The Next Decade: What the World Will Look Like - George Friedman (2011)


The attack by al Qaeda on September 11 forced the United States into a response that escalated into a two-theater war, lesser combat in a host of other countries, and the threat of war with Iran. It defined the past decade, and managing it will be the focus of at least the first part of the decade to come.

The United States obviously wants to destroy al Qaeda and other jihadist groups in order to protect the homeland from attack. At the same time, the other major American interest in this context is the protection of the Arabian Peninsula and its oil—oil that the United States does not want to see in the hands of a single regional power. For as long as the United States has had influence in the region, it has preferred to see Arabian oil in the hands of the Saudi royal family and other sheikhdoms that were relatively dependent on the United States. That will continue to be a strategic imperative.

The corollary that frames U.S. options is that only two countries in the region have been potentially large and powerful enough to dominate the Arabian Peninsula: Iran and Iraq. Rather than occupy Arabia to protect the flow of oil, the United States has followed the classic strategy of empire, encouraging the rivalry between Iran and Iraq, playing off one against the other to balance and thus effectively neutralize the power of each. This strategy preceded the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979, when the United States encouraged a conflict between Iran and Iraq, then negotiated a settlement between them that maintained the tension.

After the fall of the shah, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, largely secular but ethnically Sunni, attacked the Islamist and largely Shiite nation of Iran. Throughout the 1980s, the United States shifted its weight between the sides, trying to prolong the war by making sure that neither side collapsed. About two years after the war, which Iraq won by a narrow margin, Saddam tried to claim the Arabian Peninsula, beginning with invading Kuwait. At this point the United States applied overwhelming force, but only long enough to evict, not invade, Iraq. The United States once again made certain that the regional balance of power maintained itself, thereby protecting the flow of oil from the Arabian Peninsula—America’s core interest—without the need for an American occupation.

This was the status quo when Osama bin Laden tried to redefine the geopolitical reality of the Middle East and South Asia on September 11, 2001. With the attacks on New York and Washington he inflicted pain and suffering, but the most profound effect of his action was to entice an American president to abandon America’s successful, long-standing strategy. In effect, Bin Laden succeeded in getting an American president to take the bait.

In the long term, Bin Laden’s goal was to re-create the caliphate, the centralized rule of Islam that had been instituted in the seventh century and that had dominated the Middle East until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Bin Laden understood that even to begin to achieve this return to religious geopolitical unity, nation-states in the Islamic world would have to undergo revolutions to unseat their current governments, then replace them with Islamist regimes that shared his vision and beliefs. In 2001, the only nation-state that shared his vision fully was Afghanistan. Isolated and backward, it could serve as a base of operations, but only temporarily. It might be a springboard to more important nations like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, but it was too isolated and primitive ever to be more than that.

Bin Laden’s analysis was that many in the Muslim world shared his beliefs in some sense, but that given the realities of power, their support would only be tepid and insufficient to his ends. To begin moving his project forward, he had to trigger an uprising in at least one and preferably several of the more important Islamic countries. Doing that was impossible as long as the Muslim masses viewed their governments as overwhelmingly powerful and immovable fixtures.

As Bin Laden saw it, this problem was primarily one of perception, because the governments in the region were in fact weaker than they appeared. The apparent military and economic power of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt derived from the relationship of these countries with the Christian world (as he thought of it), and particularly with the leading Christian power, the United States. But Bin Laden surmised that even with their borrowed power, these governments were still vulnerable. His task was to demonstrate this weakness to the Muslim masses, then set in motion a series of uprisings that would transform the politics of the Islamic world. He failed in this, but his followers have continued this strategy, and their attempts to reshape the politics of the Islamic world, which have been under way since the nineteenth century, will continue to be a significant geopolitical theme of the decade to come.

The short-term goal of the September 11 attacks was to accelerate this process by attacking prominent American targets at the heart of the imperial power structure. Bin Laden’s hope was that by exposing the vulnerability of even the United States, he could diminish Muslim perceptions that their own governments were invulnerable.

