On Creativity

September 28, 2015

Thoughts of Isaac Asimov.

Isaac Asimov -

The process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the evolution of a new art form,  new gadget or new business idea, all involving common and domain specific factors. I am interested in the “creation” of new business thinking,  or the reapplication of old thinking in new and creative ways.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both travelled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.

The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)

For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.

Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

Yet your company is conducting this cerebration program on government money. To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat. In fact, the average scientist has enough public conscience not to want to feel he is doing this even if no one finds out.

I would suggest that members at a cerebration session be given sinecure tasks to do—short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems—and be paid for that, the payment being the fee that would ordinarily be paid for the cerebration session. The cerebration session would then be officially unpaid-for and that, too, would allow considerable relaxation.

I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided. There must be someone in charge who plays a role equivalent to that of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst, as I understand it, by asking the right questions (and except for that interfering as little as possible), gets the patient himself to discuss his past life in such a way as to elicit new understanding of it in his own eyes.

In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point. Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.

As for “gadgets” designed to elicit creativity, I think these should arise out of the bull sessions themselves. If thoroughly relaxed, free of responsibility, discussing something of interest, and being by nature unconventional, the participants themselves will create devices to stimulate discussion.


The rise and fall of Default Man

November 10, 2014

How did the straight, white, middle-class Default Man take control of our society – and how can he be dethroned?


By Grayson Perry……. a Turner Prize-winning artist. In 2012, his series All In The Best Possible Taste was broadcast on Channel 4, and in 2013 he delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures. He guest-edited the New Statesman in October 2014.

This article was first published in the Newstatesmen in October 2014


Grayson Perry's stamp

Attack of the clones: Default Man is so entrenched in society that he is “like a Death Star hiding behind the moon”. Artwork by Grayson Perry


Paddle your canoe up the River Thames and you will come round the bend and see a forest of huge totems jutting into the sky. Great shiny monoliths in various phallic shapes, they are the wondrous cultural artefacts of a remarkable tribe. We all know someone from this powerful tribe but we very rarely, if ever, ascribe their power to the fact that they have a particular tribal identity.

I think this tribe, a small minority of our native population, needs closer examination. In the UK, its members probably make up about 10 per cent of the population (see infographic below); globally, probably less than 1 per cent. In a phrase used more often in association with Operation Yewtree, they are among us and hide in plain sight.

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population. With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.

They are, of course, white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged. And every component of that description has historically played a part in making this tribe a group that punches far, far above its weight. I have struggled to find a name for this identity that will trip off the tongue, or that doesn’t clutter the page with unpronounceable acronyms such as WMCMAHM. “The White Blob” was a strong contender but in the end I opted to call him Default Man. I like the word “default”, for not only does it mean “the result of not making an active choice”, but two of its synonyms are “failure to pay” and “evasion”, which seems incredibly appropriate, considering the group I wish to talk about.

Today, in politically correct 21st-century Britain, you might think things would have changed but somehow the Great White Male has thrived and continues to colonise the high-status, high-earning, high-power roles (93 per cent of executive directors in the UK are white men; 77 per cent of parliament is male). The Great White Male’s combination of good education, manners, charm, confidence and sexual attractiveness (or “money”, as I like to call it) means he has a strong grip on the keys to power. Of course, the main reason he has those qualities in the first place is what he is, not what he has achieved. John Scalzi, in his blog Whatever, thought that being a straight white male was like playing the computer game called Life with the difficulty setting on “Easy”. If you are a Default Man you look like power.

I must confess that I qualify in many ways to be a Default Man myself but I feel that by coming from a working-class background and being an artist and a transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice.

In the course of making my documentary series about identity, Who Are You?, for Channel 4, the identity I found hardest to talk about, the most elusive, was Default Man’s. Somehow, his world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon. We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those. We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms.

Chris Huhne (60, Westminster, PPE Mag­dalen, self-destructively heterosexual), the Default Man we chose to interview for our series, pooh-poohed any suggestion when asked if he benefited from membership or if he represented this group. Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity. They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project, they are individuals!


This adherence to being individuals is the nub of the matter. Being “individual” means that if they achieve something good, it is down to their own efforts. They got the job because they are brilliant, not because they are a Default Man, and they are also presumed more competent by other Default Men. If they do something bad it is also down to the individual and not to do with their gender, race or class. If a Default Man commits a crime it is not because fraud or sexual harassment, say, are endemic in his tribe (coughs), it is because he is a wrong ’un. If a Default Man gets emotional it is because he is a “passionate” individual, whereas if he were a woman it would often be blamed on her sex.

When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat. Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.

When talking about identity groups, the word “community” often crops up. The working class, gay people, black people or Muslims are always represented by a “community leader”. We rarely, if ever, hear of the white middle-class community. “Communities” are defined in the eye of Default Man. Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is “other”. Communities usually seem to be embattled, separate from society. “Society” is what Default Man belongs to.

In news stories such as the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham schools and the recent child-abuse scandal in Rotherham, the central involvement of an ethnic or faith “community” skews the attitudes of police, social services and the media. The Muslim or Pakistani heritage of those accused becomes the focus. I’m not saying that faith and ethnic groups don’t have their particular problems but the recipe for such trouble is made up of more than one spicy, foreign ingredient. I would say it involves more than a few handfuls of common-or-garden education/class issues, poor mental health and, of course, the essential ingredient in nearly all nasty or violent problems, men. Yeah, men – bit like them Default Men but without suits on.

In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze”. She was writing about how the gaze of the movie camera reflected the heterosexual male viewpoint of the directors (a viewpoint very much still with us, considering that only 9 per cent of the top 250 Hollywood films in 2012 were directed by women and only 2 per cent of the cinematographers were female).

The Default Male gaze does not just dominate cinema, it looks down on society like the eye on Sauron’s tower in The Lord of the Rings. Every other identity group is “othered” by it. It is the gaze of the expensively nondescript corporate leader watching consumers adorn themselves with his company’s products the better to get his attention.

Default Man feels he is the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged. Default Man is the zero longitude of identities.

He has forged a society very much in his own image, to the point where now much of what other groups think and feel is the same. They take on the attitudes of Default Man because they are the attitudes of our elders, our education, our government, our media. If Default Men approve of something it must be good, and if they disapprove it must be bad, so people end up hating themselves, because their internalised Default Man is berating them for being female, gay, black, silly or wild.

I often hear women approvingly describe themselves or other women as feisty. Feisty, I feel, has sexist implications, as if standing up for yourself was exceptional in a woman. It sounds like a word that a raffish Lothario would use about a difficult conquest.

I once gave a talk on kinky sex and during the questions afterwards a gay woman floated an interesting thought: “Is the legalising of gay marriage an attempt to neutralise the otherness of homosexuals?” she asked. Was the subversive alternative being neutered by allowing gays to marry and ape a hetero lifestyle? Many gay people might have enjoyed their dangerous outsider status. Had Default Man implanted a desire to be just like him?

Is the fact that we think like Default Man the reason why a black female Doctor Who has not happened, that it might seem “wrong” or clunky? In my experience, when I go to the doctor I am more likely to see a non-white woman than a Default Man.

It is difficult to tweezer out the effect of Default Man on our culture, so ingrained is it after centuries of their rules. A friend was once on a flight from Egypt. As it came in to land at Heathrow he looked down at the rows of mock-Tudor stockbroker-belt houses in west London. Pointing them out, he said to the Egyptian man sitting next to him: “Oh well, back to boring old England.” The Egyptian replied, “Ah, but to me this is very exotic.” And he was right. To much of the world the Default Englishman is a funny foreign folk icon, with his bowler hat, his Savile Row suit and Hugh Grant accent, living like Reggie Perrin in one of those polite suburban semis. All the same, his tribal costume and rituals have probably clothed and informed the global power elite more than any other culture. Leaders wear his clothes, talk his language and subscribe to some version of his model of how society “should be”.

When I was at art college in the late Seventies/early Eighties, one of the slogans the feminists used was: “Objectivity is Male Subjectivity.” This brilliantly encapsulates how male power nestles in our very language, exerting influence at the most fundamental level. Men, especially Default Men, have put forward their biased, highly emotional views as somehow “rational”, more considered, more “calm down, dear”. Women and “exotic” minorities are framed as “passionate” or “emotional” as if they, the Default Men, had this unique ability to somehow look round the side of that most interior lens, the lens that is always distorted by our feelings. Default Man somehow had a dispassionate, empirical, objective vision of the world as a birthright, and everyone else was at the mercy of turbulent, uncontrolled feelings. That, of course, explained why the “others” often held views that were at such odds with their supposedly cool, analytic vision of the world.

