The List

The 10 Worst Predictions for 2012

Who got it wrong this year?

The World Will End in 2012 --The Mayans (But Not Really)

Let's get one thing clear: The ancient Mayans did not believe the world was going to end on Dec. 21, 2012, and it's not even certain the date had any significance for them. Some archeologists believe that Dec. 21 will mark the end of the "Great Cycle" of 13 baktuns, the 1,872,000-day periods that are the largest unit of time on the ancient Mayan calendar, which is no longer in use among the Mayans' descendents. Others believe it will be Dec. 23 or a different day entirely. So where did the idea that Dec. 21 = the apocalypse come from? Author Michael Coe first popularized the theory that the Mayans believed this date is when the world would end -- for what it's worth, he didn't actually believe they were right -- but later archeologists disputed his interpretation and recently discovered calendars that show dates thousands of years past 2012.

None of that has stopped a cottage industry of doomsday prophets from cashing in on the phenomenon, often connecting it to similarly crackpot ideas about solar flares, shifting global polarities, extraterrestrials, and the phantom planet Nibiru (and of course, that movie).

It's easy to laugh at the 2012ers, though the hysteria has had occasionally tragic consequences. An Ipsos poll conducted in 21 countries this year found that 8 percent of respondents were experiencing anxiety over the "prophesy." In Russia, there have been several documented cases of "collective mass hysteria" over the date, with worried citizens raiding stores to stock up for the apocalypse. In China, more than 1,000 members of a doomsday cult preparing for the apocalypse on Dec. 21 were arrested.

In any event, if you're reading this, it appears we made it.

The Romney Landslide --Dick Morris

"It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history.… It will rekindle the whole question as to why the media played this race as a nail-biter where in fact I think Romney's going to win by quite a bit." --Nov. 4

Foreign Policy did a full list of bad election predictions here, but Dick Morris, the Fox News talking head and political consultant whose insights on voting behavior once guided President Bill Clinton's policy decisions, probably took the biggest hit to his reputation with his 325-electoral-votes-for-Romney call. Morris, who has since been put on probation at the conservative network, later said he had "mistakenly believed that the 2008 surge in black, Latino, and young voter turnout would recede in 2012 to 'normal' levels."

Of course, the famed polling guru could always have consulted some actual polls -- but that's not how you sell books.

One-Term Proposition --Barack Obama

"You know, I've got four years.… And, you know, a year from now I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress. But there's still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition." --Feb. 1, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama underestimated either the patience of American voters or his own political skill in this response to a question from Matt Lauer on his economic plans, including buying toxic assets from banks and increasing stimulus spending. The quote became a favorite applause line for Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. As Obama himself admits, his administration's efforts to help the United States recover from the Great Recession are certainly not "done" -- and the stimulus did not create nearly as many jobs as his economists projected -- yet he is decidedly now a two-term proposition.

The Fall of Putin --Masha Gessen

"With Russians taking to the streets to protest the recent flawed parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suddenly ceased to be an inevitable leader. He may think that this spring he will be elected president -- the job he held from 2000 to 2008 -- and serve up to 12 more years in that office. But I, like many Russians, think the regime will fall before the March election or soon after." --Dec. 22, 2011

Masha Gessen, a Moscow-based journalist and author of this year's highly acclaimed The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, is normally an astute and clear-eyed observer of Russian politics, which made this overly rosy prediction about Russia's pre-election protests all the more surprising. Despite signs of growing opposition, Putin was easily reelected in March and has taken steps to even further limit the activities of government opponents. The unprecedentedly large street protests that greeted his reelection have now mostly fizzled, though in Russian politics, it's always wise to expect the unexpected.

Assad Is Cooked --The Economist

"Syria's President Bashar Assad is unlikely to last the year in office, as the Sunni majority, including senior military men and businessmen, decide that rule by the president's Alawite minority, which makes up about a tenth of the population, cannot be sustained." --Nov. 17, 2011

As usual, the venerable British weekly the Economist was more right than wrong in its "The World in 2012" projections written at the end of last year, but they misjudged one of the biggest political questions of the year: how long Syria's president could hang on. Most observers have been a bit more cautious, though in recent weeks, a number of prominent players, including Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have been predicting Assad's imminent fall. According to some media reports, the CIA believes Assad will fall in a matter of weeks. We'll see.