The attacks of September 11 were only marginally about the United States, and the exact nature of the American response to Bin Laden’s gambit mattered little, because any response could be used to his advantage. If the Americans did nothing, this would confirm their weakness. If the Americans responded aggressively, this would confirm that they were indeed the enemies of Islam.

But while the attacks were aimed primarily at the Muslim psyche, the psychological impact on Americans turned out to be hugely important. The unexpectedness of the attacks, the fact that they were mounted using a fixture of everyday life—commercial airliners—and the fact that casualties were substantial created a sense of panic. How many other teams were in place? Where would al Qaeda strike next? Did al Qaeda possess weapons of mass destruction? Even more than in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Americans emerged from the shock of September 11 with a sense of personal dread. The possibility that they and their loved ones might be killed next was very real to them. This was a pervasive and profound sense of unease that the government had to address by appearing to take decisive action.

The psychological alarms that went off among the American people served to compound the strategic problem facing the U.S. government. Al Qaeda by itself—unless it did possess weapons of mass destruction—did not pose a genuine strategic threat. It could not shatter the United States. However, if the disruption it initiated had the desired effect in the Islamic world and regimes that were linked to the United States started to fall, ultimately that would have a huge impact on American strategy. If the Egyptian government were overthrown, for example, the position of Israel would change and an American anchor in the region would be threatened. If the Saudi government was endangered, the flow of oil from the region might be interrupted. The strategic danger was not the destruction of America’s population centers, economic infrastructure, or military might, but simply al Qaeda’s potential political success in the region—and that quite apart from Bin Laden’s distant dream of the caliphate.

The United States as well as al Qaeda identified the strategic battlefield clearly: the hearts and minds of Muslims. But for the president it was American hearts and minds that first needed to be calmed and reassured that actions were being taken to protect the homeland. The FBI moved aggressively to track down anyone even remotely suspected of being associated with al Qaeda, and security was revamped at airports, but neither effort was particularly effective at the time. In many ways, the United States continues to operate under the doctrine of putting enormous resources into security measures of limited effectiveness in order to calm the American public’s legitimate fears. Reconciling resources with operational reality and public perception will be a critical task for the next decade.

The assault on America’s sense of well-being also demanded that al Qaeda’s leaders be captured or killed. In strategic terms this was a questionable priority, but a president must satisfy not only the desire for reassurance but also the desire for revenge. Here the challenge was compounded by the fact that al Qaeda is a sparse network spread out around the globe, operating without a central headquarters or a conventional chain of command. Al Qaeda encourages sympathizers to strike out on their own and innovate. So while it is possible to carry out acts of retribution against these terrorists, it is impossible to actually destroy al Qaeda, because it isn’t an organization in any conventional sense. Because there is no infrastructure and no chain of command, there is no real head to be decapitated.

What did make strategic sense was a minimal infusion of force to disrupt al Qaeda’s planning, training, and limited command capabilities. Al Qaeda considered itself safe while operating out of Afghanistan, a landlocked country with no ports of entry. Bin Laden and his colleagues had some familiarity with American operations, both from observing Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and from training with Americans in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Desert Storm in particular had showed al Qaeda that even when ports were available, Americans planned obsessively, and planning took time. With winter approaching, al Qaeda’s rational estimate was that even if the United States chose to go looking for them in Afghanistan, no action was possible before the spring. The Pakistani port of Karachi would be essential for an invasion, and negotiations for its use might delay an assault even longer.

The Bush administration, however, calculated that it couldn’t wait until spring. The president really did want to decapitate or at least disrupt al Qaeda, but politically he had to respond to demands for an immediate and highly visible response. The attacks had shaken confidence in America’s defenses, and the president had to rebuild that confidence while also building a political base for what could be an extended war. He could ill afford a crisis in confidence about American prosperity at this juncture, so it was in this atmosphere that the war on terror began to affect economic decisions as well. If it took six months to launch American counteraction, the already tenuous political situation would deteriorate, and the president would lose support for the effort even before it was launched. Bush’s decision to go ahead was one of those individual judgments that can and do affect the lives of millions over the span of a decade, and certainly the fallout from that decision will continue to color much of the decade to come.

