Tales from the Geopolitical Crypt: Seven Deadly Scenarios by Andrew Krepinevich

Seven Deadly Scenarios can be read and enjoyed almost as a collection of near future science fiction stories, though unlike sci-fi writers, who typically unveil the imagined course of future events elliptically, piece by piece, thus to keep the reader puzzling, author Andrew Krepinevich attacks the shape of things to come straight on, and the implied test is persuasiveness, not literary or entertainment value.  Anyone who delights in scaring friends, family, and internet acquaintances with prophecies of doom will therefore want to order a copy, but Krepinevich, a longtime defense insider, wants to reach people who have more serious uses for such material.  In this respect it’s possible that he succeeds too well as a writer, and is more likely to induce dread, resignation, or denial, where he means to motivate policymakers and citizens to demand better preparation and planning – that is, better leadership.

Each deadly scenario puts the American military and national command authority in disastrously untenable situations just a few to several years from now, and each would be world-historical (not in a good way):

  • collapse in Pakistan involving the U.S. in a nuclearized and Islamicized regional war
  • politically and economically de-stabilizing pandemic plague
  • a series of nuclear attacks in the American homeland brought off by an effectively unidentifiable (and therefore un-targetable) sponsor
  • a 1914-like Middle East outbreak of war, centered on Israel
  • Chinese moves on Taiwan forcing a choice between global war and the loss of the Pacific Rim (and more)
  • systematic Islamist assault on global resource and supply chains leading to economic catastrophe
  • civil war in an abandoned Iraq leading to a re-alignment in the Gulf:  the U.S. on the outside; China, Russia, and Iran on the inside

In short, 7 American catastrophes – and each entailing blows not just to our abstract “interests,” but to the very concrete counterparts of those interests:   our lives and our way of life.

Now consider further that there’s nothing preventing two or more of these or similar scenarios arising concurrently.  Indeed, there’s good reason to suspect that each such crisis may increase the likelihood of others, leading to and in turn being accelerated by the simultaneous exhaustion of American resources, will, and credibility.

If, for instance, the Chinese have an itch for Taiwan, how much more likely are they to make a move when we’re already stretched to our limits with war and nuclear terror well off to the left on the map, and when we’re already devastated by global economic sabotage?  Or if China moves first on Taiwan, wouldn’t that be a perfect time for Islamists to escalate subversion in Iraq and Pakistan, confront Israel, and assault off- and inshore oil facilities and container mega-ships?  And it must be said that there are other potential major and minor threats – some of them more purely economic, some of them merely familiar and therefore addressed if not truly mastered by current military doctrine and deployments – that may also feed or be fed by the slew of cyber-subversions, area denials, global double-crosses, terrorist depredations, and acts of sabotage that pop up repeatedly and all across Krepinevich’s narratives.

We could spin up chain reactions and “mother of storms” scenarios all day:  As Neil Young once sang, “It’s a wonder tall trees ain’t laying down.”

Krepinevich himself might consider such speculation a gross misuse of his work.  He’d like to see a modernized, permanent version of Eisenhower’s Planning Board integrated into the contemporary military and fully resourced.  He’d probably like to see much larger investments in a range of anti-missile, special forces, deep strike, cyberwarfare, and other capacities.  And I think he’d like to see our real world Defense Secretary, who receives a couple of uncomplimentary mentions, get his head on completely straight about what he’s publicly dismissed as “next war-itis.”

In short, Krepinevich advocates prudent investments, not apocalyptic proclamations.  In his forward, he presents a scenario composed in the late 1990s, describing a war and counterinsurgency difficulties in Iran, in order to make a key point:  A useful scenario neither needs nor attempts to foretell the future.  Having addressed the limitations in planning, equipment, and doctrine that eventually come to plague his fictional warriors on the eastern side of the Gulf ca. 2016 would likely have helped a decade earlier when real world warriors were fighting just one country over in either direction.

