Nothing reveals more about the present than a report about the future. Unfortunately, as these things go, reports about the future seldom do much to illuminate our understanding of what is yet to come. This is certainly the case with the U.S. National Intelligence Council's latest exercise in future-casting, "Global Trends 2030."
The authors of this report, produced every five years by the NIC, the intelligence community's in-house think tank (look for the federal budget line item entitled "navel gazing"), note at the outset that their objective is not to predict the future. This is the caveat offered up by all efforts to predict the future. Including it in the report ensures that at least one thing in it will actually turn out to be true.
I don't mean to be snarky. In fact, I would hate to do anything to discourage the production of such reports, even as swathed in caveats and burdened by the failures of past such efforts as they are. They are useful not because of their content but because they force readers to consider something outside the current news cycle, if only for a moment. That's important.
In Washington, typically, when someone says they are taking the long view, there are really only three possibilities: 1) They are lying; 2) They aren't from here; or 3) They can't figure out a short-term strategy.
We've seen an acute example of this recently with regard to U.S. Middle East policy. At a recent Foreign Policy conference, former Obama Middle East advisor Dennis Ross urged us not to refer to what is happening in the region as the "Arab Spring" because that implies it is a short-term phenomenon. He offered up as an alternative "Arab Awakening," and said that the events in the region would take a generation to play out.
Fair enough. But taking the historical view is fine when you're outside government. It's less comforting when you're actually in charge of setting U.S. policy. When diplomats from the region recently approached the administration to urge it to take a strong public stance calling our Egypt's Mohamed Morsy for his bald-faced, post-Gaza power grab, I'm told, they were given pushback by officials at the National Security Council who said the United States was taking "the long-term view" in Egypt and counseled patience.
Between that kind of talk and the NIC report, you might think Washington is experiencing a rare outbreak of virulent foresight. But that's not really what's going on here. With regard to Egypt, the United States is embracing the long view because it has no good short-term options. As in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in the Arab world, we are not sure who is in charge, who are likely to be our friends, and how events are likely to unfold.
The problem with this kind of faux-perspective is that for all the perfectly good reasons to maintain the long view, it is dangerous to let them be an excuse for not having a good short-term plan. After all, to paraphrase Freud, the short term is the father of the long term. If you get it wrong, it does have an effect.
Morsy has clearly demonstrated that he is not a good guy. He has been all too fast to set aside the constitutional impulses that brought him to power. His foreign policy, while seemingly a help in Gaza, has others in the region, from Jordan to the moderate states of the Gulf, seriously worried. They see Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their stability, actively working to stir up trouble in its desire to produce the spread not of democracy but of extremist theocracy to the region. No amount of palliative statements by U.S. officials to the effect of "we have leverage, they need us more than we need them, they need our money" will convince the region's players -- who believe they know better the true nature of the Brotherhood -- that the United States will actually maintain influence with these Islamist ideologues over the long term. In other words, America is once again being used by bad guys because we simply don't know whom else to deal with. (And by all reports, we are being misled by giving too much credence to advice given to the White House by the president's favorite interlocutor in the region, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)