Recently, footage of the UN spokesman Chris Gunness breaking down in tears as he spoke of the horrors occurring in Gaza went viral. It was newsworthy because reporters and such spokespeople are supposed to be dispassionate and impartial. To show such feelings was to be “unprofessional”. And lo! The inherited mental health issues of Default Man are cast as a necessity for serious employment.

I think Default Man should be made aware of the costs and increasing obsolescence of this trait, celebrated as “a stiff upper lip”. This habit of denying, recasting or suppressing emotion may give him the veneer of “professionalism” but, as David Hume put it: “Reason is a slave of the passions.” To be unaware of or unwilling to examine feelings means those feelings have free rein to influence behaviour unconsciously. Unchecked, they can motivate Default Man covertly, unacknowledged, often wreaking havoc. Even if rooted in long-past events in the deep unconscious, these emotions still fester, churning in the dark at the bottom of the well. Who knows what unconscious, screwed-up “personal journeys” are being played out on the nation by emotionally illiterate Default Men?

Being male and middle class and being from a generation that still valued the stiff upper lip means our Default Man is an ideal candidate for low emotional awareness. He sits in a gender/ class/age nexus marked “Unexploded Emotional Time Bomb”.

These people have been in charge of our world for a long time.

Things may be changing.


Women are often stereotyped as the emotional ones, and men as rational. But, after the 2008 crash, the picture looked different, as Hanna Rosin wrote in an article in the Atlantic titled “The End of Men”:

Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and level-headed.

Over the centuries, empirical, clear thinking has become branded with the image of Default Men. They were the ones granted the opportunity, the education, the leisure, the power to put their thoughts out into the world. In people’s minds, what do professors look like? What do judges look like? What do leaders look like? The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man. Practically every person on the globe who wants to be taken seriously in politics, business and the media dresses up in some way like a Default Man, in a grey, western, two-piece business suit. Not for nothing is it referred to as “power dressing”. We’ve all seen those photo ops of world leaders: colour and pattern shriek out as anachronistic. Consequently, many women have adopted this armour of the unremarkable. Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, wears a predictable unfussy, feminised version of the male look. Hillary Clinton has adopted a similar style. Some businesswomen describe this need to tone down their feminine appearance as “taking on the third gender”.

Peter Jones on Dragons’ Den was once referred to as “eccentric” for wearing brightly coloured stripy socks. So rigid is the Default Man look that men’s suit fashions pivot on tiny changes of detail at a glacial pace. US politicians wear such a narrow version of the Default Man look that you rarely see one wearing a tie that is not plain or striped.


Suits you, sir: Grayson Perry as Default Man. Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra/New Statesman

Suits you, sir: Grayson Perry as Default Man.
Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra/New Statesman


One tactic that men use to disguise their subjectively restricted clothing choices is the justification of spurious function. As if they need a watch that splits lap times and works 300 feet underwater, or a Himalayan mountaineer’s jacket for a walk in the park. The rufty-tufty army/hunter camouflage pattern is now to boys as pink is to girls. Curiously, I think the real function of the sober business suit is not to look smart but as camouflage. A person in a grey suit is invisible, in the way burglars often wear hi-vis jackets to pass as unremarkable “workmen”. The business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising. It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity. Many office workers loathe dress-down Fridays because they can no longer hide behind a suit. They might have to expose something of their messy selves through their “casual” clothes. Modern, overprofessionalised politicians, having spent too long in the besuited tribal compound, find casual dress very difficult to get right convincingly. David Cameron, while ruining Converse basketball shoes for the rest of us, never seemed to me as if he belonged in a pair.

When I am out and about in an eye-catching frock, men often remark to me, “Oh, I wish I could dress like you and did not have to wear a boring suit.” Have to! The male role is heavily policed from birth, by parents, peers and bosses. Politicians in particular are harshly kept in line by a media that seems to uphold more bizarrely rigid standards of conformity than those held by any citizen. Each component of the Default Male role – his gender, his class, his age and his sexuality – confines him to an ever narrower set of behaviours, until riding a bicycle or growing a beard, having messy hair or enjoying a pint are seen as ker-azy eccentricity. The fashionable members’ club Shoreditch House, the kind of place where “creatives” with two iPhones and three bicycles hang out, has a “No Suits” rule. How much of this is a pseudo-rebellious pose and how much is in recognition of the pernicious effect of the overgrown schoolboy’s uniform, I do not know.

I dwell on the suit because I feel it exemplifies how the upholders of Default Male values hide in plain sight. Imagine if, by democratic decree, the business suit was banned, like certain items of Islamic dress have been banned in some countries. Default Men would flounder and complain that they were not being treated with “respect”.

The most pervasive aspect of the Default Man identity is that it masquerades very efficiently as “normal” – and “normal”, along with “natural”, is a dangerous word, often at the root of hateful prejudice. As Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High-Octane Women, writes:

Women in today’s workforce . . . are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe – second-generation gender biases . . . “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face”, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men.

Personally, working in the arts, I do not often encounter Default Man en masse, but when I do it is a shock. I occasionally get invited to formal dinners in the City of London and on arrival, I am met, in my lurid cocktail dress, with a sea of dinner jackets; perhaps harshly, my expectations of a satisfying conversation drop. I feel rude mentioning the black-clad elephant in the room. I sense that I am the anthropologist allowed in to the tribal ritual.

Of course, this weird minority, these curiously dominant white males, are anything but normal. “Normal,” as Carl Jung said, “is the ideal aim for the unsuccessful.” They like to keep their abnormal power low-key: the higher the power, the duller the suit and tie, a Mercedes rather than a Rolls, just another old man chatting casually to prime ministers at the wedding of a tabloid editor.

Revolution is happening. I am loath to use the R word because bearded young men usually characterise it as sudden and violent. But that is just another unhelpful cliché. I feel real revolutions happen thoughtfully in peacetime. A move away from the dominance of Default Man is happening, but way too slowly. Such changes in society seem to happen at a pace set by incremental shifts in the animal spirits of the population. I have heard many of the “rational” (ie, male) arguments against quotas and positive discrimination but I feel it is a necessary fudge to enable just change to happen in the foreseeable future. At the present rate of change it will take more than a hundred years before the UK parliament is 50 per cent female.

The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having their privilege taken away. For talented black, female and working-class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some of those Default Men are going to have to give up their seats.

Perhaps Default Man needs to step down from some of his most celebrated roles. I’d happily watch a gay black James Bond and an all-female Top Gear, QI or Have I Got News for You. Jeremy Paxman should have been replaced by a woman on Newsnight. More importantly, we need a quota of MPs who (shock) have not been to university but have worked on the shop floor of key industries; have had life experiences that reflect their constituents’; who actually represent the country rather than just a narrow idea of what a politician looks like. The ridiculousness of objections to quotas would become clear if you were to suggest that, instead of calling it affirmative action, we adopted “Proportionate Default Man Quotas” for government and business. We are wasting talent. Women make up a majority of graduates in such relevant fields as law.

Default Man seems to be the embodiment of George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to make the world adapt to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Default Man’s days may be numbered; a lot of his habits are seen at best as old-fashioned or quaint and at worst as redundant, dangerous or criminal. He carries a raft of unhelpful habits and attitudes gifted to him from history – adrenalin addiction, a need for certainty, snobbery, emotional constipation and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement – which have often proved disastrous for society and can also stop poor Default Man from leading a fulfilling life.

Earlier this year, at the Being A Man festival at the Southbank Centre in London, I gave a talk on masculinity called: “Men, Sit Down for your Rights!”. A jokey title, yes, but one making a serious point: that perhaps, if men were to loosen their grip on power, there might be some benefits for them. The straitjacket of the Default Man identity is not necessarily one happily donned by all members of the tribe: many struggle with the bad fit of being leader, provider, status hunter, sexual predator, respectable and dignified symbol of straight achievement. Maybe the “invisible weightless backpack” that the US feminist Peggy McIntosh uses to describe white privilege, full of “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”, does weigh rather a lot after all.