Well, sure, but the thing is:  His Iran scenario still mostly makes sense – so make that Eight Deadly scenarios.  Or take a step back and you’re facing One Great Big Deadly Scenario made up of major and minor sub-scenarios – and you may be feeling like fictional Defense Secretary Summers, reacting to President Reynolds’ temporizing response to terrorist nukes going off in American cities:

The country is now at war, [Summers] says, against a group of states and nonstate entities that are practicing a form of ambiguous aggression against the United States.  The United States can attempt to sue for some kind of peace, although with whom he hasn’t a clue; or it can accept the fact that it is at war – a war that has already caused more damage to the American homeland in a few weeks than all of World War II – and mobilize its full resources to defeat its enemies.  Summers declares that he has no interest in negotiation; he is interested only in the total cooperation of these rogue states, and their capitulation to American demands for unfettered access, so that they may avoid “their complete and utter destruction.”  It is time for the nation to mobilize its resources to fight the war that has been waged against it ever since radical Islamists seized the first American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran over thirty years ago.

To state the obvious, there are more than a few Americans who not too long ago were already on board with the above – well before the destruction of downtown San Antonio, Chicago, San Diego, and Boston.

As for Krepinevich, if he’s not ready to call for anything remotely resembling full mobilization for global war, it’s less clear whether, in his heart, he believes a complete strategic re-orientation, implying a very different national leadership style than the American political system has been producing, is necessary.  Still, whatever he himself believes, the one factor that ties his scenarios together is that Presidents Reynolds, Simmons, Dickson, Collingwood and so on all tend to resemble President Merkin Muffley (now there was a scenario), flailing with outmoded sanities against realized insanity.

Under a Muffley Administration, it probably wouldn’t matter much whether the Pentagon had three times as many SpecForces operatives to call upon, five times as many anti-missile systems, a 6000-ship blue and green water navy, and a $50 Billion Planning Board budget:  Our committed adversaries – and the larger circles of spoilers, opportunists, and passive supporters – would with good reason fear us too little, and know the world is far too small for us to remain insulated, yet always too big to be fully defended.

57 comments on “Tales from the Geopolitical Crypt: Seven Deadly Scenarios by Andrew Krepinevich

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  1. a series of nuclear attacks in the American homeland brought off by an effectively unidentifiable (and therefore un-targetable) sponsor

    That one’s easy. After each incident terminate the most likely couple of suspects promptly and with extreme prejudice. If the attacks continue after only four or five or ten incidents all of the possible suspects will be gone and the resultant dust in the atmosphere will solve global warming for decades.

    But I think several of the suspects down the list from the first couple of eliminatees will help solve the problem if we made a hasty mistake with the first retaliation.

  2. Actually, it sounds like a pretty interesting book; which is probably an indicator of how sick I am in the head.

    Why are we, the most favored and prosperous people in the history of the world, so consumed with interest in potential disasters?

  3. Lots of time on our hands + historical memory + genetic memory, I’d say. Give us a few disaster-free centuries, and maybe we’ll stop thinking about the danger – and then we’ll really be in trouble.

  4. Nothing new, of course. I just found and listed Alas Babylon on Amazon. I listed it at a high price so I can read it again.

  5. Tying it all together,we’d better get our heads out of our orifices,and reinvent our nations wealth in order to deal with these expressions of Murphy’s Law. OR ElSE, we wait for the barbarians,see the poem by Cavafy,”WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS” if you want a blow to your solar plexus.

  6. Sounds like what a nation named Israel has been dealing with for over half a century so far.

    Like Rex, I wonder if we’re up to the much higher level of pure savagery which is required just to survive in a world such as this.

    Won’t we all have to be soldiers?

    Will a Sparta emerge? Will it take an Alexander to lead us in the fight?

    Mad Max?

