The Elephantiasis of Reason

The CIA's brand of rational analysis is perpetually half right in a way that makes it completely wrong

In 2000 the CIA produced a report called Global Trends 2015, in which it predicted what the world would be like during the next decade and a half. No, the report did not predict the events of September 11, and nobody blames it for that. But neither did it give any prominence to the atmosphere of hatred that produced September 11. Nor did it predict the radically different ways in which the United States, Western Europe, and the Arab world would perceive international conflict. Indeed, the world it describes doesn't resemble any possible real world. Using the CIA's methodology and analysis, you can neither anticipate the future nor explain the past.

There are no human beings in the world described by the CIA. There are no passions or religious ideals, no dreams or urges, no altruism or malevolence. Instead there are only impersonal forces: technological developments, economic trends, and demographic pressures. Global Trends 2015 is perpetually half right in a way that makes it completely wrong. Yes, technological and environmental trends are important. But if you try to describe them in a void uncomplicated by human volition, you end up in the realm of fantasy.

The report opens with a description of fifteen governmental and nongovernmental conferences and workshops that were involved in preparing it. Reading it, you begin to picture the bureaucratic machinery, homogenizing the insights of hundreds of intelligent people. The heart sinks. Then comes a list of the seven key "drivers" that will shape the world of 2015: demographics, natural resources and environment, science and technology, the global economy and globalization, national and international governance, future conflict, the role of the United States. These drivers fall into two categories: those that can be quantified, and are thus much fussed over by CIA analysts, and those that are so vague as to be meaningless ("future conflict"), and are thus used as receptacles for all those mysterious things that can't be subjected to rational analysis.

For page upon page the report lists the features of years to come, most of the predictions entirely reasonable and unsurprising ("Ukraine's path to the West will be constrained by widespread corruption, the power of criminal organizations, and lingering questions over its commitment to the rule of law"). Some of them, if read with the benefit of hindsight, do seem vaguely prophetic, if unremarkable ("Linear trend analysis shows little positive change in [the Middle East], raising the prospects for increased demographic pressures, social unrest, religious and ideological extremism, and terrorism directed both at the regimes and at their Western supporters"). But the committee of authors links dozens of trends in a great bureaucratic string. There is no central thesis, nothing to focus the attention, nothing that would help a President or a citizen decide whether or not to seek regime change in Iraq, or predict how the rest of the world would react to such an event, or really understand the nature of al Qaeda, the Arab masses, the French elite, or any other players in the world.

At the end of Global Trends 2015 four scenarios for the world in 2015 are sketched out. The first is "Inclusive Globalization," in which "a virtuous circle develops among technology, economic growth, demographic factors and effective governance, which enables a majority of the world's people to benefit from globalization." The second is "Pernicious Globalization," in which global inequality widens. The third, called "Regional Competition," features trade wars and other conflicts among Europe, East Asia, and the United States. And the fourth, "Post-Polar World," is a world in which the U.S. economy stagnates and the international order fragments chaotically.

Now, any halfway intelligent person could have come up with these scenarios after five minutes of thought. Any halfway intelligent person, however, would also have discarded the enterprise, aware that men and women are not lab rats. People change history in ways that are simply not knowable by technocratic linear analysis.

But this is the CIA. Its research culture was established in the late 1940s, by an intelligence expert named Sherman Kent, who after World War II headed the CIA's Office of National Estimates. Kent was operating at a time when faith in the power of social science was at its peak. Urban planners thought they could organize cities on rationalistic grounds. Economists thought they could master economic forces with models and macroeconomic planning.

Kent dreamed of turning intelligence analysis into a rigorous science. In his influential book, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy (1949), he argued,

We insist, and have insisted for generations, that truth is to be approached, if not attained, through research guided by a systematic method. In the social sciences which very largely constitute the subject matter of strategic intelligence, there is such a method. It is much like the method of the physical sciences. It is not the same method but it is a method nonetheless.

