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The Fierce Urgency of Now

The case for short-term thinking.

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.)

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.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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