He’s Made It Worse: Obama’s Middle East

June 17, 2014

By Abe Greenwald


Obama's Middle East

I. From Bush to Obama

In the last days of George W. Bush’s presidency, the Economist delivered a damning assessment: “Abroad, George Bush has presided over the most catastrophic collapse in America’s reputation since the second world war.” In the view of the magazine’s editors, “a president who believed that America’s global supremacy was guaranteed by America’s unrivalled military power ended up demonstrating the limits of both.”

Without question, the United States paid a large price for Bush’s policies outside the United States. There were two unresolved wars, thousands of American dead, and the lingering castigations of assorted parties around the globe.

Of course all policy decisions are trade-offs, and Bush’s demonstrated not only the limits of American power but also its possibilities. In return for our sacrifices we saw al-Qaeda decimated and the American homeland secured against attack. By the time the 43rd president left office, an American-led coalition had established a flawed but democratic ally in the heart of the Muslim world. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, moreover, had given up his weapons of mass destruction, a development whose full benefit would be appreciated a decade later when Qaddafi’s regime fell and his conventional arms were dispersed to jihadists in North Africa.

By the end of Bush’s presidency, some saw the United States as fearless, others saw us as stumbling, and still others as dangerously belligerent. But for all the outrage about unilateralism and cowboy diplomacy, American relations in the larger Middle East functioned within long-standing diplomatic boundaries. Bush promoted freedom in the region but never jeopardized pragmatic relations with the most important autocracies and monarchies, for better or worse. Some European capitals were upset with Washington, but this caused no long-term rift in transatlantic relations.

The most tangible change brought on by Bush’s foreign policy was its domestic impact. By 2008, Americans were sick of war and tired of the Middle East
altogether. Thus, one of Barack Obama’s biggest selling points was his promise to end the war in Iraq, extricate the country from the region, and pursue a more contrite foreign policy. Once elected, President Obama set out to honor his campaign pledge. The question of his ideological disposition can be debated endlessly, but whatever its precise contours, it translated into policies that largely reversed Bush positions in the Middle East. Where Bush was particularly supportive of our closest regional ally, Obama pressured Israel for concessions. Where Bush reached out to the Iranian people in solidarity against the regime that was our chief antagonist, Obama rebuffed ordinary Iranians and offered an “open hand” to the regime itself.

Between the two poles of Israel and Iran, Obama made clear to other Middle East leaders that his main concern was staying out of their affairs. As he told the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news station soon after taking office: “Too often the United States starts by dictating.” Unlike Bush, Obama implied, he would stand back and “listen.” And he has made good on his word to shrink American influence and undo the disruptive excesses of the Bush years.


What have we gotten in return for our more humble posture in the Middle East? The answer, as a case-by-case examination of the most important examples reveals, is this: a new age of great peril. Under Barack Obama’s leadership, in almost every square inch of the Middle East, the strategic position of the United States has decayed. And the region itself is far worse off than it was when he took office.

II.  The  Egypt  Reversals

Barack Obama chose Egypt as the site of his opening gesture to the Muslim world. The address he delivered on June 4, 2009, at Cairo University is known as the Cairo speech, but its actual title, “A New Beginning,” offers a better sense of his ambition. The president filled the hour-long speech with blandishments aimed at easing tensions between the United States and the world’s Muslims. Among his noteworthy comments was his stated approval of observant women who choose to cover their heads—a signal to those he considered moderate Islamists that the United States would treat them as political equals. Although the address was broad in scope, Obama’s words about democracy would prove to be directly relevant to Egypt itself. He expressed a commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people” and vowed that the United States “will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people…because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.”

Less than two years later, a quarter-million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to end the 30-year reign of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak. Despite Obama’s earlier focus on “the will of the people,” the White House was initially supportive of Mubarak. Vice President Joseph Biden denied that Mubarak was a dictator and recommended he not step down. Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described him as a close family friend. Days later, Obama praised Mubarak as a valued American ally who should begin the process of democratic reform rather than leave office. But as protests grew, it became clear that there was no sense in fighting Egyptian popular will. Within days of his initial vote of confidence in Mubarak, Obama declared that it was time for the Egyptian leader to go and that “an orderly transition must begin now.” By this time, however, protestors in Cairo were carrying signs that read, “Shame on you, Obama.” If there had been a window of opportunity for the administration to back up the freedom rhetoric of the Cairo speech, it had passed. The White House zigzag alienated Egyptians who were trying to steer their country’s politics in the wake of Mubarak’s departure.

The administration had good reason to support Mubarak. He was a secular leader who honored his peace treaties with Israel, supported the United States in opposing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, and provided what stability the region had enjoyed. But the United States misread the state of affairs inside Egypt and looked flummoxed responding to real-time events. Diplomatic cables made public by the group WikiLeaks reveal that the Obama administration had earlier assessed Mubarak as a “tried and true realist” whose record of survival boded well for his staying in power. On the matter of human rights, the State Department had ceased the Bush-era practice of calling out Mubarak for his abuses, and the administration decreased funding for civil-society programs in Egypt. In other words, Obama was cozying up to the dictator just as the legitimacy of his three-decade reign was falling apart.

Obama’s habit of misreading Egypt was only getting started. When the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president, the United States wasted no time in pronouncing him a legitimate democrat. Morsi, for his part, turned at once to theocratic authoritarianism. He bypassed the judiciary, wrote up an oppressive Islamist constitution, and prayed publicly for the destruction of the Jews. If anyone fit Obama’s Cairo-speech description of the elected anti-democrat, it was the fanatical Egyptian president. This was not lost on Egyptians, who, within a year, were once again out on the streets calling for the ouster of an incompetent oppressor. And once again, the oppressor was supported by the Obama administration. Behind the scenes, Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to convince Morsi to call for elections, while other administration officials attempted to prevent the Egyptian military from launching a coup.

Neither side listened.

The United States managed to make an enemy of every party in the course of two Egyptian revolutions. What’s worse, Obama failed to support and exploit an Egyptian public ferociously determined to rid itself of Brotherhood rule.

In October 2013, when the military took over the country, it initiated a harsh crackdown on the Brotherhood. This time, most Egyptians seemed to support their government’s extreme measures—yet this time the Obama administration decided to punish the repressive government by withholding a significant portion of America’s $1.3 billion in annual aid. Perhaps Obama hoped this shift in policy would finally give him some leverage over Cairo.

But if so, it’s hard to explain why the administration then decided to reestablish the flow of aid in January. After all this, Egypt has signaled a further drift out of the American orbit and toward Russia, with whom it is negotiating a $2 billion arms deal. In modern Egypt, rulers come and go. Only American incoherence endures.

III.  Leading  from  Behind  in  Libya

The great Arab upheaval hit Libya on February 15, 2011, when protestors took to the streets of Benghazi. Muammar Qaddafi, a bona fide madman, offered no palliative speeches about reform. He described the protestors as “cockroaches” who were “serving the devil” and vowed to “cleanse Libya house by house.” Within the first few days, Qaddafi’s forces killed hundreds of Libyans, which provoked protestors to take up arms. A full-scale civil war was soon under way as rebels fought Qaddafi for control of city after city. Libya’s tattered army gained the upper hand, and by the first week of March, the poorly armed rebels were asking the West to help prevent a grand-scale massacre.

After scolding the United States for its foreign adventures during the Bush years, France (with Great Britain in tow) now took the lead in formally recognizing the Libyan opposition and laying out a case for intervention. France got a significant percentage of its oil from Libya and has deep, historic ties to its former colonies in Northern Africa. Also, the proximity of the two countries meant that a flood of war refugees could become a French problem. But there seemed to be virtually no compelling American interests in Qaddafi’s country. And for Obama, whose fundamental foreign-policy concern was keeping America’s nose out of the Muslim world, intervention was especially unappealing.

And yet the United States doesn’t have the luxury of looking at the globe through the narrow lens of national interests alone. Our power and credibility derive from our singular willingness and capacity to protect a relatively peaceful world order. When the specter of mass atrocities arises, America has to determine whether it can do anything about it. In the 1990s, we twice led the effort to halt large-scale killing in the Balkans, although our national interests there were nil. The atrocity we didn’t stop—the Rwandan slaughter—continues to haunt our national conscience. With uprisings suddenly rampant in dictatorships around the Arab world, the refusal to prevent one bloodbath could give a green light to other embattled dictators. For these reasons, leaders in Europe and some members of Obama’s administration expected us to intervene.