Netanyahu's October Surprise --Alon Ben-David and others

"[Benjamin Netanyahu] is determined to attack Iran before the U.S. elections.… I doubt Obama could say anything that would convince Netanyahu to delay a possible attack." --Aug. 20, 2012

This year, the Israeli media was rife with speculation that Israel would launch an attack on Iran before the U.S. elections. Alon Ben-David, the well-connected defense correspondent for Israel's Channel 10, made his prediction based on conversations with high-ranking military officers. Commentators Nahum Barnea and Simon Shiffer joined in, predicting in the paper Yedioth Ahronoth, "Insofar as it depends on Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, an Israeli military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran will take place in these coming autumn months, before the U.S. elections in November." An article in the newspaper Maariv said that Sept. 25 -- Yom Kippur eve -- was the crucial decision date. In the United States, Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson predicted in a widely panned article for Newsweek that Obama would launch a U.S. strike on Iran in order to boost his reelection chances. Tensions are still high, but the election came and went without any moves from Tel Aviv -- or Washington.

We've Solved the Greece Problem --Angela Merkel

"We Europeans showed that we are able to reach the correct conclusions. We found agreement on a complete package." --Oct. 27, 2011

It's a well-rehearsed ritual at this point. European leaders meet to discuss measures needed to bail out Greece and preserve the eurozone, announce that they have finally reached a breakthrough, and then several months later are at it again. Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel's assurances that European leaders had finally turned the page after reaching an agreement to reduce Greece's debt in the fall of 2011, the continent is still at odds over how much aid to extend to Greece. Germany was dragged into supporting a bailout for Greece and other aid-stricken countries by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi this fall, but it's still very much touch-and-go. The chancellor recently griped, "In all my life I have never thought so much about Greece."

And the Nobel Will Go to … --Kristian Berg Harpviken

"Harpviken's favourite for 2012 is Gene Sharp, who has been a main analyst and inspirator on non-violent action, which has proven its strength in numerous uprisings over the past couple of years. The second favourite is Memorial, the Russian organization focusing on human rights, democracy, and reconciliation through historical documentation, alongside founding member Svetlana Gannushkina. Third on Harpviken's list is Echo of Moscow, an independent media house, and its editor, Aleksei Venediktov. A fourth possible outcome in 2013, suggests Harpviken, is a shared prize to Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Mohamed Sa'ad Abubakar, both of Nigeria, for their contribution to interreligious dialogue. A fifth possible winner, within the always controversial peacemakers category, is Myanmar's President Thein Sein" --Peace Research Institute Oslo's website, October 2012

Every year, Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a Norwegian think tank, gets major media attention -- yes, from us too -- for his "speculations" about who will win the Nobel Peace Prize. And every year they are wrong. Only one of his shortlisters -- Al Gore in 2007 -- has ever taken home the prize. But Harpviken keeps soldiering on. This year's winner, the European Union, wasn't mentioned at all in Harpviken's list of dozens of potential winners. Interestingly, the Irish betting side Paddy Power did list it as a potential winner. Chalk one up for the wisdom of the crowd.

The Olympics Will Be a Disaster --Der Spiegel

"London and the Olympic Games are clearly not made for each other. Visitors will need determination and, most of all, patience to reach the venues at all. And, for the locals, it all can't end soon enough." --July 17, 2012

The German weekly Der Spiegel wasn't alone in suspecting that Britain's economic woes, security concerns, labor unrest, and poor infrastructure would turn the London Games into "one big, soggy mess." In the run-up to the Olympics, everyone from novelist Nick Hornby to the New York Times to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was questioning whether London was really up for it. Comedian Russell Brand summed up the feelings of many of his compatriots when he predicted that, compared with the impressive Beijing Games, London 2012 would be a "right balls up."

Of course, by nearly any standards, the London Games were a smashing success. They were the most watched event in TV history, the facilities held up, security concerns proved overblown, and the home team took home a record number of medals.

London followed the Beijing Games and South Africa's World Cup as events that were widely expected to be disasters but turned out just fine. Maybe we can cut Brazil some slack this time?

