By Philip Bobbitt
The New York Times, Monday, December 8, 2003
Reprinted with the author's permission
AUSTIN, Texas There is a good deal of criticism these days leveled at the Bush administration for being surprised by a number of events — not just the Sept. 11 attacks, but also the escape and regrouping of the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership after the Afghanistan war, French intransigence at the United Nations in the build up to the Iraq war, Turkey's refusal of timely cooperation before that invasion, the coordinated murder and sabotage campaign led by Baath Party remnants in Iraq, and the widespread mood of Iraqi impatience with the American presence there.
So the question is: was the administration blindsided because of poor work by the intelligence services, or was the problem poor coordination by the National Security Council, which is supposed to integrate the various intelligence, diplomatic and defense agencies?
Actually, the answer is that none of these events was really a surprise. Everything that appeared to catch the White House off guard had been anticipated in various reports, some by the National Security Council itself. The problem wasn't foresight but forethought: the Bush administration, like the Clinton White House before it, has yet to come up with an effective process to marshal judgment on the events it does foresee.
This is not really the fault of the National Security Council. Rather, it is a matter of the historic changes around the world and of the habits of organizing ourselves we inherited from the cold war. For nearly 50 years, American decision-makers could rely on forms of "strategic planning" — a method that begins with choosing a desired result and then plotting the decisions that will have to be made to reach that goal. Strategic planning worked well in the two-power world because we were able to extrapolate from a relatively stable and familiar security environment, relying on more or less agreed-upon intelligence estimates. Governments sought the likeliest linear future, and planned accordingly.
Unfortunately, in an increasingly decentralized world, in which previously insignificant actors and factors can play a decisive role, strategic planning can leave decision-makers flat-footed. In its unidimensional reliance on a single future, strategic planning hardens the "official future" agencies internalize, and thus prepares them poorly for appreciating rapid changes in circumstance and for making agile adaptations.
For example, using strategic thinking it might have been estimated last year that Saddam Hussein could not have produced nuclear weapons in the less than seven years since his rudimentary programs were halted in 1995. In the new world, however, no one could make such a judgment with confidence — not because we don't know how long it takes to develop nuclear processing plants or how much fissile material is required, but because we couldn't know whether Iraq might have bought a nuclear device on the clandestine market and become a nuclear power in an afternoon.
This is why strategic planning was largely abandoned by the Clinton administration, in which I served. But no new way of thinking has replaced it. It is an open secret that the National Security Council's strategic planning directorate is really devoted to communications tasks, and that the State Department's policy planning staff is actually a speechwriting office.
In this new era of uncertainty, not only must we must accept that simple forecasting is not going to be very useful to us, we must sharpen our skills of forethought. One way will be to augment traditional strategic planning with "scenario planning," a strategy that has long been a staple at the largest multinational corporations. Scenario planning involves the creation of alternative narratives about the future based on different decisions — by many players — as each scenario progresses.
As opposed to the classic strategic method of applying the past to the future — coming up with a single, likeliest story about how things will turn out — scenario planning is about applying the future to the present, creating a learning framework for decisions. The idea is not so much to predict the future as to consider the forces that will push the future along different paths, in order to help leaders recognize new possibilities, assess new threats and make decisions that reach much further into the future.
Scenario planning can also exploit the changes under way in intelligence collection — especially the greater emphasis on human sources. Unlike strategic planning, which tends to rely on quantitative and technical information like population figures and productivity reports, scenario planning tends to use more qualitative and dynamic data. It depends in large part on studying economic, political and social trends.
Scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell, where I am a senior adviser, helped the corporation become one of the most profitable oil conglomerates. In the early 1970's, its scenario planners worked on hypothetical futures involving an oil boycott against the West; when political events finally brought about the Arab oil crisis, the company not only wasn't taken by surprise, it was in a position to capitalize. In the 1990's Shell analysts were scenario-planning a potential backlash against global companies, long before the antiglobalization movement took off. Thus, while most companies reacted to the new movement with corporate disdain, Shell was courting nongovernmental groups and decentralizing its global operations so that decisions in foreign divisions could be made by people living in and sensitive to the countries affected.
Getting the government to emphasize scenario planning will not be easy. To be successful, the approach depends on well-organized dialogue between decision makers at many levels, which would be culture shock for the rigidly hierarchical executive branch. (Indeed, despite the efforts of advocates like Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, to get Washington interested in scenario planning, only one country, Singapore, has made extensive use of the practice.) Our various national security agencies may not be competitive businesses, but they often behave toward each other as if they were. Intelligence is often "stovepiped" — when analysts refuse to share information and sources with interagency rivals working on the same problems — and mutually distrustful cultures abound.
Also, scenario planning requires a political culture that is tolerant of uncertainty. Contingencies of uncertain probability tend to be of little interest to politicians, who are confident they know the future. Similarly, competing scenarios are anathema to bureaucrats whose careers are threatened by answering questions like, "What would it take for this estimate to be dramatically wrong?" — which translates to, "What arguments can you give me that undermine your own recommendations?"
To change this culture, we need an interagency working group that can organize scenario planning for a new era. It should be headed by the senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, and should include the director of policy planning at the State Department, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the political-military director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the assistant secretary of Defense for strategic and threat reduction, and a senior representative of the Treasury secretary. This body would be charged with coordinating the work and circulating the results of scenario planning by a team made up of veteran government analysts and, perhaps, experienced people from the private sector.
The Bush administration came to office promising to bring the best practices of the business world to bear on government. In many areas it has. Scenario planning at the National Security Council should be added to the list.
Philip Bobbitt, author of "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History," is a law professor at the University of Texas and a former senior director at the National Security Council.