Where do surprises come from?

Hard data are at times limited in their scope and therefore lack depth and value.

By JOSHUA TEICHER
December 8, 2016 21:57
Tahrir Square

Protesters run away from tear gas in Tahrir Square in Cairo in June 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The failures of polls and commentators that forecast electoral victory for Hillary Clinton are only a small part of the complicated phenomenon of social, political and military surprises.

Strategic surprises such as the collapse of a regime or a military surprise that have far-reaching geopolitical consequences, again and again appear like lightning out of the blue to analysts and decision-makers that jolts them out of the illusion of a status quo in which they believed, a belief that may tend to strengthen as the uncertainty increases.

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These surprises, which ripen over many years, have a wide range of origins – economic, technological, military, social, political, cultural, demographic, regional, governmental capabilities, and others. These factors, in various combinations, are constantly in flux and undermine the political and social systemic equilibrium, challenging a country’s long-term governability.

Analyses of this complex reality tend to focus on quantitative elements, which are easier to measure and analyze than the above-mentioned factors, thus creating a partial picture that is conceived as reflecting fundamentals of reality, which hides the surprise that may be on the way.

Still, keep in mind that the formidable deficits of failing regimes do not necessarily indicate the advent of far-reaching change.

Robert McNamara, the US secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, brought with him, from his prior position as the president of the Ford Motor Company, statistical management tools according to which whatever that can be measured can be managed. Thus, he demanded continual reporting on Viet Cong casualties, as well as of soldiers of South Vietnam. These reports that at times were exaggerated to create a false sense of certainty during the chaotic reality of war.

When McNamara’s advisers warned that the government of Ngo Dinh Diem was losing popular support, he asked to know the extent to which this support was waning, the strength of the remaining popular support, and the extent of the unrest among the Buddhist population – and wanted answers in the form of percentages.

Prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the IDF also relied on numerical data regarding the Egyptian Army, and concluded that Egypt would not initiate a war so long as its army was not be equipped with the necessary armaments.

During the Iranian crisis of 1979 which led to the fall of the shah, Iran’s economic situation was most severe, a development which led to social and political disequilibrium.

Nevertheless, the American intelligence community assessed, despite the presence in Iran of thousands of American advisers, that the country was not even in a pre-revolutionary situation.

With the outbreak (September 1980) of the Iran-Iraq War, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence assessed that the war would end in two weeks, in light of Iraq’s superior armaments compared with Iran’s poor military capabilities following Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power and the subsequent break with the United States. The war lasted eight years.

Similarly, though the Soviet economy drastically deteriorated, American intelligence still perceived the USSR as threatening and continuing to grow, economically and militarily, based on false indications. The $30 billion spent by the US government on analysis of the Soviet Union during this period produced potentially valuable data. Though US officials saw these changes, they lacked a “concept” of change that would allow them to recognize the implications of what they saw. Had they collected the many jokes told in Moscow about the bleak economy, they might have understood that there was more than one possible Soviet future.

Hard data are at times limited in their scope and therefore lack depth and value. They tend to provide a basis for description, but not one for drawing conclusions, since there is no necessary link between the two.

Commentary and forecasting that rest on quantitative indexes – which are more accessible and are generally considered objective and reliable (though they may contain a significant amount of false data) – tend to underestimate long-term considerations best seen through unmeasurable “soft” data, but which are no less critical to examining the reality and to finding changes within it. However, soft data are often viewed as unreliable and subject to distortion.

Authoritarian regimes such as the former Soviet Union, as well as Arab regimes prior to the political and social chaos that began to overcome them in 2011, were perceived as strong and stable, creating the expectation of continuity. Jean- Jacques Rousseau wrote that people trust the existing order and ignore the fact that this order is subject to unavoidable change.

Therefore we continue to measure the military power and the size of the security apparatus of these regimes which controls the cities. And, whenever unrest appears in the streets, tanks will run over the demonstrators, and those who do escape will find their death in next alley.

Thus, up to the moment citizens arrived at Cairo’s Tahrir Square and began to protest in Syria’s Deraa city, analysts were convinced that “there is nothing new under the sun.” This is because fear of the regime, distress and despair cannot be measured, and not only on the part of the destitute. Also, there is no measure for the depth of humiliation that Egypt experienced between 1967 and 1973, which motivated it to initiate the Yom Kippur War.

These developments, building up over years and up to the stage when a country or its citizens question the status quo, unbearable to them, as perceived by analysts as fleeting, and generate weak responses if any at all. For example, the unending and hopeless despair of 58 taxi drivers in Cairo whose interviews were made into a book published 2007 were indicative of the plague of corruption spread over Egypt and the endless governmental chaos, which reflected the loss of public faith.

A few months before the protests in Cairo, the Egyptian writer and commentator Mustafa Elhusseini published a book titled Egypt on the Verge of the Unknown, in which he detailed the country’s political, social and economic ills, which he argued were incurable. He concluded that Egypt was moving quickly toward collapse, not only political but existential.

These kind of indications make it difficult to create a unified, coherent assessment of a complex reality in face of the powerful image of a regime. However, from a historical perspective (as we learned) there is a real potential for collision between the establishment’s routine and the forces that attempt to break it.

Arab countries were failing since their independence, as were their societies prior to the establishment of the Arab states. All the great ideologies that they tried to adopt – Arab unity, nationalism, socialism, secularization – in the hope that they would provide a solution to their ills, failed. At the heart of Arab society is an enormous difficulty in secularizing that perpetuates their failings in all areas of government and society.

The teachings of radical Islam, which presents itself as an authentic answer to this long-term stagnation, are intrinsically ahistoric, grounded in the past, and in escapes from the present and future, which magnifies Arab chaos. In this reality, which is more complex than in the past, there are two obstacles to examining reality – the great difficulty is in integrating social changes with hard data on beliefs which are loosely connected to the complex reality of decision-makers, if at all, as well as to their deep-rooted fears about this complex reality and damage to their political image. We are not deceived, we deceive ourselves (Goethe).

The writer is a former intelligence analyst in the IDF.


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