The United States needs to be careful, because failing to come up with a better alternative to bad actors like Morsy -- or at least failing to set much clearer lines as to what we will support or not -- could produce not an "Arab awakening" or "spring" but a new dark era across the region. In Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and possibly in other fragile states that hang in the balance like those moderate allies currently pleading for stronger support from the United States right now, we could end up with a new generation of authoritarian bosses with extremist ties or leanings. And the Obama administration's understandable desire to get out of the region to focus on "nation-building at home" is only making matters more complicated.
In the worst case, an anti-American, collapsing Middle East could be seen as the legacy of this administration. You could easily see it happening over the next four years. Don't believe me? Here's what one top U.S. official said the region might look like in just "three to five years": "either a failed state or all or part of Syria under control of extremists; instability in Jordan or all or some part of Jordan under control of extremists; continuing political instability in Lebanon with the growing power of Hezbollah; Hamas basically becoming a proxy of Iran; and Sinai becoming a danger to Egypt as well as to Israel."
That was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking off the cuff at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum. Imagine what such a scenario might mean for Obama's legacy -- and for the president who had to pick up the pieces. The question, "Who lost the Middle East?" might resonate for generations.
And it could even be worse. The NIC report touches upon the possibility of the dysfunctional world that would be produced if the next 20 years produces unrest, strongmen, world energy market volatility, and the distractions associated with further festering in the arc of instability that extends from the Maghreb to the Hindu Kush but shows signs of spreading across Africa and Central Asia. The headings in the "game-changers" section alone tell a grim story: The Crisis-Prone Global Economy, the Governance Gap, the Potential for Increased Conflict, Wide Scope of Regional Instability, the Impact of New Technologies and the Role of the United States.
But there's another way to look at those headings. The trouble with most such exercise in crystal ball reading is that they fall quickly into the biggest of all heuristic traps: They let our current experience restrict too greatly our vision of the future.
Yes, there is a connection between the two, to be sure. (See above comments on having a short-term strategy on that point.) But look at the "megatrends" and "game-changers" of the NIC study and you see only a rehashing of the past decade or so of Davos meetings and McKinsey studies, the dross of popular futurism. There is talk about "individual empowerment" without a deep enough exploration of whether new technologies and trends like those above might create a new golden age of authoritarianism. "Diffusion of power" is mentioned because that's a meme of the IT crowd, but it neglects to note that new technologies have also led to huge concentrations of power (see: Valley, Silicon). There is a discussion of "aging," but it is almost entirely as though that were an economic negative, totally ignoring the great promise that might come of harnessing the experience and talents of workers for much, much longer than in the past. The "food, water, energy nexus" is mentioned because it must be, but there is not much discussion of how regularly wrong past predictions of coming supply crises in these areas have been over the past two centuries or so (see Population Bomb, The). China and India will be bigger. Europe could be in trouble. Emerging markets will emerge. Or they might not. Let's watch that.
The NIC study offers a few potential worlds, turning as ever on geopolitical and geoeconomic trends. The secret sauce seems to be whether the United States can continue to lead as it has in recent decades or not. The implication is that the future will be good if it looks enough like the past. (This is the "best case," with our European alliances swapped out for Asian ones.) As I said, it's all worth doing every so often because it makes us think. But the hard, on-the-ground realities of situations around the world as well as the inadequacies of our efforts at future-casting reinforce a message that our leaders will do well to heed: You're defining the future today, whether or not you intend to, and thus the very best way to ensure a good 2030 is to focus on making the right choices in 2013.