The Coming Collapse of China (Redux) --Gordon Chang

"Not long ago, everything was going well for the mandarins in Beijing. Now, nothing is. So, yes, my prediction was wrong. Instead of 2011, the mighty Communist Party of China will fall in 2012. Bet on it." --Dec. 29, 2011

Author and commentator Gordon Chang made the list last year for his 2001 book, The Coming Collapse of China, which predicted that Communist Party rule would fall in 2011. Chang acknowledged that he had jumped the gun, but in an article for Foreign Policy, he simply moved his prediction forward one year. Nevertheless, despite a year of transition, scandal, and uncertainty, the mandarins in Beijing are still there.

Steve Bronstein/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

National Security

People's Power

Eight ways China's military is catching up to the United States.

Although the Pentagon has routinely dismissed some of China's very publicly touted military advances as being decades behind the United States, they are still significant. Just because someone gets a new piece of tech later than you doesn't mean that you will always be better at using it than they are. So, we thought we'd bring you a list of the eight most noteworthy military enhancements that China is making by buying, stealing, and innovating:

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Stealth jets

First up are China's J-20 and J-31 stealthy-looking fighters. We call them "stealthy looking" because until more information is made public, we won't know how well the jets mask their heat signatures, noise, and electronic emissions -- all critical elements of modern stealth that go beyond radar-evading shapes and radar-absorbent coatings. Nevertheless, China has developed two jets that appear stealthy.

Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group's large J-20 made its first flight in early 2011 and is thought to be either a high-speed interceptor, designed to fly out and shoot down incoming enemy bombers (similar to the famous MiG-25 Foxbat), or a stealthy bomber along the lines of the U.S. F-111 Aardvark or the more recent F-15E Strike Eagle, meant to penetrate enemy defenses and bomb bases and ships. One has to notice the similarities between the cockpit and nose section of the J-20 and the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor.

Less than two years after the J-20 appeared, Shenyang Aviation Corporation unveiled China's second stealthy fighter, the J-31. This jet is smaller than the J-20, and its fuselage bears a striking resemblance to the U.S.'s F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (It has been widely reported that the computers of numerous defense contractors working on the F-35 program were hacked and information on the jet was stolen.) Some speculate that the J-31 will be used as a complement to the J-20 -- similar to the role that F-16 Vipers play for F-15 Eagles or F-35s play for the F-22s. Others point to the twin wheels on the J-31's nose landing gear as sign that it is being developed as a carrier-based fighter. (Land-based fighters usually have just one wheel on their nose gear while naval fighters have two because of the increased strain of landing on ships.)

Chinese Internet/China Defense Blog

Aircraft carriers

Speaking of aircraft carriers...after decades of buying old British and Russian Cold War-era aircraft carriers and turning them into museums and theme hotels, China converted the hull of the incomplete 1980s vintage Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag into its first operational carrier: the Liaoning. Chinese investors purchased the ex-Varyag from Ukraine in 1998, claiming they would turn it into a casino. That obviously didn't happen, and China spent much of the last decade completely modernizing the old hulk, installing new engines, electronic warfare gear, radars, defensive weapons, and modernized interior spaces (right down to the galleys). She took to sea for the first time in August 2011 and was commissioned into Chinese naval service in September 2012. The first carrier landings and takeoffs by Chinese fighters occurred in late November.

Interestingly, China's first carrier fighter, the J-15, is a knockoff of another Soviet/Russian design, the Sukhoi Su-33. China may have purchased a partially completed Su-33 from Ukraine in 2001, after Russia refused to sell it the aircraft because China was reverse-engineering the very similar Sukhoi Su-27s that Russia was selling to China. (Got that?) While many are quick to point out that China is conducting its first carrier ops more than a century after Eugene Ely landed on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, it's worth noting that China plans to have at least three carriers by the middle of this decade. Still, the learning curve is extremely steep for carrier ops. As we've said before, it took the U.S. Navy decades to master the art of landing jets on ships. 

Chinese Internet


Next up is China's very own spaceplane, the Shenlong or "Divine Dragon," which first flew in January 2011 (roughly the same time the J-20 took its maiden flight). While there's been plenty of speculation about the mission of the U.S. Air Force's super secret X-37B robot space shuttle, the United States isn't alone in having a reusable spaceplane. What interests some China watchers most about the Divine Dragon is the fact that China flew such a craft less than a year after the United States did. (Granted, the United States could have done so much earlier, given its decades of experience with the Space Shuttle, which could easily have been flown as a large, unmanned spaceplane.) Speculation surrounds both the U.S. and Chinese spaceplane programs, with observers suggesting the vehicles could be used for everything from spying on and destroying enemy satellities to simply repairing their own nation's satellites.

