Thinking about the future

 We are at one of those junctions in policymaking--and maybe at a larger place in history--when officials and commentators are filling the inner offices and the media with their predictions about what is going to happen.

Some of you may think I am talking about the financial hang-ups between Barack Obama and the Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Some may think I am talking about Iran''s sweet-talking President and what will result from Bibi''s talk at the UN General Assembly.
Some may think I am pondering the conversations or negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Actually I''m talking about all three, insofar as there may be linkages.
The multiple scenarios that are possible to spin about each issue and several together are both a good reason to worry about the future, and to avoid worrying about the future insofar as there are so many possibilities and no reliable basis for deciding which are the most probable.
Among the competing possibilities:
  • The Obama-Kerry team, along with a chorus of other international worthies, will grab at the possibility of talking with Iranians, and cave into Iranian demands to lessen sanctions while the talks about nuclear weapons go on until there is a big explosion somewhere in Iran, and the Iranians announce that they have had to create a nuclear weapon to defend themselves against the deceptions of America and the evils of Zionism.
  • The Obama-Kerry team takes seriously Bibi''s analysis of intelligence showing Iranians are doing much more with uranium than is necessary for peaceful purposes, and deal with the Iranians as Chamberlain should have dealt with Hitler.
  • Saudi, Gulf State, and other Sunni governments'' concerns about Iran add to those of Israel, and keep the Shiite imperial center in its current status of doing what it can to maintain pressures via terror in many places and financing the likes of Assad, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
  • The sweet talking of the Iranian President is worth dealing with in its own terms. Signs are that the sanctions are hurting Iranians, and the regime sees a need to maneuver in order to protect itself domestically. How much it is willing to give up on its nuclear program will require serious and time-consuming probing by US and other negotiators.
  • Meanwhile, back in Washington, Obama may be pressed on his key gem--flawed though it may be--of Obamacare. This has its own ramifications for Israel and Iran insofar as it may lead the White House to soften its position with respect to Iran--and harden its position with respect to Israel''s posture with the Palestinians--in order to salvage something like "peace in our time" for the President''s legacy even if he won''t be looking all that good domestically.
  • On the other hand, those domestic pressures may lead the White House to move closer to Israel, in order to get Jewish help with the Republicans in the House of Representatives.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu has his own domestic problems. Right wing members of his party, including at least two deputy ministers and one minister, have expressed reservations about his dealings with Palestinians. To quiet them, he may be inclined to a more outspoken posture on Iran. 
  • Somewhere in the apocalyptic thoughts of Israeli politicians are proposals to end all the problems with an attack on Iran''s nuclear facilities, annexation of the West Bank, and moving the country''s Arabs somewhere else.
The multiplicity of scenarios is more important that the wisdom associated with any one of them.
For those who enjoy spinning possibilities, this is a grand opportunity, so long as the spinners recognize that numbers confuse whatever analysis might lead those with power to act according to the most reasonable, however they decide what that is..
The more one is inclined to think of the distant future, the weaker the analysis. With so many actors dependent on so many conditions, a departure from what is expected tomorrow can multiply the problems for any distant prognosis.
For those who think that history repeats itself, think again. The actors who did the good or bad things in the past are also past. Conditions change. Some general patterns may appear to repeat themselves, but they are not much good in planning details. For example, the poor are always with us, and likely to be restive; but they are also may be downtrodden and passive. Lots of people will be trying to move things to their advantage. For those wedded to the inevitable repetition of bad things, Thinking in Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May might be persuasive. 
The judgment about some of the scenarios requires an assessment of domestic politics in distant and strange places beyond the ken of most talking heads and even governmental intelligence analysts in western countries. 
Just to take one example, the appropriate interpretation of the Iranian President''s approach to the West may not be to lessen sanctions as much as it is to soften opposition among Iranians suffering from sanctions. In this view, elements in the Iranian leadership (more fractious than thought by many in the West) may have no intention of lessening the drive toward nuclear weapons--or even doing what is necessary to get Washington to lessen sanctions--but only want to quiet opposition domestically by suggesting to Iranians than a lessening of sanctions is a real possibility as a result of friendly sounding speeches at the UN.
The best bet is that most things stay the same. Tomorrow will be like today just about everywhere. Next week may be slightly different in a few places. Next year won''t be much different in most places. Doubters can Google "incrementalism."
The noise of political promises and threats contrasts with the general drudgery of policymaking and administration. Shakespeare might have been thinking about something similar when he wrote about "sound and fury signifying nothing."
No doubt that scenario-spinning is important for keeping policymakers on their toes, as long as they do not take too seriously any one view of the unknowable future, and act precipitously in a way to foreclose continued maneuvers.