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Egypt crisis: Why was the US caught flat-footed -- again?

The uprisings in Egypt are just the latest in a slew of strategic shocks the US has found itself reacting to, rather than predicting. But these hazards are observable, and the US must better consider game-changing crises in advance.

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Failure of imagination strikes again. From a national security perspective, the political contagion sweeping across the Middle East has an air of déjà vu to it. Haven’t we been here before? More than a few times. In a decade punctuated by serial strategic shocks that included 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies, and the global financial meltdown – the United States is yet again caught flat-footed by a seismic challenge to the status quo. This is all occurring as if disintegration of the Soviet bloc 20 years ago wasn’t enough to energize a more systematic US government approach to asking “What if?”

Unfortunately, failed imagination alone isn’t the culprit. Politics and political sensitivities stifle reasoned and imaginative appraisal of all possible strategic shocks as well. Often when prudent planning for very real worst-case conditions is raised as an option, a range of obstacles are thrown up by well-meaning stakeholders inside the bureaucracy. The most common among them: “If this gets out, we might offend country X, make others believe we intend or hope that X happens, or believe with some certainty that X will occur and that we are preparing for it.”

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