In February, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned West Point cadets, "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right." Similarly, when commander of U.S. Central Command General James Mattis was asked what missions American ground forces might undertake ten years into the future, he responded, "As we look toward the future I've been a horrible prophet. I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years."
Such sentiments by senior officials, reinforced by the Arab Spring's unexpected start and trajectory, reflects America's dismal record at forecasting instability and conflicts abroad that are important to U.S. national interests. Indeed, presently there is no regular or systematic U.S. government process for the forecasting of potentially threatening developments that could arise, which is linked to contingency planning.
The Center for Preventive Action's annual Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS) is intended to help overcome this shortcoming by harnessing expert opinion to inform the U.S. policy community about the relative urgency and importance of competing conflict prevention demands in 2012. We do this by developing a list of 30 plausible human-generated contingencies of relative importance to U.S. national interests, grouped according to levels or categories of risk associated with various types of instability or conflict into three tiers:
- Tier one: Contingencies that could threaten the homeland, trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threaten critical strategic resources.
- Tier two: Contingencies in countries of strategic importance but which are non-treaty allies.
- Tier three: Contingencies in countries of limited strategic importance, or in those where humanitarian consequences are likely to be severe or widespread.