At a G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Paris, Hillary Clinton, who personally favored intervention, responded to European calls for action (now supported by the Arab League as well) with noncommittal language meant to stall any effort. European leaders were baffled by the uncharacteristic American indifference and incoherence. “Frankly we are just completely puzzled,” said one diplomat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Clinton to urge the United States to take the case for action to the United Nations. He, too, was stonewalled.

Obama, who had lambasted Bush for disregarding the wishes of allies, had created his own “go it alone” crisis.

Eventually, the cry for action both in and out of the administration became so great as to shame Obama into following the Europeans’ lead. The United Nations Security Council authorized military force on March 17, and the first bombs were dropped on regime-related targets two days later. Reluctant and regretful, Obama repeatedly professed that the United States was playing only a peripheral support role. In truth, the American role was large and the five-month campaign that ousted Qaddafi wouldn’t have been as successful without our unparalleled military might.

When the dust settled, administration supporters began to tout the Libya episode as a “new model” for American intervention. Unlike the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, it had been low-risk and required no boots on the ground. The approval of the Arab League lent it regional legitimacy, and the approval of the French somehow translated into global legitimacy (even though the Germans, Russians, Chinese, and others disapproved).

But in the hubristic aftermath, things unraveled. As there was no sufficient presence on the ground to look after the dictator’s abandoned arsenal, a terrorist weapons bazaar sprouted up that not only armed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Hamas in Gaza, but also changed the course of a rebel war in Mali (ironically prompting French intervention there as well). A UN report documented internationally smuggled Libyan weapons, including “rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with antiaircraft visors, automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades, explosives (Semtex), and light antiaircraft artillery (light-caliber bi-tubes) mounted on vehicles.”

“Leading from behind,” as one administration official notoriously characterized the Obama approach in Libya, didn’t turn out to be so low-risk. Insufficient post-Qaddafi planning had made sitting ducks of the four American officials at a diplomatic mission in Benghazi who came under terrorist assault on September 11, 2012. All four were killed. The details surrounding the attack ignited an enormous controversy that still rages on.

Unsurprisingly, Libya remains a land of chaos and tribalism. In no way is that Barack Obama’s fault. But a genuine commitment to action instead of a grudging and pusillanimous cave-in to other powers would have gone some way toward making things safer after Qaddafi was gone. Neither in nor out, neither leading nor following, in Libya America sounded an uncertain note to allies and offered a new model of superpower ambivalence.

IV.  The  Iran  Trap

Having pledged on the campaign trail to talk to Tehran without preconditions, Barack Obama telegraphed his position on Iran far in advance. He wanted solicitous, gesture-heavy diplomacy aimed at erasing the ill will between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Obama believed that mutual misconceptions had piled up and had made constructive engagement on the Iranian nuclear question unnecessarily difficult. Yes, the mullahs are deeply religious, so the thinking went, but they are not suicidal. Persians are a proud people with a great history and want respect from the international community. Treat Iran like a reasonable country acting on its own set of logical interests, and you will break out of the unproductive cycle of fantastic demonization.

If only any of it were true. The Islamic Republic was founded in 1979 on a theocratic and apocalyptic strain of Shia Islam. The regime is suicidal. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn,” said its founding visionary, Ayatollah Khomeini. “I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” It is also exterminationist, having adopted as its sustaining myth the divinely ordained destruction of both Israel and the United States. In pursuit of its aims, Iran has been building a nuclear-weapons program complete with uranium mines, enrichment plants, hidden facilities, advanced centrifuges, and research-and-development sites devoted to perfecting a delivery system. The prospect of Iran’s using such a weapon on Israel is unthinkable only to those who are wholly unfamiliar with the Islamic Republic or the abominations of modern history. And the current Sunni-Shia tensions mean that a nuclear-armed Iran is certain to spark an atomic arms race in the region. Since 1979, successive American administrations have made extensive diplomatic overtures in hopes of negotiating away the Iranian threat, and they have all failed. Obama objected to an understanding of Iran that had been hard-earned, from experience—not fashioned to fit a prejudice.

Obama came into office extending an “open hand” to Tehran, and offered gesture after gesture to establish good faith. In his first video-recorded Nowruz (Persian New Year) message of March 2009, he appealed directly to Iranian leaders for mutual cooperation. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded with public insults. In his Cairo speech, Obama became the first serving American president to admit to American involvement in the 1953 ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This seemed a direct response to Ahmadinejad’s public demand, made months earlier, that Obama apologize for America’s role in the coup.

As he would do with Egypt, the president picked the wrong moment to ingratiate himself with the leadership of Iran. Following the June 12, 2009, reelection of Ahmadinejad, Iranians flooded the streets to protest what they saw as a rigged vote. The Green Movement, an unmistakable precursor to the Arab Spring, became the dominant global spectacle of the summer. The sea of green-clad Iranian protestors enraged by the Khomeinists captured the world’s attention. And so the world was watching when the brutal Khomeinist crackdown began a week into the demonstrations. Police and intelligence officers tortured, raped, and killed innocents. The gruesome murder of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan went viral and became an emblem of the regime’s inhumanity.

Although Iranians in enormous numbers rose up against a government that was our single most devoted enemy, Obama would not stand squarely with them. He stuck to tepid remarks about dignity and violence and proclaimed that his pursuit of constructive diplomacy with the regime was undeterred. His disregard for popular will in Iran was not lost on the Iranian public, who chanted, “Obama, are you with us or with the regime?”

He had made his choice.

The administration spent Obama’s first term using third parties and back channels to approach Iran with various schemes that would give it access to enriched uranium if its purely civilian use could be verified. These sagas followed a familiar pattern: newspaper headlines about hopeful officials and fresh starts, negotiations with little detail offered to the public, a new round of stories about the very brink of a breakthrough, and then word of Iran’s refusal to cooperate. Throughout the course of these failed attempts, the White House assured Americans and Israelis that “all options are on the table” for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But little else indicated that this was so. The United States and Israel collaborated on the 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack that temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program, but the Obama administration quickly leaked the details for political benefit, thus putting Israel at greater risk. In addition, Obama repeatedly insisted that Israel not launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

While the administration pursued its “open-hand” policy, the Iranian regime stepped up its provocations. The threats against the Jewish state and the United States were constant. In 2011, American officials revealed a foiled Iranian plot to kill a Saudi Arabian ambassador with a bomb in a Washington restaurant. Even that planned, state-sponsored terrorist attack did nothing to knock the administration off its course.

But all first-term negotiation efforts were mere prologue to the diplomatic push that began in June 2013, when Iranians elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani. Obama believed Rouhani to be a moderate and thus more receptive to American outreach than his predecessor. The administration clandestinely eased the bite of American sanctions by citing fewer violators than usual. The White House then opposed bipartisan legislation pushing for new sanctions. In September, days after Rouhani rejected a direct meeting with Obama in New York, the two spoke by telephone, constituting the highest-level contact between the countries since the shuttering of the American Embassy after the Iranian Revolution 34 years earlier. On November 22, the lopsided courtship came to its culmination. “Iran, world powers reach historic nuclear deal,” read theWashington Post headline atop the story about an agreement reached in Geneva that would supposedly freeze “key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief on some economic sanctions.”

The events leading up to and including the Geneva deal were certainly historic. They also constitute the single most dangerous shift in American foreign policy since the height of the Cold War.

For starters, Rouhani is not a moderate. He is a faux-moderate, hand-picked by Khamenei—the country’s actual ruler—to get exactly the kind of sanctions relief that Obama provided. During the Revolution, Rouhani was a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1999, he was behind a crackdown intended, in his words, to “crush mercilessly and monumentally” a student uprising. In 2004, he bragged of his Machiavellian moderation to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium-conversion] facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” The man’s sole purpose is to charm the West while Iran gets the bomb.

