Bush And The Black Box

By Terrell E. Arnold

The idea that we cannot predict the future is among our most stoutly held beliefs. Sayings such as the Spanish Que sera, sera, (What will be, will be) help get us and keep us comfortable with the thought. But not everybody agrees that when we look forward we should expect to see nothing. One writer, William B. Williams, sketched a way through the mist of the future with a device he called "the black box". In his book, Future Perfect, Williams advised his readers to think of a black box into which you put items from one side (the present) and take them out from the other side (the future).

He makes a strong case that you can look at the box from either side with good result. You can look at what you are putting into the box now and predict what will come out in the future. That is the field of the futurologist. You can look at what has come out of the box and determine what was originally put into it. This is the field of the historian. If you put money in the bank today, you will have it on deposit tomorrow. If you start driving to Chicago by car today, you will get there by car tomorrow. And so on.

The Williams theory, which has been around for some time, is that with clear-cut, practical inputs to the black box, you can predict outcomes with some certainty. In the Chicago case, there is some possibility that you may die or have an accident on the way, but the likeliest probability is you will get there safely. That conclusion leads you to start to Chicago. If you look closely, smart business people think this way all the time.

We need to introduce George W. Bush and his core team to the black box, because they have been putting some risky and messy stuff into the box without really focusing on what will surely come out of it tomorrow. Here are some likely examples.

The Kyoto Protocols

One of the first Bush foreign policy decisions was not to sign the Kyoto Protocols. Bush did not argue with the case for the Protocols; he merely said that he saw no point in agreeing to an accord that the Senate would not ratify. That means as our leader he chose not to fight the battle of getting the largest polluter on the planet in line with the global need to control greenhouse gases and to meet a modest national goal of cutting US emissions of such gases to 93% of our 1990 level by 2012.

We are the leading polluter because we are the leading user of fossil fuel. If the leading polluter refuses to lead the way, it is likely that not only less developed countries but also many signatories of the Protocol can use our posture to drag their feet. This means that Bush is leading the pack in the wrong direction. Looking back from 2050, therefore, unless the US sees the light and helps others do so, historians can say with conviction that the Bush decision and its waves of effect on others allowed fossil fuel use and generation of greenhouse gases to go out of control. Present futurologists can say with grim certainty that our planet in 2050 will be a colossal mess. Bush almost changed this prospect when he talked glowingly about hydrogen fuel programs, because hydrogen does not pollute, but he did not put any money into it. Go back to the top of this paragraph.

Population control

All of the world's great religions venerate human life, and a few venerate life in any and all forms. But the extreme right conservatives of Christianity are the only people who now insist that we must create it. If the Chinese, Indians and others had followed the American conservative Christian line-no contraception, no abortion--there would probably now be more than 4 billion Chinese and Indians instead of somewhat more than 2 billion. And the global population would approach 9 billion or more. > Meanwhile at most a few million North American Christians would insist that the world go forth and procreate without restraint. That means do nothing to avoid pregnancy, even if life all around you is at the bottom of the human condition, and the carrying capacity of the system in numerous places is facing exhaustion. Bush has signed off on refusing aid for family planning programs in any of the 75 countries where the US has an AID mission and program.

But look at the American political, economic and social elite, including the Bush family, and show us that crowd that produces large families, abstains from sex, and doesn't practice birth control. What Bush and his supporters are putting into the black box is a moral hypocrisy. As we have seen for decades, what will come out of the box is growing human misery punctuated by explosive global issues that produce more terrorism and violence than any of us can manage. What comes out of this black box is our own undoing.

Tax Cuts

Bush came into office fixated on his plan to cut taxes and give money back to the rich. That was clear because he proposed to cut taxes before he had been in office long enough to find out what it would cost to run the government. He put a 1.3 trillion dollar tax cut into the black box with no thought of the consequences, and no visible interest in how that would play out over the decade in which he planned to implement it.

Guessing what will come out of this box is not rocket science. Several thoughtful analysts told Bush that the prospective budget surplus would disappear, that deficit spending would mount and that any prospect of repaying the national debt would be jeopardized if not lost altogether. He has now put more cuts into the box, cuts designed to reward, by thoughtful estimates, only the top one percent of Americans.

It is easy to see that several things will come out of this black box. Burgeoning debt, shrinking government services, and a progressive retreat of the United States from the lead role in foreign economic development are only the first echelon of nasty things that will emerge from the black box. The resultant growing disparity between rich and poor will increase social, political and economic tensions in the United States, and the risks of domestic terrorism will increase. These are dynamics that can cause the lone world superpower to collapse of its own mismanagement.

