A protester holds a tear gas canister, initially thrown by riot police near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on November 22, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters/Amr Dalsh).
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 thirty 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 I: contingencies that could threaten the homeland, trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threaten critical strategic resources.
Tier II: contingencies in countries of strategic importance but which are non-treaty allies.
Tier III: contingencies in countries of limited strategic importance, or in those where humanitarian consequences are likely to be severe or widespread.
The thirty contingencies were sent to a wide selection of over 300 government officials, policy analysts, academics, and journalists for their confidential feedback. Their insights led to a number of additions, subtractions, and refinements, based upon whether they believed the contingencies were more or less probable and severe in the coming year. Those changes are reflected in the PPS for 2012 below.
In addition to the findings detailed in the PPS, respondents raised a number of other possible situations that were deemed less likely to occur and/or less critical for U.S national interests. Among those that were not included:
popular uprisings in several countries, specifically in China, Russia, Jordan, and among Palestinians against the Palestinian Authority or Israel
the assassination of a U.S. official that is attributed to a foreign national
possible renewed unrest or ethnic conflict in Myanmar if the government’s promise of political reforms is not fulfilled
the potential for civil war in Angola based on predictive indicators, such as the widespread availability of weapons, political unrest, and prior conflict
unspecified natural or humanitarian disasters that would require a U.S. military response
sudden and steep downturn in the Chinese real estate market that significantly limits economic growth in China and beyond
The PPS for 2012 differs in several important ways from the PPS for 2011. The contingencies that were introduced for the first time or elevated in terms of their relative importance and likelihood in 2012 were an intensification of the Eurozone crisis, acute political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers oil supplies, and further unrest in Bahrain that spurs further Saudi and/or Iranian military action. Contingencies that were lowered or dropped included a reversal of security and governance gains in Afghanistan, political instability and violence in Haiti, renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia, and a military conflict between Sudan and the newly-formed South Sudan.
Nobody could have foreseen that the slap of a Tunisian fruit vendor by a municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid would trigger the political uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that resulted in the collapse of the governments of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Qaddafi (so far). As Secretary Gates noted two months into NATO’s intervention in Libya, "If you’d asked me four months ago if we’d be in Libya today, I would have asked, ’What were you smoking?"
However, given the inability to know what the trigger could be, it would be unreasonable to plan equally for contingencies everywhere given the competing priorities for the attention of senior policymakers and increasingly limited resources for attempting to prevent instability and armed conflict. The PPS provides a framework that policymakers, academics, journalists, and citizens can use when assessing the potential countries or issues that are most likely to dominate the headlines regarding U.S. foreign policy for 2012.
The Preventive Priorities Survey (PPS) is intended to help inform the U.S. policy community about the relative urgency and importance of competing conflict prevention demands. The Center for Preventive Action asked a targeted group of government officials, academics, and experts to comment confidentially on a list of contingencies that could plausibly occur in 2012. The list of preventive priorities for the United States is grouped according to three tiers of relative importance to U.S. national interests, based on different levels or categories of risk associated with various types of instability and conflict. The preventive priorities within each tier are not listed in any order of priority or probability.
Tier I are preventive priorities that directly threaten the U.S. homeland, are likely to trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threaten the supplies of critical U.S. strategic resources. They include:
a mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland or on a treaty ally
a severe North Korean crisis (e.g., armed provocations, internal political instability, advances in nuclear weapons/ICBM capability)
a major military incident with China involving U.S. or allied forces
an Iranian nuclear crisis (e.g., surprise advances in nuclear weapons/delivery capability, Israeli response)
a highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure (e.g., telecommunications, electrical power, gas and oil, water supply, banking and finance, transportation, and emergency services)
a significant increase in drug trafficking violence in Mexico that spills over into the United States
severe internal instability in Pakistan, triggered by a civil-military crisis or terror attacks
political instability in Saudi Arabia that endangers global oil supplies
a U.S.-Pakistan military confrontation, triggered by a terror attack or U.S. counterterror operations
intensification of the European sovereign debt crisis that leads to the collapse of the euro, triggering a double-dip U.S. recession and further limiting budgetary resources
Tier II are contingencies that affect countries of strategic importance to the United States but that do not involve a mutual-defense treaty commitment. They include:
political instability in Egypt with wider regional implications
a severe Indo-Pak crisis that carries risk of military escalation, triggered by major terror attack
rising tension/naval incident in the eastern Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Israel
a major erosion of security and governance gains in Afghanistan with intensification of insurgency or terror attacks
an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Syria, with potential outside intervention
an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Yemen
rising sectarian tensions and renewed violence in Iraq
a South China Sea armed confrontation over competing territorial claims
a mass casualty attack on Israel
growing instability in Bahrain that spurs further Saudi and/or Iranian military action
Tier III are contingencies that could have severe/widespread humanitarian consequences but in countries of limited strategic importance to the United States. They include:
military conflict between Sudan and South Sudan
heightened political instability and sectarian violence in Nigeria
increased conflict in Somalia, with continued outside intervention
political instability in Venezuela surrounding the October 2012 elections or post-Chavez succession
political instability in Kenya surrounding the August 2012 elections
renewed military conflict between Russia and Georgia
an intensification of political instability and violence in Libya
violent election-related instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
political instability/resurgent ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan
an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, possibly over Nagorno Karabakh