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NightWatch 20121220

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NightWatch

For the night of 20 December 2012

Administrative note: If you are reading this, the world did not end, but the Mayan 13th baktun did, on 21 December 2012, as predicted.

Russia: The Defense Ministry has abandoned its plans to build two French Mistral-class helicopter carriers in Russia due to concerns about cost and military need, according to Vedomosti which cited an unnamed defense official. Russia will still purchase two French-built carriers, the official said. The acquisition and construction of the French-designed carrier had been part of Russia's plan to modernize its navy.

Comment: What looked like a good deal in 2010 is now an unsupportable objective. Russia will have two Mistral helicopter carriers/assault ships by the end of the decade, assuming no mishaps in payment or construction in France. Shipyards in St. Petersburg will not benefit from the co-production option of the first contract. The Russian navy will not be the vanguard of a resurgent power.

Yemen: Yemen's armed forces have been restructured, and purged of former president Saleh's relatives and friends, according to President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.

State television said Wednesday that the elite Republican Guard, under the direction of Brigadier Saleh, the son of former president Saleh, has been disbanded. The country's military will now be organized as ground forces, the navy, the air force and border defense forces plus special units, most of which report to the President, as command-in-chief.

The presidential guard, special operations forces and a SCUD ballistic missile unit are now under Hadi's control. Other changes include the replacement of deputy central security forces chief General Yahia Mohammad Saleh, a nephew of the former president.

Comment: There might be less here than meets the eye. Hadi was Saleh's vice president. Some press services reported that a new presidential guard unit has absorbed much of the disbanded Republican Guard. Yemeni sources have no information on the future of Brigadier Saleh.

The bottom line is unchanged. The head of government changed in Yemen, but no revolution occurred.

Central African Republic: Rebels seized the town of Batangafo on 20 December, the seventh town to fall under control of the rebel alliance in its advance toward Bangui, the capital. Earlier in the day, the coalition announced a halt to its campaign against Central African Republic towns after Chadian authorities pledged not to attack rebel positions. No sources explained this Chadian promise.

Comment: This fight has little significance for the US, but it causes ripple effects in central Africa. This rebellious impulse  might itself be a ripple effect from the coup in Mali, earlier this year, that made northern Mali an Islamist safe haven.

Errata: Patrick Cockburn works for The Independent, not The Guardian.

Ambassador Dubbs was killed in Afghanistan in 1979, not 1988. Thus there has been no improvement in US crisis management responses for rescuing a US ambassador in trouble between 1979 and 2012.

NightWatch Special Comment: A Summary Evaluation of the National Intelligence Council's report Global Trends 2010. Last week NightWatch promised to review the earliest Global Trends report it could find. The first report was published in 1997 and was entitled, Global Trends 2010.

NightWatch has been spending a lot of time just trying to understand the prolix and vague political science jargon of 1997, not to mention the meanings of judgments or predictions written in that language.

The language is imprecise, centered on the word "agendas" which is used repeatedly without definition. Every nation's agenda was to have been changed by 2010, the report asserts.  It never explains to what that metaphor refers.

NightWatch knows from long experience that the only way to improve intelligence judgments is to evaluate their accuracy in hindsight. No one knowingly goes to a doctor who has a 60% cure rate.  In that spirit, NightWatch is confident in asserting that it is hard to imagine a trends assessment that could be so wrong as Global Trends 2010.

If the world had not changed much between 1997 and 2010, some of the forecasts in the report might have been marginally accurate. But the world did change, but not fundamentally.  The nation-state system did not decline, as the report predicted. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 made nation-state safety nets even more important than ever. It was a world-wide catastrophe that made almost every prediction in the report wrong.

Global Trends 2010 contains an underlying assumption of continuing world economic growth. Almost all of its judgments assumed that without articulating that. The document never examined that assumption. Thus, when the world economy contracted, that assumption failed and every judgment extrapolated from it did as well.

It is not the fault of the writers, necessarily, because US intelligence and most US bankers, high-end investors and financiers failed to predict the economic contraction of 2008. Almost no one saw the train-wreck as early as 1997, but that is the lesson of this retrospective look.  Analysts profess greater confidence about the next 18 years than they do about the next 18 days.

The economic crisis in 2008 was a true Black Swan in 1997, in the terms that Taleb defined in his seminal study, The Black Swan. A Black Swan is an unknown event that makes wrong all predictions based on extrapolations from the present and recent past. Thus, the ability to name and define a high impact-low probability threat means by definition that it is not a Black Swan, as Taleb wrote about the topic.

The report Global Trends 2010 report contains no conditions or caveats to its predictions, no examination of low probability-high impact threats. The Global Trends 2030 report, just released, boasts that it has identified six Black Swans during the next 18 years. That assertion should warn NightWatch Readers that the intelligence writers of Global Trends 2030 missed Taleb's lesson.

The second major shortcoming of Gobal Trends 2010, in hindsight, is its insistence that the US was in decline at that time and would be restrained by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the breakdown of the nation-state system. Neither prediction proved accurate. The reasoning for these assertions might have been obvious to readers in 1997, but it is not presented.

Looking back from 2012 one wonders what were they talking about. The contraction of the world economy in 2007-2008 doomed NGOs, who have always depended on handouts from more prosperous nations. Despite world-wide economic contraction, the US remained the only safe investment and the importance of US economic and military strength grew, precisely the opposite of what was predicted in 1997.

A NightWatch check found that every Global Trends report conveys the theme of steady US decline. The reasons for the decline are different in every report, but the facts show the US is still the only indispensable power in the world, the only super power.

There are many more incorrect forecasts in 2010, a significant number of important omissions - things the 2010 report just failed to appreciate as important -- and a handful of accurate extrapolations. There is little point in going over them all, unless readers are interested.

Global Trends 2010 is a cautionary lesson in the hazards and hubris of long term forecasting and scenario-casting without using better techniques than were in use in 1997. The effort might have seemed worthwhile at the time, but the happy world future that the analysts and academics in 1997 predicted would arrive by 2010 never happened. In fact, most of the world trends they described went backwards because of the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008.

Feedback invited.

End of NightWatch for 20 December.

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