As it happens, the deal he has facilitated will probably achieve that aim. From disagreements on missile capabilities to the definition of “freeze” to inspections and the right to enrich uranium, the terms of the “framework” for a deal seem more like a season of geopolitical improvisational theater, with an ever shifting storyline made up on the fly. The framework is supposed to be concluded on July 20, at which point a final agreement may be negotiated. Meanwhile, sanctions have been lifted and centrifuges continue to spin. The administration has successfully fought congressional efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran aimed at getting it to honor its side of the deal. But the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that even if Iran lives up to our current conditions, its ability to “break out” with a completed nuclear weapon would be slowed by only two to three weeks. Little wonder that Rouhani bragged that the deal “means the surrender of the big powers before the great Iranian nation.” To make matters worse, the Obama administration laid the economic and diplomatic groundwork for the deal away from the eyes of the American public and behind Israel’s back. The Obama administration betrayed its closest Middle East allies to meet its most fanatical enemy all the way on a deal that might very well give the latter the means of mass destruction.

V.  The  Syrian  Disaster

Syria is best understood as part of the Iranian threat. The Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s closest ally and only link to the Mediterranean Sea, making his regime vital to the mullahs’ bid for Middle East dominance. When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Tehran jumped to Assad’s aid in waging war on the country’s mostly Sunni population. Hezbollah, a terrorist statelet loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, was dispatched to fight alongside Assad’s men, and Assad was grateful for the help.

Here again, Barack Obama suffered from an unfortunate sense of timing. He began his presidency hoping to engage Syria and peel it away from Iran (a perpetually popular realist notion), as a means of putting pressure on the Islamic Republic to negotiate. Before Assad’s country erupted, the administration undertook high-level diplomatic discussions with Damascus, relaxed export licensing for Syria, tried to smooth its path to the World Trade Organization, established warmer ties with the Syrian foreign minister, and nominated Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005, when the Syrian government was implicated in the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Obama’s plan was undone by the events of March 2011, because Syria and Iran now needed each other more than ever. For this reason alone, the administration would have been wise to consider intervening on behalf of the Syrian rebels. A toppled Assad would have dealt a massive blow to Iran. What’s more, in the early days of the civil war, the rebels weren’t dominated by Sunni terrorist organizations.

But there were also good reasons to stay out of the Syrian conflict. For one, U.S. intelligence on the rebellion was shoddy. Those opposing Assad comprised a confusion of organizations, some radical, some not, many with ties outside the country. Even early on, helping to topple Assad would have probably boosted the standing of some extremists. Additionally, no proponents of intervention were calling for a significant post-Assad American presence. This meant Washington would have scant ability to shape events in a new Syria. With all those caveats in play, however, it’s hard to think of a situation in which ridding Iran of its most important friend wouldn’t have been a net gain. And if Obama’s strategic thinking about Iran were different, he might have seen in Assad’s troubles an important opportunity.

Not only did the American president eschew support for the rebels; he didn’t publicly call on Assad to step down until five months after the initial uprising. During that time the White House had instituted some sanctions on Syria. But as Assad was fighting for his life, it was unlikely that he would hold back for the sake of a blip in oil revenue. What nonlethal aid Washington had promised to the rebels was slow and spotty in coming.

The president made his first allusion to using force in Syria at a press conference in August 2012. “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus.” Obama used this tough line as his reelection contest with Mitt Romney was heating up. He did not want to appear weak and give his rival room to run at him as a weak-kneed Democrat. Obama won, of course, but he had set the stage for the most bizarre and damaging geopolitical blunder of his presidency.

Assad crossed the American red line on August 21, 2013, with a chemical attack that killed 1,400 of his own people. A week later, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a bold speech that pointed toward an American military response. The president then declared on television that he would hit Syria. And then, in the same speech, he punted to an out-of-session Congress, demanding he first be given authorization to act—even though he also said he was within his rights and powers as president to do so without Congressional approval.

Before members of Congress could vote, before Obama would be forced either to act without them or act with them, he was suddenly rescued altogether by an ad-libbed Russian-American deal to put Moscow—a Syrian ally—in charge of removing Assad’s chemical weapons.

The Russia deal is a great boon to the governments in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow. It has effectively kept Assad in power as an American partner in the weapons-removal process. Iran has kept its key ally, and Russia’s profile has been elevated once more on the world stage. As for the rebels, they have been predictably overtaken by Sunni jihadist groups during the three long years of civil war. The non-radicals among them, like the liberals of Iran’s Green Movement and of the Tahrir Square protests, have no illusions about the American president’s lack of commitment to their cause. To the rest of the world, the American administration seems weak, wavering, and in over its head.

Meanwhile, the Russian deal is failing on its own terms. Deadlines for removing Assad’s weapons have come and gone and left Assad holding significant amounts—by some accounts, nearly 96 percent—of the proscribed items. Russian-American tensions over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will probably add further delays.

The United States also shepherded two rounds of UN talks in Geneva aimed at bringing together the Assad regime and the rebels to form a transitional government. The talks failed on the most fundamental level. Syrian rebels are fractured among themselves and completely uninterested in sharing a transitional government with Assad. And the Assad regime is uninterested in talks with a party whose primary goal is the end of Assad’s rule.

Bashar al-Assad, perpetrator of a chemical-weapons attack, has gone unpunished. Three American antagonists have gained ground. And the Syrian civil war, with its death toll at 150,000, rages on. In March, the New York Times reported that al-Qaeda members are now setting up training operations inside Syria and that intelligence officials have reason to believe they are planning attacks on Europe and the United States.

VI.  The  Turkish  Model  Collapses

President Obama has praised Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more effusively than any other leader on the world stage. “I think it’s fair to say that over the last several years, the relationship between Turkey and the United States has continued to grow across every dimension,” said Obama in 2012. “And I find Prime Minister Erdogan to be an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues.”

Chief among these issues was Turkey’s supposed standing as a powerful model for intertwining Islam, democracy, and economic growth. When he became prime minister in 2003, Erdogan seemed to strike a much-needed balance. His avowedly Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP) attracted Islamists without taking a punitive line on non-radicals. As prime minister, he got off to a fine start. Turkey greatly improved relations with its Arab neighbors, achieved significant economic growth, and enjoyed an overall boost in quality of life. For Obama, who believed that working with “moderate” Islamists was key to more agreeable relations in the Middle East, courting Erdogan was a given. It was clear from his comments that the president sought to make his relationship with Erdogan the centerpiece of his Middle East diplomacy.

In late 2009, Obama lunched with Erdogan at the White House and proclaimed that Turkey would be an “important player in trying to move” Iran away from a bomb using diplomacy. There were already signs, however, that Ankara was moving closer to Tehran. In 2009, Erdogan took private meetings in Tehran with his “good friend” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and with Ali Khamenei. Turkey also abstained from an International Atomic Energy Agency board vote condemning Iran’s nuclear activity, and Erdogan claimed that Iran wasn’t pursuing a nuclear weapon at all.

At the same time, Erdogan was stoking tension between Turkey and Israel. He stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Gaza; Turkish leaders announced the country’s first joint military exercises with Syria; and Turkey asked Israel to bow out of hosting a scheduled NATO exercise.

On May 31, 2010, a flotilla of six boats left Turkey with the express goal of breaking Israel’s blockade on Gaza. After the boats ignored repeated warnings, members of the Israel Defense Forces boarded the biggest of them, the Mavi Marmara, and were attacked by armed jihadists ready for battle. The IDF opened fire, killing nine, and the incident came under international scrutiny. Erdogan flew into a permanent outrage, ratcheting up regional anti-Israel sentiment, and demanding that the Jewish state pay for having used lethal force.

But by this point, it had already become clear that the Turkish model was disintegrating. Erdogan’s government has taken a steady path toward increased state suppression, borrowing policies from both the Islamist and secular autocratic playbooks. He has restricted alcohol sales and the use of sidewalk cafés, cracked down on press freedoms and citizens’ access to the Internet, nullified the independence of the Turkish judiciary, and abused his power in myriad ways.

Nonetheless, Obama’s original approach to Turkey remained intact. This once again impressed upon a Muslim country that the United States, for all its lofty pronouncements on freedom, was unconcerned about the threatened liberties of a real-world population. In March 2013, Obama took credit for organizing a phone call between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in which the latter expressed regret over the deaths of those shot on the Mavi Marmara. The White House hailed this as a great leap toward normalizing relations between Israel and Turkey, yet the very next day Erdogan announced that he would not drop his case against the IDF, as he had apparently promised before the phone call had been made.

Two months later, Erdogan’s continued strangulation of freedoms inspired Arab Spring-style protests across Turkey, putting the lie to the Turkish model once and for all.