There was also a legitimate strategic reason for haste: the United States wanted to make certain that regimes in the Middle East didn’t fall, or even begin to recalculate their interests. While the United States might have been perceived as a great power, it also was seen as a power that was unprepared to risk a great deal in the region. Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw from Beirut after the bombing of the Marine barracks, George H. W. Bush’s decision not to go on to Baghdad after liberating Kuwait, and Bill Clinton’s decision to withdraw from Somalia, followed by his rather anemic response to pre-9/11 al Qaeda attacks, all created an image of a country unwilling to take risks and suffer losses. Meanwhile, Muslim governments saw the very real possibility of being toppled by political unrest fomented by al Qaeda’s capable and ruthless covert force, particularly if they collaborated with the United States.

These governments were not about to become jihadists, but neither were they prepared to expose themselves on behalf of the United States. They expected the United States to continue its policy of limited risk taking, so for them, cooperation with the U.S. appeared to pose serious risks with few advantages. The Americans demanded intelligence sharing on al Qaeda, for instance, but these governments, which did not expect the United States to stand by them for the long haul, were reluctant to participate. The longer the United States failed to act, the lower the Muslim countries’ propensity to assist.

Al Qaeda miscalculated by focusing too much on the consequences of the attack for the Islamic world and not enough on the political and strategic pressures September 11 created for Bush. There was no doubt that the United States would act aggressively, and for the reasons cited above, sooner rather than later. The target had to be al Qaeda, which meant that the area of operations had to be Afghanistan.

In mid-September 2001, the United States sent in CIA operatives to make deals with local Afghan warlords. At the same time, the United States dispatched Special Operations Forces and paramilitary CIA units to fight alongside anti-Taliban Afghans and to target American air strikes on Taliban positions. In particular, the United States made a deal with the Northern Alliance, a Russian-backed group of anti-Taliban organizations. Having been defeated by the Taliban in their civil war in the 1990s, the Northern Alliance now welcomed the opportunity to strike back, and the Russians had no objection. Other warlords were simply bought. The United States also had the active cooperation of Iran.

Afghanistan provided the illusion of an invasion, but what really happened was the resumption of a civil war, backed by American air power. The fighting that began a month after September 11 was done primarily by Afghans, supported by air strikes from carriers and bombers based in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. But rather than massing in front of the major cities and becoming targets to be bombed by B-52s, the Taliban, in classic insurgent fashion, dispersed, then regrouped later to resume the battle.

As a result, the Taliban was never actually defeated, but the United States did achieve three of its goals. First, it reassured the American public that it was able to protect them by mounting military action anywhere in the world. This wasn’t altogether true, but it was true enough to be comforting. Second, it signaled to the Islamic world that the United States was absolutely committed to the conflict. More sophisticated than the American public, Muslim leaders noted that the major American contribution was air power, while the heavy lifting was done by the Afghans. This was not definitive evidence of American commitment; it was, however, better than no action. Third, the action inflicted damage on al Qaeda. Bin Laden and others escaped, but their command-and-control structure was disrupted, which forced the leaders to become fugitives. As a result, they became increasingly isolated and largely irrelevant.

Afghanistan was in some ways a sleight of hand, but it achieved what could be achieved. The United States had launched a disruptive spoiling attack—a classic American maneuver. The Bush administration installed and protected a government, knowing that most of Afghanistan was outside its reach and that creating a democracy there was not in the cards. Nine years later, Afghanistan is still far from resolved, and it will certainly be the problem that has to be solved in order to move ahead in the next decade.

From al Qaeda’s point of view, however, U.S. actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East served as clear evidence for Muslims that the United States was their enemy. The jihadists waited for uprisings and toppled regimes—an upheaval that never came. The regimes survived, partly because the Islamic street, as it was called, feared that the security apparatus of their regimes was still brutally effective, and partly because these regimes continued to hedge their bets. They read the U.S. spoiling attack for what it was and held back their own commitment. Both Saudi Arabia’s and Pakistan’s intelligence sharing remained limited, as neither wanted to commit itself to the United States without clear signs of how far the U.S. was prepared to go. As it became clearer that there would be no uprisings, al Qaeda became more aggressive in the region.