The War on Terrorism

The Bush team answer to 9-11was to declare war on terrorism, rush off to Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden and his al Qaida supporters were said to be hiding and to depose the Taliban government that supported him. Into the box went a concentrated dose of military activity that drove both Taliban and al Qaida forces into the outback, left the warlords in charge across this isolated and difficult country and established a new government that now controls little more that the immediate area of Kabul. What now is emerging from the box is the same kind of US neglect that led to the Taliban after the retreat of the Russians.

In the meantime, perhaps a serious and comprehensive investigation of the origins of 9-11 has been conducted, but the Bush administration is preventing release of the report. The rationale for keeping it under wraps is it may shed light on sources and methods of intelligence collection. If that intelligence is no better than what was used to justify the war on Iraq, why should we care? This team is praying the black box has a delay switch on it and nothing embarrassing to the administration will come out until it no longer is politically important.

At the same time, ignoring the causes of terrorism, the War consists mainly of pursuing an elusive bandit who has no country, who does the Ayatollah Khomeini one better by appearing only on dubiously authentic cassette recordings, and who yanks us around with some frequency by provoking orange or red alerts. What is going into the black box is an administration > fixation. That single-minded focus on al Qaida will emerge as a failure, and world terrorism will emerge largely if not entirely undaunted by this campaign.

The Business of Government

Our basic problem of national management, as many municipal jurisdictions have discovered, is letting politicians run the business of the nation. Our formula presently is sorely imperfect, because our need for public business management is perennial while we allow elected officials to learn and tackle governance only for specified short periods of time. When all the fuss is over, we probably both choose them and replace them without any reference to actual needs of governance.

No business would wait for two years to get rid of a defective chief executive, but we do it routinely through adhering to scheduled elections.

What we probably need, to satisfy the political requirements of a democracy, is an elected advisory board of politicians. But to satisfy the requirement for continuity of management for the nation's business, we need a permanent body of system and sector managers. That is what the Civil, Foreign and Military services are supposed to provide.

Politicians in general put into the box on their first day in office a cynical disdain for professional public servants. More often than they would acknowledge or necessarily deserve they get the world's best professional support.

The Bush version of this was to create a new Homeland Security Department that would not be covered by civil service rules. What he wanted to put into this box was a cascaded array of political cronies. He still needs to pay the piper, but what is likely to come will be a group devoted to keeping their jobs, pleasing their bosses and getting them reelected. This was once called the Jacksonian spoils system, and around it the black box spewed corruption.

Uses of the United Nations

Prior to the founding of the League of Nations, transnational alliances tended to be of the sort represented by contending groups in the Cold War, a cluster of powers aligned against common enemies. What the League tried to do was bring together a cluster of powers the leaders of which were colonial empires. The UN is unique in this sphere, because it has succeeded in acquiring the participation of virtually all constituted nations on the planet. With that membership, it is of potential great value to the lone world superpower as well as to microstates such as Fiji. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the decline of NATO and other regional groupings present a basically flat earth to the UN system.

With help from its members, the UN can manage a host of global issues in ways that can preserve the integrity of the nation state system. No power should place the United Nations in the situation of contending with a single or small group of nation states for policy control of a global issue. The Bush team has done this with Iraq. The global issue is management of arms proliferation. How the main weapons proliferator in the world can grab the high ground or insist on unique control of this issue is indeed tricky.

What Bush has put into the black box here is a backward walk into the anarchy of unilateralism. If he is not careful what he will get out of the box is a badly damaged international system which the United States desperately needs to provide detached global issue management. That will lead to diminished position and prestige for the United States, and to a future much bleaker and harder than it needs to be.


Take a modest sized and populated country and let it be run more or less unopposed by a tyrant for two decades. Ignore him except when he gets in the way, Use him as a foil to befuddle other enemies, do business with him when it is profitable, make a diligent effort to kill him when you grow tired. Take his country and let his people mill around for a while. The black box is unforgiving on this. What comes out the far side is chaos.

Belittle, bully and ignore others

The black box is peculiar on this subject, because some of the worst leaders never are made to pay for their sins. Perhaps the cynics are right in suggesting that the rest of the world cannot do a lot for us. But moving through the black box are over six billion of them and less than 400 million of us. We can cow this crowd with superior weaponry and the aggressive will to use it, but when we come out of the box headed in inimical or hostile directions, the rest of the world, if it decides to, can do us enormous, perhaps even fatal damage. People who pass through the global black box typically reward cooperation and devour lone wolves.

Ultimately the black box has dilating and diluting powers over events. It plays on the asymmetry of human decisions, actions and capabilities. Eighteen fairly ordinary but determined people can transfix a nation of more than 300 million. That nation with shocking and awesome power can find itself shadow boxing with a chimerical enemy. For anything worthwhile to come out of it, at this point the box needs an input of careful, enlightened self-interest. It is hard to tell whether our present leaders have the vision to see the need or the wisdom to make such an entry.

The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome your comments at



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