Thus the CIA was set apart as an independent (at least in theory) professional think tank, in Langley, Virginia. The Agency is still mostly a research center, staffed by social scientists with advanced degrees. Over the past few years, when I have run into former CIA people, I have asked them if they had access when they were inside to a whole layer of secret information denied to the rest of the world. No, they invariably respond, what they had was the CIA's "brand of analysis." But if you believe that important insights are generated by creative and well-informed individuals, then you don't need the CIA's brand of analysis; you need only consult Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington.

With few secure patrons, the Agency has clung to its claim of social-scientific objectivity as a source of authority and a justification for existence. Only the CIA, its proponents argue, can do the sort of sophisticated modeling and probability calculation that the government needs. But because it is a government bureaucracy, the only kind of think-ing it really can engage in is bureaucratic thinking: systematic, codified, and cautious.

I am about to mention a few of the notorious instances in which the CIA got things spectacularly wrong. But it must be said first that intelligence is difficult, and that all intelligence bureaus get things spectacularly wrong much of the time. So even if the CIA did fail to predict, among other things, North Korea's invasion of South Korea, the Soviet intention to install missiles in Cuba, and India's testing of a nuclear device in 1998, it has nonetheless proved to be pretty good at keeping track of where enemy armies are hiding.

The really lamentable errors flow from the social scientist's mentality, which, as Irving Kristol once put it, represents the elephantiasis of reason. Social scientists are suckers for data, hard numbers they can crunch and graph. The CIA analysts believed the Soviets' economic statistics, and in 1961 they predicted that the Soviet economy would be three times the size of the U.S. economy by 2000. More important, many social scientists unconsciously assume that human beings are rational game players. Thus CIA analysts are always imagining that foreign dictators will behave as they—social scientists with Ph.D.s and homes in suburban Virginia—would behave in similar circumstances. If people are not wholly rational, then the entire technocratic brand of analysis falls apart.

During the Cold War, CIA analysts figured that it wasn't rational for the USSR to overspend on defense, so they radically misjudged Soviet military spending. They couldn't see why the Soviets would try to get first-strike nuclear capability, so they missed that, too. They predicted that the USSR would not invade Afghanistan—surely it had learned the lessons of Vietnam. Similarly, they predicted that the Chinese would not intervene in Korea, because that wasn't the rational course of action. They underestimated the number of nations that would get involved in state-sponsored terrorism, because the risk-to-reward ratios were wrong.

The CIA has continually misjudged the appetites of voracious tyrants like Saddam Hussein. In 1989 the Agency concluded that Iraq was exhausted by its war with Iran, and would not launch another war. Then came Kuwait. The Agency largely missed Saddam's first nuclear-weapons program (the one that was uncovered after Desert Storm)—why would a cash-strapped leader devote himself so fanatically to such a goal? CIA analysts tend to assume that every foreign dictator or leader will be deterred by U.S. military preponderance because, after all, that's the rational reaction. At their worst Agency analysts seem to ignore, downplay, or actively avoid evidence that disproves their assumptions. The CIA has been mysteriously slow to interview al Qaeda operatives held in northern Iraq, for example, perhaps because to ask questions might invite revelations that, contrary to Agency claims, Saddam is involved in al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism.

The problem with the CIA's brand of analysis, of course, is that human beings believe things and feel passions. They have visions of a future world and are often willing to sacrifice themselves, or at least to take amazing risks, to bring those visions about. Their gauge of reality can be radically different from that of a cool scholar at an antiseptic research campus.

I've heard since September 11 that CIA analysts now really do understand Islamic extremism. And in fact, Global Trends 2015 represents an effort to get intelligence analysts outside the CIA involved in the Agency's thinking. But bureaucracies just don't think well. Propelled by their "scientific" training and their desire to quantify, intelligence technocrats find themselves modeling further and further into abstraction, leaving behind the lessons of history, the clash of ideas, the passions of the soul—all those things that can't be rationalized but are the real drivers of human affairs.

Presented by

David Brooks an Atlantic correspondent, is also a contributing editor of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political analyst for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

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