  7. Sounds like what a nation named Israel has been dealing with for over half a century so far.

    This brings me back to Moby Dick,and what a truly amazing prophecy of our pre-apocalyptic world that novel is. If you think about the deeper meaning in both the characters of Ahab and Ishmael,(check any good Old Testement Reference for the background),I recommend a Book entitled “A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature” by Jefferies) Anyway,it’s all there,the World of the War on Terror,in a Ninetenth Century novel about a Whale Hunt,Astonishing.

  8. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?

    Worthy of consideration for sure as the greatest Ameican novel, but please tell us more what Ahab and Ishmael have specifically to do with the War on Terror. I’m reluctant to identify AQ with the White Whale, for instance.

  9. According to the greatest Harvard scholar of all tyme, Homi Bhabha, on this post colonial stage, all is wrought with wrathful woefulnesses, insistent on Melvillian travels into the sectors of pre universal dogmatism. What points to what depends on the proper lens, he says, with a bland giggle.

  10. Worthy of consideration for sure as the greatest Ameican novel, but please tell us more what Ahab and Ishmael have specifically to do with the War on Terror.

    Ahab is mythically connected to the genesis of Christianity,while Ishmael is associated with the genesis of Islam. That’s for starters,please check out the book I referenced above for an indepth analysis of the mythic archtypes that derive from them. And let’s not forget QueeQueg,the Islamic Cannibal in MD

  11. @ Zoltan Newberry:
    Far, far better, I think, would be if we possessed the will, confidence, and leadership to drive events ourselves, and dissuade opportunists and spoilers ahead of time.

    You’ve probably all heard the story about how the Soviets solved their Hezbollah problems in Lebanon (had to do with the murder and sexual mutilation of a Hez leader’s relative). It didn’t solve their larger problems, and the specific option isn’t and shouldn’t be available to us, but history and commen sense suggest that giving any impression that we’re more afraid of conflict than our supposedly less powerful enemies virtually ensures that we get probed, tested, and pushed back.

  12. @ CK MacLeod:
    I’ve also heard the story of how Hezbollah solved their CIA problem in Lebanon.

    It don’t work. There’s always someone willing to get less human.

    Sure we could cut and run like Reagan did, but, you’re right, it didn’t help.
    Didn’t help when Clinton did it.
    The Cheney option of semi-random violence didn’t work either.

  13. @ Rex Caruthers:
    But the connection via Ishmael is clear – even if he’s the Biblical forefather of the Arabs, obviously not the Muslims (I can accept Islam as fundamentally Arabic in culture as well as language, so not an absolute impediment). As for Ahab, I get references to King Ahab, “most wicked of all Israel’s kings” – doesn’t come across as a particularly Christian feller.

  14. @ fuster:
    That’s a silly reference to Cheney, and I’ll ignore it.

    We don’t have to go all Soviet (or Roman, or Nazi, or Hun) in order to establish what’s usually referred to as “credibility” but involves a lot of other things. For a little after 9/11 we had the world impressed with our wrath, and a little fearful we’d go berserk if we didn’t get our way. There’s some evidence it worked in our favor until we got confused in Iraq. There’s not much “mad” about us these days, instead there’s a lot that comes across as neurotic. Part of that’s the typical manic-depressive character of democratic nations at war, and it’s hard to see how we could overcome it completely without giving up on democracy, too. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop recognizing it as a problem, and can’t criticize the current administration for cheaply exaggerating its differences with the prior one and for other self-inflicted wounds.

    George C Marshall: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

    One doesn’t work without the other.

  15. @ CK MacLeod:
    Until something changes, this administration is doing pretty well in projecting calm and deadly serious.
    For the last year, we’ve been pushing Pakistan pretty hard and they’ve moved a fair bit. We’re pushing still and it’s going to be of interest to see if we can get something serious mounted against the Haqqani bunch.
    We’ve been in Yemen awhile and might be well-positioned to spear some of the AQ fish swimming out of Pakistan.

  16. We are the Bentley in the garage they want to key.

    We are the convertible. They toss in their cigarette butts as we try to enjoy a drive down Route 1.