Chinese Internet

Anti-satellite weapons

Of course, China doesn't need fancy robot spaceplanes to destroy enemy satellites. In 2007, China became only the second nation (after the United States) to shoot down a satellite when it destroyed one of its own weather satellites using a modified version of the DF-21 ballistic missile. Needless to say, the United States and several other nations condemned the test, saying the debris created by the shot posed a serious risk to other nations' satellites, spacecraft, and space stations. The incident also alarmed U.S. defense officials, who saw this development as evidence that Chinese military planners are preparing to knock out a major U.S. advantage in the event of war: its network of spy, communications, and navigation satellites. This worried some in the U.S. military so much that the Pentagon has begun working on terrestrial and airborne backups to its space systems, and the Air Force has even begun practicing operations without relying on satellites under the theme "a day without space."

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Next up is China's growing fleet of UAVs, which for now strongly resemble U.S. drones. Simply look at Shenyang's Pterodactyl, a recently introduced armed drone that appears to be a blatant copy of General Atomics's MQ-9 Reaper -- the U.S. Air Force's premier armed drone. According to Chinese press accounts, Beijing is testing up to 10 different UAVs, including high-altitude drones that may have a strategic reconnaissance mission similar to the United States's RQ-4 Global Hawk. Then there's China's fleet of small, stealthy-shaped models and miniature UAVs, which appear to be the precursors to full-size jet-powered stealth drones. (Remember, models of the design that eventually became the J-31 emerged years before we saw the production aircraft.)

Chinese Internet

"Carrier killers"

Remember the DF-21 China used to shoot down its satellite? Well, the ballistic missile has other uses as well. The missiles are designed to zoom into space and then rain down on U.S. bases or moving ships, such as aircraft carriers, as far as 900 miles from their launch sites -- hence the nickname "carrier killer" and the reason that the United States is sending many of its ballistic missile defense ships to the Pacific. China has been building a fleet of the missiles that is thought to have become operational in 2009 or 2010. And it is fielding the DF-21D in conjunction with a host of advanced radars, surveillance drones, spy satellites, and so-called triple-digit surface-to-air missiles designed by Russia that are capable of shooting down most U.S. aircraft. All of these systems are part of China's "area denial" strategy, aimed at keeping enemy ships and aircraft far from its shores.

Chinese Internet

Aegis Destroyers, SSBNs and amphibious assault vehicles

The Chinese navy has been investing in everything from a new fleet of hovercraft that will land troops ashore during amphibious assaults to the new Type 052D class guided-missile destroyers, equipped with Aegis-style phased-array radars designed to track missiles and aircraft. (This is in addition to the older Type 052C class equipped with similar systems.) The Chinese navy is also fielding a new generation of nuclear missile-carrying submarines, the Type 094, designed to fire the JL-21 nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. Beijing's navy is also beefing up its amphibious assault capabilities with the ZDB05 fighting vehicle. The ZDB05 -- think of it as a swimming armored personnel carrier with guns -- is capable of hitting 16 knots in the water and then using its 30mm cannon, 7.62mm machine gun, and antitank missiles to protect the five to seven infantrymen it can deliver to the beach. Could be useful if China wanted to stake a claim on some islands in the South China Sea.

Chinese Internet


No conversation about China's rapidly expanding military would be complete without mentioning the Chinese military's focus on using an enemy's own computer networks against it. Click here to read the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission's report on the country's use of cyber to gain military advantage. While you're at it, click here to read the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence's claim that Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE, both of which have a large presence in the United States, may be doing the work of China's military and intelligence agencies. China has numerous military units dedicated to corrupting the data in enemy computer networks or taking those networks out entirely. As the Economic and Security Review Commission report notes: "PLA leaders have embraced the idea that successful warfighting is predicated on the ability to exert control over an adversary's information and information systems, often preemptively. This goal has effectively created a new strategic and tactical high ground, occupying which has become just as important for controlling the battlespace as its geographic equivalent in the physical domain."

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