a black swan. Would the assassination of Barack Obama? The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union were black swans, however I’m sure the collapse of  Cuba and North Korea would not be. Same with 9-11 and any further attacks on the U.S.
    By their very nature, we’ll never be able to predict blacks swans, but perhaps, as our data-sets and forecasting tool kits increase and improve, we might be able to anticipate their potential effects; not by their substance, but more by the ‘space’ they could displace. (If that makes any sense at all. I’m still trying to solidify this notion. It’s kind of like knowing something by what’s not there rather than what’s there…) Otherwise, we’ll have to wait for Harry Seldon to develop Psychohistory.
    Some Zen to ponder:  The Black Swan as verb rather than noun.

  8. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Joe Blow:  I did not judge the accuracy of his "futurism", but noted that his predictions cover a wide range of fields — beyond the expertise of most people.  Hence I asked if he is a polymath. 
    To master the military and geopolitical fields is one thing; to do that and master economics and finance (note forecast #1) is another.  Also, his predictions about internal events in other countries require great area expertise, if they are to be taken seriously.

  9. CKR Says:

    So much to critique, so little time. I agree with Mark’s overall assessment, as well as Eddie’s observation that some of the bullet points are contradictory. I’ll add the contradiction between improving relations with Europe and deteriorating relations with Russia. And relations with Europe will improve under a McCain presidency? Maybe a big sigh of relief and consequent friendliness on the part of Europe that King George is gone, but realization will set in quickly and will be less favorable. Or is McCaffrey assuming the Democrat will win?
    I guess I wouldn’t include black swans simply for the probability reasons. I could match each bullet point above with a black swan, and each of those could be the subject of an hour (or twenty-minute, anyway) talk.
    I’m also wondering about the motivations behind this slide; predicting a nuclear Iran would tend to support those crying for an attack, and I think that by any reasonable extrapolation, it can’t happen soon. (What is the timeline here? Three years? Ten years?) I don’t see an overwhelming slant in one direction or another across the bullet points, though. The China prediction could be oriented against the warmonging faction in the US government, although the Cuba prediction is more of a piece with the Iran prediction.
    As someone else mentioned, it looks like these predictions may have come from multiple sources.
    And finally, I’m wondering how it all fit on the screen.

  10. Pode Says:

    Um, am I missing something?  34K casualties in Iraq over 3 years as it stabilizes?  Isn’t that significantly higher than the current casualty rate over five years?  If it’s stabilizing and troop levels are reducing, why are more Americans getting killed?  Or is that what he foresees as the causal mechanism for the troop reductions and the stability?  Peace will come once all the Americans are dead or gone?

  11. Dave Schuler Says:

    I’m a little puzzled by some of the predictions.  For example, I find the observation about our facilitating a soft landing for North Korea baffling.  Who in the world is “we” in that sentence?  The idea that the United States could have any notable influence on an isolated part of the world with which we have only small contacts when its neighbors include two of the largest countries in the world and at least two of its neighbors (China and the South) have vital interests in a “soft landing” make me concerned for the general’s sense of perspective.
    I’ll save my other comments for a post of my own.

  12. Joe blow Says:

    fabius, other bloggers are right about you. You are a sophist. You never argue what you mean and when you do, and are called on it, you argue it away.

    You are asking if he is a polymath. Sarcasm is hard to pick up the internet, but I think you are implying, through sarcasm, hence the professionalism comment, that he isn’t a polymath by questioning his authority on the multitude of subjects.

    Again, the problem with your statement … if staying within one’s knowledge domain is a mark of professionalism then somebody goes into another knowledge domain is unprofessional. You are judging an individuals knowledge over a multitude of knowledge domains. So either you are being unprofessional yourself or you must be familiar with all those knowledge domains to pass judgement.

  13. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Joe Blow — It seems to me a reasonable question as to how one person can make predictions over such a wide range of topics.  It’s as if I came to your house and offered to cure your gout, fix your roof, style your wife’s hair, and do your taxes.  A bit of skepticism seems in order — and that skepticism does not require that *I* be able to do all these things.  While there are people who can do all these things, but such folks are rare (aka polymaths).
    If that skepticism seems like the reply of a "sophist" to you, so be it.  It seems rather the opposite to me.  Perhaps we just see these things differently. 
    As for "You never argue what you mean and when you do, and are called on it, you argue it away", perhaps you could be more explicit.  My question seems simple and straightforward, imo.  You statement that I was judging his forecasts seems factually incorrect, unless questioning his work is a judgement (lese majeste?).

  14. The Glittering Eye » Blog Archive » McCaffrey’s View of the Future Says:

    […] SWJ via Zenpundit, if you haven’t seen it already you might want to take a look at the following slide […]

  15. ElamBend Says:

    Boy, if the top five turn out to be correct, we’ll all be able to sleep well for a generation.

    Zen, I agree about Pakistan.  Outside of the The Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan is more concept than reality (despite the Baloch leader of the People’s party)

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