    The liberals have the bumper stickers which say,




  17. It takes him nine months to decide on a mission we’re already on, an actual new crisis would be beyond him, several would task him
    to the limit. but we have the expertise of Biden

  18. Meanwhile an economist friend just sent me an econometrics update that included the happy news that industrial production dropped lower earlier this year than the low level it reached in 2001. Production is now on the rise; but that seemed rather ominous to me.

    In effect we just experienced the second dip of the recession that started in 2000, at least with respect to industrial production which underlies all economic activity and on top of which everything else is just the froth (necessary though it may be) associated with dividing up the hard goods whose production and delivery are the necessary purpose of an economy.

  19. @ CK MacLeod:

    George C Marshall: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

    Of course, much as we want to gloss over it, Marshall said that as we carried out punitive and terror inducing actions many many orders of magnitude greater than what the Russians did in a surgical manner, so to speak, to send a message to Hezbollah.

    Much as we want to deny it there are people in the world who value only their own lives and the lives of their relations, and who will not stop unless you prove to them that you’re willing to attack and capable of attacking that which they value.

    Our so called “morality” leads inevitably to massive wars fought against the relatively innocent by draftees urged on by leaders who are surrounded by their families and harems and held safe and off limits from attack in their palaces. The fact that there was an Emperor of Japan to treat with at the end of a war which saw us destroy a couple dozen cities is ample proof.

  20. But who am I to argue with the great moralists. After all, they gave George Marshall the Nobel Peace Prize after he helped plan the multi million man draftee army that killed millions of German draftees and bombed the hell out of German cities while the moralists were advising Churchill that assassinating Hitler would be immoral.

  21. That Marshall guy, he was like a warmonger.
    And to think that Mr. Nobel gave him a prize just for some plan or something to rebuild all them countries that got all knocked down because Allah willed it.
    Make no mistake, that WWII was a mistake. Those good Christians from Germany were out to save us all (‘cept for a few million folks that came from the ME originally) from Islamist terror before it picked up any steam.
    We fought the WRONG enemy. The Germans, once established in Rooshia, woulda swoopt right down on them oil barrens and got holt of them super-sheikhs by their scruffy necks and twisted and twisted and twisted

  22. I think Obama’s work in Pakistan has been this administration’s most credible. fuster I would agree there, but its performance elsewhere is more than just disappointing. I wasn’t happy with GWB’s Iranian initiatives and OSlash’s are significantly worse. His kowtowing to Russia and China have actually made it much more dangerous than need be.

    America’s issue is very simple; do we as a nation have the will to endure. It is clear we all don’t, as the radical left doesn’t even want us to, and it is to this group’s attitude on the US that our current President is most sympathetic. That will be corrected in 2010 and 2012, it is a blip, because the majority of the country doesn’t agree with the radical left or the president on much of anything past platitudes – and in fact are getting increasingly angy.

    We have, for whatever reason been unwilling to really confront Iran. And now we are even unwilling to help its own people wrest control away from the Islamofacists currently running the place.

    Our population does not have the desire to take care of the problem. The head of the dark age Islamofacists is Iran. With conviction, we could wipe them out in a month or two and dry up the extra terrorist cash laying around that funds much of the problems in the mideast, including Afghanistan. But perhaps we are too tired and it is becoming our turn to pass into the night – old, tired, and unwilling to stand up for what is right in our own country, let alone anywhere else.

  23. Sully – I have a great deal of sympathy with your perspective. I have come at it from a different angle, but the same question. To the moralists who question the dropping of the A Bomb my question has always been, so we wiped out a couple of cities and killed a hundred or two thousand people as opposed to the estimated death toll of an actual invasion of the Japanese Islands that would have killed at least 1 million if not double that. So because of the way they died, which saved at least a million lives, it is somehow worse than to have killed the 2 million? Did Japan not sneak attack the Hawaiian Islands, did we not then formally declare war on each other, did we not fight an almost 4 year battle back and forth across the Pacific Ocean that killed thousands and was noted for its savagery, and you are worried because technology killed such a large number at once that it ended up saving a greater number, by a substantial margin, that would have died in a more convential action?

