One of the charms of the future is its powerful element of unpredictability, its ability to ambush us in lovely ways or bite us unexpectedly in the ass. Most of the futures I imagined as a boy have, for instance, come up deeply short, or else I would now be flying my individual jet pack through the spired cityscape of New York and vacationing on the moon. And who, honestly, could have imagined the Internet, no less social media and cyberspace (unless, of course, you had read William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer 30 years ago)? Who could have dreamed that a single country’s intelligence outfits would be able to listen in on or otherwise intercept and review not just the conversations and messages of its own citizens—imagine the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century—but those of just about anyone on the planet, from peasants in the backlands of Pakistan to at least 35 leaders of major and minor countries around the world? This is, of course, our dystopian present, based on technological breakthroughs that even sci-fi writers somehow didn’t imagine.
And who thought that the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street were coming down the pike or, for that matter, a terror caliphate in the heart of the former Middle East or a Donald Trump presidential run that would go from success to success amid free media coverage the likes of which we’ve seldom seen? (Small career tip: Don’t become a seer. It’s hell on Earth.)
All of this might be considered the bad but also the good news about the future. On an increasingly grim globe that seems to have failure stamped all over it, the surprises embedded in the years to come, the unexpected course changes, inventions, rebellions, and interventions offer, at least until they arrive, grounds for hope. On the other hand, in that same grim world, there’s an aspect of the future that couldn’t be more depressing: the repetitiveness of so much that you might think no one would want to repeat. I’m talking about the range of tomorrow’s headlines that could be written today and stand a painfully reasonable chance of coming true.
I’m sure you could produce your own version of such future headlines in a variety of areas, but here are mine when it comes to Washington’s remarkably unwinnable wars, interventions, and conflicts in the Greater Middle East and increasingly Africa.
What “Victory” Looks Like
Let’s start with an event that occurred in Iraq as 2015 ended and generated headlines that included “victory,” a word Americans haven’t often seen in the 21st century—except, of course, in Trumpian patter. (“We’re going to win so much—win after win after win—that you’re going to be begging me: ‘Please, Mr. President, let us lose once or twice. We can’t stand it any more.’ And I’m going to say: ‘No way. We’re going to keep winning. We’re never going to lose. We’re never, ever going to lose.’”) I’m talking about the “victory” achieved at Ramadi, a city in al-Anbar Province that Islamic State (IS or ISIL) militants seized from the Iraqi army in May 2015. With the backing of the US Air Force—there were more than 600 American air strikes in and around Ramadi in the months leading up to that victory—and with US-trained and US-financed local special ops units leading the way, the Iraqi military did indeed largely take back that intricately booby-trapped and mined city from heavily entrenched IS militants in late December. The news was clearly a relief for the Obama administration and those headlines followed.