Obama had tried to get Erdogan to play a conciliatory role in Syria, but the Turkish leader took up support for the hard-core Sunnis among the rebels. This was in keeping with his strong and stated preference for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Yet Turkey’s destabilizing role in Syria is overshadowed by its underhanded support for the regime in Iran. Erdogan has been anything but the diplomatic go-between Obama envisioned. In 2012 and 2013, Turkey helped Iran evade international sanctions through a “gold for oil” scheme involving the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which made approximately $13 billion of gold available to Tehran during that time. This has now become part of a larger corruption and abuse scandal. Obama, hoping to maintain his relationship with Erdogan and to stick to his diplomatic course with Iran, did nothing to punish the Turkish bank. And in 2012, Turkish officials, with Erdogan’s express approval, exposed the identities of Iranians who were meeting with Mossad agents inside Turkey.

Obama’s own Iran policies are partially to blame for Turkey’s now overt move toward Iran’s sphere. First, with Assad now ruling Syria for the foreseeable future, Erdogan figured that warm relations with Tehran might mitigate some of the effects of that conflict’s impact on neighboring Sunni-majority Turkey. Second, Obama’s general enabling of Iran’s rise makes it a power that no regional leader can afford to snub. Not least of all in deference to an unsure American power.

VII.  Losing  Iraq, Leaving  Afghanistan

In Barack Obama’s own words, he “was elected to end wars, not start them.” What’s most interesting about that formulation is that he offered it in 2013. Obama promised something different when he was first elected: He would end the war in Iraq “responsibly,” so that he might better fight the war in Afghanistan. “For six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq,” he said soon after taking office. “Now we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals.”

Let’s take the two parts of this twin promise in turn. In 2009, Iraq was no longer the nucleus of regional chaos. It had, in fact, become a kind of shining light. The government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, had legitimacy and was a functioning, if young, parliamentary democracy. What’s more, Maliki proved willing to take on both Sunni jihadists and Iranian-backed Shiite radicals in order to deliver to the long-suffering Iraqis some modicum of peace. In June, the United States ceased to handle security for cities and the Iraqis were managing the job reasonably well. American casualties in Iraq for 2009 hit a wartime low.

This relative calm allowed the Obama administration to pursue its plan of disengagement. If the previous administration had been fixated on Iraq, Obama’s would catch up on all the other things the war had pushed out of view. The president announced his plan to withdraw most troops from the country by the end of 2010, and the rest by the end of 2011. And then never looked back.

With a disengaged Washington, the democratic project in Iraq began to drift. In March 2010, Maliki refused to honor election results that had handed a partial victory to Ayad Allawi’s moderate Iraqi National Movement. The ensuing crisis birthed an open-ended power struggle in the Iraqi Parliament. For a country so recently liberated from tyrannical rule, the instability proved to be too much. Bit by bit, Maliki’s government began to resemble a typical strongman regime, trading legitimacy for power.

At the time, the United States had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq, extensive security contracts with Baghdad, and leftover working relationships from the Bush years. Nudging the country back on its democratic course would have required exercising some of this formidable American leverage, not any further military commitment. But Obama was determined to keep America out of Iraqi affairs, no matter how serious the circumstances or how light the demands.

In 2011, American neglect was made formal and permanent when the Obama administration failed to negotiate a renewed status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad that would have left behind much-needed U.S. troops. The popular explanation is that Maliki would not countenance immunity for American troops accused of breaking Iraqi law. But the Bush administration had overcome the same sticking point in 2008 when the first status-of-forces agreement was negotiated. The truth is that the Obama administration made an 11th-hour, perfunctory effort at negotiations and Iraqi leaders calculated that risking popular disapproval to maintain such a weakened relationship was not worth the trouble.

In December 2011, the last U.S. troops left the country. Predictably, things spiraled out of control. Maliki never pivoted back toward less oppressive rule, and the uprising in neighboring Syria fueled anti-Maliki sentiment in Iraq. Maliki then sidled up closer to Iran and committed himself to more heavy-handed anti-Sunni measures.

This sent the country’s Sunnis into the embrace of al-Qaedaaffiliated organizations. By 2012, a terrorist group named the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was killing more civilians with greater frequency than were its al-Qaeda brethren in Yemen and Somalia. Things steadily fell apart as the Syrian civil war spilled over that country’s eastern border. In 2013, more Iraqi civilians were killed than in any year since 2007. In early 2014, militants took the city of Fallujah and brought it under Sunni control. Al-Qaeda raised its flag over the city that American soldiers and their Iraqi partners had died fighting for 10 years earlier. America’s bloody 2004 fight for Fallujah had facilitated the emergence of a pacified, democratic Iraq. That real and precious American achievement is now history.

In a nod to the severity of the circumstances in Iraq, the United States recently agreed to supply the Maliki government with Hellfire missiles. Too little, too late? Certainly. And given the saga of looted Libyan weapons, probably risky to boot.

When the entire Muslim Middle East was set aflame, it would have been no small prize to have a real ally in the best-governed Muslim-majority state in the region. As American influence is at an all-time low, a grateful and malleable Baghdad might have been the friend Obama never found in Ankara. Perhaps more important, a flourishing, stable, and democratic Iraq would have stood as a true regional model for a post-autocracy Middle East. It’s hard to think of another American achievement at once so important and hard-won that was so unnecessarily thrown away.

Regarding the war in Afghanistan, Obama initially supported a surge of 33,000 troops in 2009. The results of this surge were mixed, owing mostly to the president’s simultaneous announcement of a troop drawdown 18 months later. America’s enemies knew exactly how long they’d have to wait us out. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates details in his recent memoir, Duty, Obama “eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy, who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing.” And so the war in Afghanistan became another war that needed ending, not winning.

As he did with Iraq, the president expended little energy on Afghanistan. His relationship with the highly erratic Afghan President Hamid Karzai drifted into near nonexistence. Thus, the administration began to reach out to the Taliban in hopes of securing a peace agreement. This approach made matters worse. Since it was clear the United States wanted out of Afghanistan, the Taliban saw no reason to negotiate with a party in retreat. Karzai, for his part, recognized that in a post-American Afghanistan, his best hope for survival was not to get on the Taliban’s bad side by doing too much American bidding. Having communicated every move to all sides in advance, the United States saw its influence fizzle everywhere. American troops are scheduled to leave at the end of 2014 with few hopes of a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. This means no troops will stay behind, and the Taliban will probably stage a massive comeback largely unopposed. By the end of Obama’s second term, Afghanistan could come to recall its pre-9/11 days once again.

VIII.  The  Lebanon  Tinderbox

Lebanon, like Turkey and Iraq, has the great misfortune of bordering Syria. But unlike Turkey and Iraq, it was dominated by Syria for three decades, until 2005, and the two countries remain firmly intertwined. Roughly 1 million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since the start of the Syrian uprising. Gebran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister, has described the refugee crisis rightly as “threatening the existence of Lebanon.” And because the country is a perpetually unstable patchwork of religious enclaves, it is particularly hospitable to spillover battles from the neighboring war. The Sunni majority naturally support the Syrian rebels, but the Shiite group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Assad regime, is a strong force inside Lebanon. The divide between the two sides is sharp and deep, owing in part to likely Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Like so many other spots in the region, the tinderbox of Lebanon has now been made especially flammable by American neglect. When Obama reduced U.S. influence, he opened up a power vacuum that sucked in all comers. “I think we are witnessing a turning point, and it could be one of the worst in all our history,” Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury told the New York Times. “The West is not there, and we are in the hands of two regional powers, the Saudis and Iranians, each of which is fanatical in its own way. I don’t see how they can reach any entente, any rational solution.”

Indeed, without American involvement, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has taken it upon itself to blunt Iranian influence in Lebanon. In January, it pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese army, hoping to counter Hezbollah’s power. But Assad’s all but certain victory in Syria means that Iran will continue to exert great cultural and political force in Lebanon.

Just as bad, the Obama administration’s early refusal to back non-radical Sunni Syrian rebels resulted in a greater al-Qaeda presence not only in Syria but in Lebanon as well. As Assad continues to drive the rebels from their strongholds, they have been fleeing to Lebanese border towns. Today, Lebanon’s two largest al-Qaeda-associated groups, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra (which took its name from the Syrian group), constitute a growing and deadly threat. They are stepping up suicide attacks on Shiite targets, and Hezbollah is countering with roadblocks and attacks of its own. It wouldn’t take much for ongoing reprisals to lead to civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra has additionally declared the nonsectarian Lebanese army a legitimate target of attack, accusing it of aiding Hezbollah.