    Sometimes Sully I think the environmentalist wackos have this humanity as the scourge of the earth idea right. The fact that they need to be looking at themselves as they say it doesn’t lesson its validity.

  24. fuster wrote:

    @ JEM:
    We spent our bullets on the wrong target. Iraq was a huge fark-up.

    It was going to have to be done, you can argue whether it should have come second, but it made itself the target internationally with the Kuwait invasion. There was no international concensus to go after Iran. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care of it of course.

  25. @ fuster:

    You really should have read what I wrote before responding at some sort of fifth dimensionsional angle to something I didn’t write and don’t believe.

    For the record, I think ALL of our actions in WW2 that were conducted in furtherance of bringing about the swiftest possible defeat and dissolution of the attacking governments from the moment we were attacked (and declared war on in the case of Germany) were both proportional and moral by any standard that’s reasonable to hold.

    I was trying to say, and I think I did say fairly coherently, that it was both deeply immoral and in practice stupid to exempt both Hitler and Hirohito from direct attack while mercilessly pounding their less guilty countrymen and women, even though I believe pounding their less guilty countrymen to force their surrender was itself a moral act in that they shared responsibility for the actions of the governments they tolerated and/or supported.

    I’m a simple person. I think we should almost never start a war; but when one is started against us we should fight with any and all weapons at our disposal with the almost exclusive goal of minimizing our own casualties.

    There is an easy way to tell if one should fight “fair”. If there is a referee whose decisions will be unquestionably accepted by both parties to the fight one should fight “fair”.

  26. @ Sully:
    I kinda thought that I did understand what you were saying and was just sort of going off.
    Really only the first paragraph was for you and simply to point up that the Nobel was for the rebuilding plan.

  27. @ JEM:

    Perhaps my post was less clear than I thought. I think the A Bomb attacks were as moral as any act in the war.

    My beef with Marshall (and I don’t have a huge beef with him – he was a great man) is that he tolerated the silliness of exempting the emperor’s palace from bombing while planning an invasion of Japan that would have gotten tens or hundreds of thousands of GIs killed. And he planned that invasion while the submarine campaign was already starving the Japanese into submission and the air campaign was already systematically destroying Japan city by city at little cost in American lives.

    Beyond that I used Marshall as an example of the angels on the heads of pins arguments and positions of so called moralists because he is the perfect example of the behavior of elites in all times.

    Yes, he carried out the Marshall Plan; and I’m sure he did a good job of it – namely using other people’s money to achieve something arguably worthwhile for which the other people (those whose money Marshall used) should have gotten the peace prize, if anyone.

  28. @ Sully:
    Marshall was the name on the plan and giving it to him wasn’t due to a lack of understanding that he wasn’t the fount and origin of the thing.

  29. Not that Marshall needs defense from the likes of me, but I think that by the time that that Operation Downfall was being planned, the US strategy had been pretty much set as “throw everything at them,” so he planned a major land invasion. If we had possessed a division of slingshot and spitwad auxiliaries, they probably would have been thrown into the fight, too. Also, I don’t think that the Americans were quite aware of how relatively effective submarine warfare had been. Hastings argues that it was more significant in breaking Japanese will and effectiveness than LeMay’s firebombing, at a tiny fraction of the investment and human cost, but that the fact wasn’t obvious at the time.

    Meanwhile, the Emperor’s Palace was probably considered a religious/cultural site of the sort that had throughout the war been declared off-limits except when deemed militarily significant – like civilian targets – even while the distinction became more and more difficult to sustain. We stuck, or tried to stick, to the same rules for the same reasons we refrained from chemical warfare and treated POWs well.