The next venture in the U.S. war on terror was the assault on Iraq in 2003. It is easy to argue today that the invasion was an unqualified mistake, but it is important to recall the context in which the decision to invade was made. In February 2002, the Saudis ordered American forces off their soil. The Pakistanis, in spite of heavy pressure from both India and the United States, made only modest gestures of commitment in support of the American effort. The general perception was that the United States had done what it was going to do in Afghanistan and was now hoping that other nations would carry the burden for it, both in intelligence and in operations.

Without the full cooperation of the Saudis and Pakistanis, the United States had limited options. It could conduct an intelligence war against al Qaeda, as the Israelis had done with Black September in Europe in the 1970s; but without contributing partners in the region, the U.S. intelligence capability against al Qaeda was extremely constrained.

A second option was for the United States to move into a purely defensive mode, relying on Homeland Security while hoping that the Afghan operation had disrupted al Qaeda’s command structure enough to prevent new attacks. Theoretically, the FBI could round up sleeper cells while the borders were protected from infiltration and airports secured against terrorists. Attractive on paper, this plan was impossible in practice. The FBI could never guarantee that there were no more sleeper cells in the country, and points of entry into the United States could never be completely secured. Any illusion of safety this effort gave the American public, and any support it might buy the president for a job well done, would last only until the next terrorist attack, the timing and nature of which were completely unknown. When such an attack came, the question of America’s willingness to assert itself and take risks in the Muslim world would surface again, with no clear answer. After Afghanistan, what?

The Bush administration tried to craft a strategy that forced the Saudis and Pakistanis to be more aggressive in intelligence gathering and sharing and that placed the United States in a dominant position in the Middle East, from which it could project power.

These were the underlying reasons for the invasion of Iraq. The military action had the immediate result of creating a new strategic reality. It intimidated Saudi Arabia in particular, placing U.S. armor a few days’ drive from Saudi oil fields. It also gave the United States control of the most strategic country in the region, Iraq, which borders on Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. So controlling Iraq achieved the short-term goals of the war on terror, but it violated the principle that the United States does not become a permanent player in any region. The Bush administration had wagered that it could sacrifice this part of U.S. strategy—maintaining regional balances of power through surrogates while holding U.S. forces in reserve—in return for other benefits. It was a bad choice on a menu of worse choices, a point that has to be remembered when we consider the nature of imperial power: it may feel compelled to act even when all options are flawed.

Obtaining those benefits, however, required the United States to succeed not just in invading but in pacifying Iraq. The invasion succeeded, without a doubt, and the Saudis markedly increased their cooperation on intelligence. But dominating the most strategic country in the region turned out to be impossible. U.S. forces, having rolled into Baghdad with ease, found themselves quickly tied down in an insurgency that required them to focus all their force inward, when the intent had been to use Iraq as a base from which to project force outward.

This failure of the occupation transformed the war. Iraq became an end in itself, and the ultimate goal became not the creation of a new strategic reality in the region but simply the withdrawal of U.S. forces within a reasonable time frame. The best hope was to leave behind a neutral government; at worst, the end result of the invasion would be chaos.

Iraq became decoupled from America’s broader strategy and became a case study in the relationship among morality, strategy, and leadership. From a purely moral point of view, eliminating the Saddam Hussein regime could hardly have been faulted. He was a monster and his regime was monstrous. But that was not the moral imperative to which Bush had committed his presidency. His stated moral imperative was to wage a war on terror, and the occupation of Iraq made sense to the American people only to the extent that it served that goal.

In deciding to invade in 2003, George W. Bush placed his moral obsession above the fundamental principle of American strategy: maintaining a balance in each region without committing substantial numbers of troops. There are many regions, and if the United States began deploying occupation forces in each of these, the burden would quickly outstrip American capacity. Moreover, U.S. forces had supplanted Iraq’s own forces as the counterweight to Iran, now the largest indigenous power in the region. If at some point the United States simply withdrew from Iraq, Iran would by default dominate the entire Persian Gulf. Whatever the invasion contributed to the war against al Qaeda, the strategic costs of Iraq became too high.

