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100 Percent Right 0 Percent of the Time

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
October 16, 2012
Foreign Policy

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Two weeks ago, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered theLandon Lecture to hundreds of U.S. servicemembers and students at Kansas State University. During the question and answer session, a cadet in the Air Force ROTC asked, "What [do] you see being the focus of our nation in 5 to 10 years, where I'll be serving?"

Paraphrasing a quote by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Dempsey replied: "Somebody said to him once, you're not really a physically imposing guy, how come you're such a great hockey player? He said, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it's been.' That's what we're trying to do."

In May, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta echoed this sentiment with even greater conviction when he described Pentagon priorities in an era of slightly reduced defense spending and a leaner military: "We've got to focus on where the main threats are. That means we continue a major focus on the Pacific region and we continue a major focus on the Middle East, because that's where the potential problems are for the future."

This forward-looking approach from the Pentagon's senior leadership is admirable, in that it attempts to counter the old adage that "generals fight the last war." There is just one glaring problem with this degree of certainty: The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight. The next time you hear lists of emerging threats and future conflicts, bear in mind the following observations from senior military officials over past few years:

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