The Internet is abuzz with the quote that President Obama told the National Intelligence Director that he was "disappointed with the intelligence community" over its failure to predict the outbreak of demonstrations and resulting ouster of Tunisia's president. While the different agencies will now scramble to prove which one did or didn't drop the ball in an endless game of pass the buck, a pattern of intelligence failure needs to be addressed.
In that past 25 years, we have experienced major changes in geopolitics. Key events include the break-up of the U.S.S.R., the rising strength of the European Union, the growth of democratic or quasi-democratic governments in Eastern Europe and Latin America, the growing economic and politic strength of China and other Asian countries, and most recently the popular demonstrations in the Middle East.
The slowly evolving trends such as the rising strength of the European Union, China and other Asian countries were clearly understood and analyzed by the American intelligence community. While many debate how well we reacted to those trends, there is little doubt that America saw these trends coming down the pipeline.
But alas, history often moves in jumps, rather than smooth steps over many decades. How did the American intelligence community do on these leaps?
Collapse of the Soviet Union: Growing up during the cold war, I recall bomb drills, rampant fears of a nuclear war and the constant threat of communism spreading. Utterly lacking during this period was the clear understanding from the American intelligence community that the Soviet Union, with its long bread lines, declining foreign exchange reserves and unsustainable military expenditures, was going to dissolve. The American intelligence community failed to predict the seismic geo-political shift of the Soviet Union's collapse and the resulting ripples throughout all of Europe and Central Asia.
September 11th: American intelligence (among others) failed.
Middle East popular uprisings: Tunisia was first. Now Egypt seems to be on the verge of major political changes as millions gather in the streets. Yemen is seeing street protests while leaders in Jordan, Algeria and Libya have recently made legislative or economic changes to try quelling growing unrest. If true democratic changes circulate throughout the region, this would mark a massive change in the geopolitical world, a shift which the American intelligence community did not anticipate.
It remains to be seen whether the democracy contagion spreads throughout the Middle East, as it did previously in Latin America and Europe. Whether democracy spreads to not, it seems to be that America intelligence agencies need to once again justify their extraordinary budgets.