For the invasion of Iraq to be aligned with America’s long-standing strategic principles, U.S. forces would have had to occupy Iraq quickly and efficiently and without significant resistance. Then the United States would have had to rapidly construct a viable regime in Baghdad, complete with a substantial military force, to take over the role of balancing its historical enemy, Iran. If this could have been done in, say, five years, Bush would have achieved both his moral and strategic goals. He would have delivered the necessary shock to the Muslim world, intimidated the Saudis, and been able to use Iraq’s strategic location to pressure countries in the region. The United States could have then withdrawn, leaving regional players to balance each other once more.

The Bush strategy failed because the premise was faulty: there was resistance that could not be readily suppressed. The greatest intelligence mistake of the war did not concern weapons of mass destruction but rather the failure to understand that insurgency had long been Saddam Hussein’s default plan for dealing with an invasion. It also involved a failure to understand that by trying to destroy Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baathist Party, the United States effectively drove the Sunnis out of government and turned power over to their religious and cultural rivals, the Shiites. Terrified of a Shiite government (which, incidentally, would have some affinity with the Shiite majority that dominated Iran), the Sunnis in Iraq were put in a position where they had nothing to lose and embraced random shootings and roadside bombs.

But Bush’s miscalculation ran deeper. He counted on the support of the Shiites in opposing the Sunni establishment, but discounted the degree to which the Iraqi Shiites were intertwined with the heavily Shiite Iranians. The Iranians had no interest in seeing Iraq resurrected under a pro-American government that would once again threaten Iran, so the United States wound up trapped from two directions. The Sunnis went to war against the occupation, and the Shiites, influenced by Iran, did everything they could to avoid the kind of cooperation that would turn them into an American dependency.

Bush violated strategic principles, hoping to return to the main path later, but he got trapped in the local realities, which he could not manage. As the situation deteriorated, his credibility with the American public declined. He could have survived the fact that his initial justification for the war, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, proved untrue. But he could not survive being trapped in a multisided war with no end in sight.

There were other errors that undermined this president’s ability to lead. His second justification for the invasion was the need to create a democratic Iraq. This did not resonate with the American public, which saw no pressing reason for such an effort. This nation-building motivation was in fact a lie. As we noted in the case of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan, great presidents often have to lie to serve their greater moral purpose. But Bush failed to convince because his clearly stated moral imperative—defeating terrorism—had diverged from strategic reality to such an extent that his entire foreign policy appeared convoluted and chaotic, which made him appear incompetent. There were too many separate explanations, too many cases of special pleading. The failure to align moral objectives with strategic goals, and both with a coherent myth for popular consumption, crushed him.

In 2007, too late to save his presidency, Bush instituted the surge. This effort had less to do with military strategy than it did with using military force to set the stage for a negotiated settlement with the Sunnis. Once that was put in place, the Shiites, afraid of an American-backed Sunni force, became somewhat more cooperative, and the violence died down.

With Iraq no longer an effective counterweight, the balance of power with Iran broke down completely. An American withdrawal of forces would leave Iran the dominant force in the region, with no local power to block it—a prospect that completely unnerved the Arabian powers, as well as Israel and the United States. It is this imbalance that sets the stage for the regional problems that will continue to face the American president in the decade to come.


As the second decade of the twenty-first century began, the dual problem facing the United States in this region was withdrawing its forces without leaving Iran unchecked by a countervailing power. Given that there were no other candidates for the job of blocking Iranian ambitions, it appeared that the United States could not withdraw from Iraq until it had created a government in Baghdad strong enough to restore balance.

The Iranians had clearly welcomed the invasion of Iraq. Long before September 11, they had done everything possible to induce the United States to step in and eliminate Saddam Hussein. Indeed, much of the intelligence forecasting that American troops would not encounter resistance had come from Iranian sources.

