Paul Pillar

Mubarak's Mind and the Thin Lines of History

A crescendo of sorts was reached this week in the fruitless but never-ending demands for prophecy and in expectations that government agencies have some sort of crystal ball that should enable them to satisfy the demands. Washington was in a twitter Thursday when CIA Director Leon Panetta gave an answer at a Congressional hearing that many interpreted as a prediction (or even a guarantee) that Hosni Mubarak's departure from the Egyptian presidency was imminent. When Mubarak then went on television and said he was staying put, the town was in something other than a twitter. It was an occasion for yet another round of stories about prophecy failing, which is widely taken as equivalent to intelligence agencies not doing their job. On Friday morning a reporter with a major news organization called me about doing their own story on this latest instance of U.S. intelligence not delivering the expected goods about Egypt. By the time I returned the call an hour later, Omar Suleiman had announced to the world that Mubarak was leaving after all. The reporter said never mind, they weren't doing the story anymore.

Large and important forces, capable of being understood with the right information and analysis, are involved in the dramatic events unfolding in Egypt. Those forces create possibilities and set limits. But within those possibilities and limits there is a wide range of feasible events and outcomes. Which events occur (or when they occur) and what outcomes ensue depend on many other variables that are so invisible or transient or numerous that they are not capable of being understood, much less predicted, no matter how good is our information and analysis. The lines between different possible paths that history can take are often awfully thin and hard to see. The lines of causation can be thin and difficult to see even when the difference between the paths is quite important, such as whether a ruler of an important country stays or goes.

We don't know the details of what went on behind the scenes in Cairo on Thursday and Friday that produced the outcomes we would see; maybe some of those details will come out eventually. Probably there was the kind of interplay of diverse and contending forces—in this case involving Mubarak, Suleiman, the army brass, and the sounds from Tahrir Square—that yields outcomes that are inherently unpredictable. Important tussles were also playing out within the minds of individuals: particularly of Mubarak and of senior military officers. Not only that, but minds are not always made up. (Did Mubarak know, when he delivered his televised address Thursday, that he would be packing for Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday? Probably not.) So the events would be unpredictable even to a government agency that not only had perfectly placed sources but also mind-readers on its staff.

This latest chapter in the Egyptian saga demonstrates how absurd (inevitable, but still absurd) are recriminations about intelligence services not “predicting” the unrest and ensuing events. If the question concerns a strategic understanding of the potential for such events and their underlying causes, no one has given any reason to doubt official statements that the responsible agencies provided plenty of pertinent warnings and analysis. If the question is instead one of specific prophecy as to timing or outcome, then we are in the realm of the unpredictable. That would be understood (as Stephen Walt has observed) to anyone familiar with the work of social scientists who have long had plenty of trouble trying to predict the outbreak or course of revolutionary situations. Moreover, what really matters is not anyone's prediction but instead the quality of policy. As I addressed earlier, policymakers do not (and should not) jump and change their policies in response to every warning they get from the bureaucracy.

Those who will have to formulate U.S. policy in response to events yet to unfold in a still volatile Egypt need to be ready for a lot more unpredictability. They should not only forget any vain hopes for successful prophecy but also close their ears to their critics who charge that they are being inconsistent, behind the curve, or whatever. They need to try to craft policy so U.S. interests have the most chance of being helped and the least chance of being hurt no matter which side of the thin lines history takes Egypt.