    Yet in a typically exceptional contradiction, Kyoto was the original target for the A-bomb. Hiroshima was a humanitarian compromise. Aside from being arguably a good decision from the historical perspective, it also turned out that the Emperor was more prepared to surrender at the end than the militarists who more or less ran things – I say more or less because by the end one of the chief difficulties we and in fact the Japanese had was determining who spoke for them.

  30. @ CK MacLeod:

    Meanwhile, the Emperor’s Palace was probably considered a religious/cultural site of the sort that had throughout the war been declared off-limits except when deemed militarily significant

    You (and Marshall and the other war fighters) can’t have it both ways. Their argument effectively was that the emperor, as head of state, could not be directly attacked from a moral standpoint and also from a practical standpoint because he was in charge and necessary to negotiate with.

    And, in fact, when he got on the radio and said “put down your arms and surrender” virtually every Japanese soldier and sailor did so as meekly as could be.

    So. . . he was in charge and could potentially have ended the war at any time had he been willing to risk all. He also could have prevented the war in the first place, or at least died trying to prevent a war being started in his name. He was hence one of a few who were the most guilty persons in Japan with respect to the war.

    So, tell me again. Why was Hirohito exempt from attack, guilty as he was and major war asset that he was (being in his person the basis for Japan’s very cohesion as a nation) while Japanese 18 year old dupes of the emperor hiding in caves on Iwo Jima were fair game to be rooted out by American 18 year old draftees with flamethrowers at great risk of their lives?

  31. @ fuster:

    The firebombing of Tokyo was pretty much over the line as it was. It wasn’t silliness to exempt the Palace grounds.

    Japanese persons in Tokyo, in that they were producing war materials and supplies for war fighters, were legitimate targets in a war that Japan clearly started and which Japan stubbornly refused to end. Innocents were unfortunately kept intermixed with them by Japanese leaders who therefore bear all responsibility for their deaths.

  32. @ narciso:

    I’ve seen it also; but can’t recall where. It’s not “lunatic” at all to think that a big man would exempt city A for sentimental reasons while approving the targetting of city B.

    One of the most common equipages of big men is belief that “it’s all about me” even though most of them hide that attitude better than our current president.

  33. @ Sully:
    I know who’s war it was, Sully. You don’t need to stress the utter depravity of the Japanese conduct.
    The civilians in Tokyo weren’t contributing much to the war effort, we knew that, and we knew exactly what to expect when we chose to use incendiaries. The fire and the number of civilian deaths were very close to our expectations.
    This one is a bit harder to defend than Hiroshima.

  34. @ Sully:
    One real reason for not trying to kill the Emperor by bomb (quite unlikely to be successful BTW)
    was that it would have pretty much insured the death of every allied POW in Japan.
    Another is that it would likely have unleashed the militarists from any last bit of restraint.

  35. @ narciso:
    I was fooling around with your double use of the word “moon” in your comment. Lunatic goes to that.

    Kyoto was spared because of its cultural significance and because there was no reason at all to blow it up.

  36. @ fuster:

    One real reason for not trying to kill the Emperor by bomb (quite unlikely to be successful BTW)
    was that it would have pretty much insured the death of every allied POW in Japan.

    I’m not sure it’s a sufficient reason given the rate at which American combatants were dying; but that is a good reason I hadn’t considered.

  37. @ Sully:
    It is a good point, regarding the POWs, but, beyond that, and considering how hard it was to get the Japanese to give in even after the a-bombings, I think it’s at least uncertain whether the reaction of the militarists wouldn’t have been an even greater determination to fight to the death. As you point out, upon receiving the Emperor’s order, the soldiers stopped fighting. If he hadn’t been able to give the order… who knows how many a-bombs we would have had to drop, and how many holdouts we would have had to fight?

  38. The Army wasn’t planning to surrender. They were busy passing out pointed sticks to city dwellers and caching weapons and food around the countryside.

  39. Well there was that attempted coup, revealed in ” The last mission”, that was prevented because a trusted confidant hid the record with the message

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