Once American boots were on the ground, Iran began to threaten U.S. interests in Iraq directly by becoming deeply involved with various Shiite factions, then by supplying weapons to the Sunnis to keep the conflict going. Iran had also supported Taliban forces in western Afghanistan, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Iranians had expected the United States to create an Iraqi government that marginalized the Sunnis and emerged as primarily Shiite. They anticipated that once the United States withdrew, such a government would become an Iranian satellite. They expected the Americans to lean on Iran’s Shiite allies to govern Iraq, but the United States threw them a curve by attempting to govern Iraq directly through various institutions and individuals. Nonetheless, given the protracted difficulty of forming a government and the eventual withdrawal of the Americans, the outcome is likely still to leave Iran in a favorable position.

But these factors are exactly what has proved so dangerous to the government in Tehran. Trapped between trying to govern a rebellious country directly and turning over responsibility to a government penetrated by Iranian agents and sympathizers and then withdrawing, the United States had to consider a more radical possibility: an attack that would overthrow Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the regime that his presidency was based on.

With its 70 million people inside mountainous borders, Iran is by virtue of topography an effective fortress. Given that the terrain makes a direct invasion impossible, the Americans have tried multiple times to generate a revolution similar to the ones that toppled governments in the former Soviet Union. Over the years, these attempts have always failed. But after the failures in Iraq, and to the extent that the United States could neither revive the balance of power nor leave Iran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region, it would be natural enough for the Americans to consider some kind of attack to oust the Iranian government. The fact that this regime is split between old clerics who came to power with Ayatollah Khomeini and younger, nonclerical leaders such as Ahmadinejad adds to Iranian worries. But the leaders’ primary concern is that they have seen other U.S.-sponsored uprisings succeed, particularly in the former Soviet Union, and they cannot take the chance that the United States won’t get lucky again.

The Iranians noted the manner in which North Korea had managed a similar problem in the 1990s, when its government feared that the collapse of Soviet communism would lead to its own collapse. Trying to portray themselves as more dangerous and psychologically unstable than they were, the Koreans launched a nuclear weapons program. To convince people that they might actually use those weapons, they made statements that appeared quite mad. As a result, everyone feared a regime collapse that might lead to unpredictable results. Thus the North Koreans managed to create a situation in which powers such as the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea tried to coax them to the table with aid. The North Koreans were so successful that they had the great powers negotiating to entice them to negotiate. It was an extraordinary performance.

Playing to America’s nuclear phobia, the Iranians have been working on nuclear technology for a decade, a program that has included crafting themselves in the image of North Korea, as unpredictable and dangerous. Like the North Koreans, they managed to maneuver themselves into a position where the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, were trying to negotiate with them over the issue of whether or not they would negotiate.

The collapse of Iraq had left the United States in an extremely difficult situation with limited options. An air strike against Iranian nuclear targets would most likely spur a patriotic resurgence that would only strengthen the regime. And Iran had substantial counters, including the ability to further destabilize Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan. Iran could also unleash Hezbollah, a far more capable terrorist organization than al Qaeda. Or it could mine the Strait of Hormuz, creating economic chaos by blocking the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.

Thus the violation of America’s long-standing policy of regional balances and limited engagement led to a geopolitical worst-case scenario. Iran was now the dominant native power in the Persian Gulf, and only the United States had the means to counterbalance it, which would further violate America’s basic strategic principles. Moreover, the unbalanced focus on this one region left the United States weak in other parts of the world, trapped off-balance, with no clear counter in sight.

This is the defining geopolitical problem that President Obama inherited and that he and all other presidents of the next decade will have to deal with. Iran has become the pivot on which the Middle East will turn. In many ways, it was always the pivot. But before the United States could deal with Iran, it had to do something definitive about Islamic terror. It devoted its resources to wars it saw as directed against terrorism, which effectively insulated Iran from the threat of American intervention and even enhanced its position in the region.

The economic and geopolitical events of the past decade were intertwined. They created a crisis of confidence in the American public as well as drawing American strategic thinking into a series of short-term, tactical solutions. The Iran question is tied up with fears that rising oil prices will crush the economic recovery, as well as with the impact of action on the jihadist war. September 11 and the events of 2008 have combined to create a trap for American strategic thinking. As the United States moves forward into the next decade, it must escape the trap. The economic problem will resolve itself in time. The geopolitical challenge of terrorism requires decisions.