The pervasive sectarian strife is maiming Lebanese politics. For nearly a year, reverberations from the Syrian war had deadlocked the parliament’s two main factions. In late March, the parliament finally approved Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government. His mandate is over on May 25, and there’s little reason to doubt that the country’s leadership will once again be at an impasse. After Salam’s government was approved, Obama spoke with him by phone. The president urged upcoming elections to be held on time and “emphasized the importance of all parties observing Lebanon’s policy of disassociation.” This bit of phoned-in encouragement, divorced entirely from Lebanese reality, makes it clear that the policy of disassociation is an American one.

IX.  The  Jordan  Weather  Vane

Of all the Arab countries, Jordan has the strongest and longest record—stretching back four decades—of pro-American sentiment and policy; the Jordanians also have a uniquely close working relationship with the Israelis (“cousins,” as King Abdullah II refers to them). So the fate of Jordan is of supreme importance to the United States. The king is a reform-minded and modern monarch, and this largely accounts for the monarchy’s ability to survive (so far) the Arab Spring. Protestors in Jordan were not, by and large, subjected to the degree of police-state brutality that took place in neighboring countries. What’s more, Abdullah II quickly enacted electoral reforms that went some way in satisfying Jordanians.

But Jordan is hardly inoculated from the new Middle East upheaval. An influx of some 600,000 Syrian refugees is just one of the Hashemite kingdom’s recent challenges, and it’s proving to be a formidable one. Most of the refugees are making their way to cities, where they are putting unmanageable strain on the country’s already ailing economy and infrastructure. That strain, in turn, is igniting broader unrest that could potentially spark, in the words of one Jordanian official, “a new Arab Spring.” King Abdullah II has recently asked for $4.1 billion in aid to ease the plight of the refugees and mitigate the impact on the country.

Naturally, there’s the challenge of Iran. During the presidency of the fanatical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the majority-Sunni Jordan recalled its ambassador from Tehran. But today, with the U.S.-led rehabilitation of the Khomeinist regime, there are indications that Jordan has found it prudent to draw closer to the Persians. In February, Haaretzreported that Jordan and Iran would be exchanging ambassadors once again.

And the Muslim Brotherhood is at work there, too. Abdullah II’s father, King Hussein, managed to subdue the Brotherhood and even gain their support for his rule. But the younger, more liberal king has denounced them to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as a “Masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” confiding that “behind closed doors, the Muslim Brotherhood here wants to overthrow [the government].”

It must have come as quite a surprise, then, when the king heard from “some of his Western interlocutors,” as Goldberg put it, that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.” One can only speculate about the identities of these interlocutors, but if they were from Washington, the formulation would fit in with the Obama administration’s belief that the Brotherhood plays a vital role in forging a democratic Middle East. This also jibes with the larger disconnect between observers of the Middle East over here and our most dependable allies in the region. In 2011, Abdullah II told the Washington Post:

I think everybody is wary of dealing with the West…Looking at how quickly people turned their backs on [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, I would say that most people are going to try and go their own way. I think there is going to be less coordination with the West and therefore a chance of more misunderstandings.

In no way does this mean that the Obama administration was wrong to endorse finally Mubarak’s ouster. But Abdullah II’s complaint is further evidence of how the administration’s aimless handling of Egypt failed to earn influence anywhere or gain the respect of any interested party, including our close friends. And his prediction of less coordination and more misunderstanding is proving true. Jordanians, however, are not quite “going their own way.” They’re looking to the Saudis and other Sunni Gulf states for some of the monetary support they used to get from America. In America’s absence, regional influence can be fought for or bought outright. One way or another, the power vacuum will be filled.

As for Jordan’s Syria problem, Obama recently announced that he’d renew a five-year aid package to Jordan and guarantee $1 billion in loans to go toward handling the flood of refugees. These are perfectly fine decisions, but they are small-bore measures compared with the early actions the United States might have taken in trying to prevent the widening gyre of
Syrian chaos.

X.  See-Saw  in  the  Gulf

Saudi Arabia has a long history of funding and fomenting radical Sunni Wahhabism. It played an essential role in creating the jihadism that now threatens the United States and the entire world. But statecraft is about choosing among bad options and frustrating trade-offs, and the world’s largest oil producer is also a tremendously important American ally. For the better part of a century, Saudi Arabia and the United States have been locked into an energy-for-security pact that has proved to be remarkably solid.

The post-9/11 years, paradoxically, have created additional reasons for maintaining the American-Saudi connection. First, the kingdom has come grudgingly to realize that the fundamentalism it fueled now poses a threat to the existence of Saudi Arabia itself. Al-Qaeda attacked the United States foremost because of the American military’s presence in Saudi Arabia during and after the first Gulf War in 1991. The partnership between the two countries has been mutually beneficial, and enemies of the American-Saudi relationship are enemies of the Saudi Royals. Second, the United States and Saudi Arabia share a dangerous and determined enemy in Iran. Khomeinist Shiism is predicated not only on anti-Americanism, but also on an ancient animosity toward Sunni Islam. (Remember, the United States foiled an Iranian plot to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C.) An Iranian rise necessarily means a Saudi decline. And an Iranian nuclear bomb would be a horrifying reality for Riyadh.

Barack Obama has, in several related ways, jeopardized the Saudis’ standing in the Middle East. First, the United States has failed to back the region’s more moderate Sunnis against the more radical Sunnis. After Mubarak fell in Egypt, the Obama administration endorsed the democratic legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia (and the United Arab Emirates) put up billions of dollars in support of the secular Egyptian Army. As noted above, Jordan’s moderate Sunnis are now looking to Saudi Arabia for the support that the United States no longer gives. In Syria, the United States failed not only to support the non-radical Sunni rebels early on but also to carry out its threatened strike on Iranian ally Assad. After the American mishandling of Syria, Saudi Arabia saw little choice but to support whatever enemies of Assad they could find. Thus the Saudis, who are combating the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda elsewhere in the region, are now supporting al-Qaeda franchises such as the Nusra Front in Syria.

Of even greater concern is what the Saudis see as Obama’s diplomatic folly with Tehran. Along with many skeptics in Israel and the United States, Saudi Iran-watchers are convinced that the Obama diplomacy track is leading straight to an Iranian nuclear weapon. To demonstrate its seriousness on the matter, Riyadh has all but promised to get a nuclear bomb of its own in the event of Iranian nukes. Naturally, this concern over a rising nuclear Iran has brought the Saudis and the Israelis closer. Saudi Royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal told Bloomberg News, “The threat is from Persia, not from Israel.” He added: “There’s no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran.” Both the Saudis and Israelis also feel burned by the Obama administration for keeping its diplomatic machinations with Iran largely secret. The Jewish state, in fact, first learned of Obama’s recent deal with Iran from an equally distressed Saudi Arabia. In October, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of walking away from a seat on the UN Security Council in protest of the new global leadership void.

If Saudi Arabia is the big Gulf-Arab loser, then the winner is clearly Qatar. This smaller gas-exporting Sunni monarchy has brilliantly exploited the power vacuum the Saudis abhor. And it’s done so by backing radicals at every step of the way. In Doha, Qatar hosts the extremist Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi. And Qatari money is behind the Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaedalinked groups in Syria. Last year Qatar pledged $400 million in aid to Hamas in Gaza. Recently, the U.S. Treasury tracked big sums going from Qatari and Kuwaiti charities to extremists in Iraq as well. But Qatar isn’t merely throwing money at Islamists. It uses its global broadcasting company Al Jazeera to promote Brotherhood views and criticize its
Gulf rivals.

By deepening ties with ascendant radicals in other countries, Doha hopes to exercise leverage with foreign heads of state. So far the tactic has brought tremendous strain on relations in the Gulf. Obama was supposed to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council this March, but Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors from Qatar in protest over its courting and funding of radicals, and the summit fell apart. The United States is in a difficult position with Qatar because of important military and commercial ties. But the larger point is that the Obama administration’s withdrawal from the region left an enormous space open for energy-funded bad actors to advance their cause.

XI.  The  Tilt Against  Israel

Barack Obama came to office determined to take U.S.Israel relations in a new direction. Where his predecessor had seen Palestinian intransigence as the main obstacle to Middle East peace, Obama saw Israeli rigidity as the culprit. And while American administrations traditionally understood that Israel was most willing to take risks when it felt its relationship with the United States was secure, Obama’s administration would make historically close AmericanIsraeli ties partially contingent upon Israeli concessions to Palestinians. As he told a group of Jewish leaders at the White House, according to the New York Times, “For eight years [during the Bush administration], there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.” On a personal level, Obama considered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a true partner for peace and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu an atavistic nationalist who would soon be replaced by the more liberal Tzipi Livni.

As he said in his Cairo speech, Obama believed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians “would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa.” In other words, he saw an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as the key to a more pacified Muslim world. So he quickly set about enacting his policy changes. In his first face-to-face talk with Netanyahu in May 2009, Obama told the prime minister that “settlements [on the West Bank] have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” The theme of stopping settlements was repeated and echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who specified that this meant all such settlements, “not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.”

In November 2009, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze in order to kick-start new U.S.led peace negotiations. But if the American approach had changed, the Palestinian one had not. For nine months, Abbas refused to talk. With one month to go, he sat through two meetings before once again walking away from
the process.

And thus the template for Obama-era Israel policy was set. The president would publicly pressure Netanyahu into taking some action (freezing settlements, apologizing to Turkey, releasing Palestinian prisoners), and the Palestinian leadership would brazenly fail to step up to negotiations. As the failures built up, the administration took a heavier line with Israel. In March 2010, Hillary Clinton berated Netanyahu by phone for 43 minutes over settlements. That same month Obama snubbed Netanyahu at the White House. And so a personal animosity would steadily become another unhelpful feature in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.

In Obama’s second term, with John Kerry as secretary of state, American disapproval morphed into something closer to American threat. Kerry organized a new round of peace talks (predicated on Israel’s release of dangerous Palestinian prisoners), and those talks stalled due to the Palestinians’ inability to meet the most preliminary demands. In Kerry’s frustration, he wondered aloud last November on Palestinian television, “Does Israel want a third intifada?” In February, he wondered aloud once again, this time in Germany: “There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things,” he said. “Are we all going to be better with all of that?” These were barely veiled threats that Israel would face boycotts and violence if it didn’t sign on to his “Framework Agreement” for peace.

But when talks resumed, it was Abbas who would not comply with three key details of the Framework: He refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, refused to give up the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and generations of their descendents, and refused an “end of conflict” with Israel, which is, more or less, the essence of peace itself. In response, Kerry began to downplay the importance of Israel’s being recognized as a Jewish state in the hope that he could get one yes on the board.

The administration’s miscalculations on Israeli-Palestinian peace are multiple and have been self-reinforcing. First, Obama simply inverted the positions of the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is the Palestinian leadership that remains unable to agree to peace with Israel. After decades of making anti-Semitism a foundation of Palestinian culture, Palestinian leaders who would now dare make peace with the Jewish state would live in fear for their lives. Public-opinion polls demonstrated that Israel’s electorate, on the other hand, wants nothing so badly as it wants peace with its neighbors.

Second, while the public criticism of Israel brought about a great many Israeli concessions, it reinforced Palestinian intransigence. What Palestinian leader could take steps toward peace with Israel while Israel’s closest ally is calling the Jewish state stubborn and unreasonable? The disapproval from America also made Netanyahu stronger domestically, as Israelis began to understand just how strong he had to be under these unprecedented circumstances. Finally, as events from 2011 on have demonstrated, the Israel-Palestinian problem has played no role whatsoever in the chain reaction of instability and violence set off by the Arab Spring.

On the matter of stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, the administration has repeatedly reassured Israel that “we’re not going to have talks [with Iran] forever” and that “all options are on the table.” All along, Obama has seen the specter of an Israeli strike on Iranian targets as a potential spoiler of his diplomatic plan to disarm the mullahs. And, now, with the advent of direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran, an Israeli attack would be widely condemned as an act of war on the eve of diplomatic success.

In truth, such an attack has become more likely and more necessary owing to the lengthy and mistaken diplomacy of the Obama administration. In March, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a crowd at Tel Aviv University, “We have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us [on Iran] but ourselves.” And so they must.

It would be the height of unfairness to blame the Obama administration outright for everything that’s happened in the Middle East in the past five years. The region’s bad actors and cultural disorders are often well beyond the reach of the United States, regardless of who’s in office. But limitations are one thing—ineptitude another. It’s simply hard to find a single instance of President Obama responding to recent regional events in a way that has paid off either for the United States or its allies. At the same time, America’s antagonists—chiefly Iran and its enablers—have been emboldened and are now ascendant.

If this is what the Obama administration has gotten in return for a more humble American posture, then it’s time to drop that posture. Dangers like rolling civil wars, a near-nuclear Iran, a re-Talibanized Afghanistan, and a resurgent al-Qaeda will not vanish on their own. This administration has three years to reduce the damage that’s been done. The challenge is enormous, but, despite all these setbacks, the United States remains the strongest power in world history. And, as we’ve seen, a lot can happen in a short amount of time.




US Intelligence view on Global Threats

February 2, 2014

Statement for the Record

  Worldwide Threat Assessment

of the  US Intelligence Community

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

  James Clapper Director of US National Intelligencce

James Clapper
Director of US National Intelligencce

  James R. Clapper Director of National Intelligence January 29, 2014



January 29, 2014


Chairman Feinstein, Vice Chairman Chambliss, Members of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to offer the United States Intelligence Community’s 2014 assessment of threats to US national security. My statement reflects the collective insights of the Intelligence Community’s extraordinary men and women, whom I am privileged and honored to lead. We in the Intelligence Community are committed every day to provide the nuanced, multidisciplinary intelligence that policymakers, warfighters, and domestic law enforcement personnel need to protect American lives and America’s interests anywhere in the world.


 Critical Trends Converging


Several critical governmental, commercial, and societal changes are converging that will threaten a safe and secure online environment. In the past several years, many aspects of life have migrated to the Internet and digital networks. These include essential government functions, industry and commerce, health care, social communication, and personal information. The foreign threats discussed below pose growing risks to these functions as the public continues to increase its use of and trust in digital infrastructures and technologies.

Russia and China continue to hold views substantially divergent from the United States on the meaning and intent of international cyber security. These divergences center mostly on the nature of state sovereignty in the global information environment states’ rights to control the dissemination of content online, which have long forestalled major agreements. Despite these challenges, the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts concluded in a June 2013 report that international law and the UN Charter apply to cyberspace. This conclusion represents a substantive step forward in developing a legal framework and norms for cyber security.

Threat Environment

Many instances of major cyber attacks manifested themselves at home and abroad in 2013 as illustrated by the following examples.

  • In March 2013, South Korea suffered a sizeable cyber attack against its commercial and media networks, damaging tens of thousands of computer workstations. The attack also disrupted online banking and automated teller machine services. Although likely unrelated to the 2012 network attack against Saudi Aramco, these attacks illustrate an alarming trend in mass data-deletion and system- damaging attacks.
  • In early 2013, the US financial sector faced wide-scale network denial-of-service attacks that became increasingly difficult and costly to mitigate.

In response to these and similar developments, many countries are creating cyber defense institutions within their national security establishments. We estimate that several of these will likely be responsible for offensive cyber operations as well.

Russia presents a range of challenges to US cyber policy and network security. Russia seeks changes to the international system for Internet governance that would compromise US interests and values. Its Ministry of Defense (MOD) is establishing its own cyber command, according to senior MOD officials, which will seek to perform many of the functions similar to those of the US Cyber Command. Russian intelligence services continue to target US and allied personnel with access to sensitive computer network information. In 2013, a Canadian naval officer confessed to betraying information from shared top secret-level computer networks to Russian agents for five years.

China’s cyber operations reflect its leadership’s priorities of economic growth, domestic political stability, and military preparedness. Chinese leaders continue to pursue dual tracks of facilitating Internet access for economic development and commerce and policing online behaviors deemed threatening to social order and regime survival. Internationally, China also seeks to revise the multi-stakeholder model Internet governance while continuing its expansive worldwide program of network exploitation and intellectual property theft.

Iran and North Korea are unpredictable actors in the international arena. Their development of cyber espionage or attack capabilities might be used in an attempt to either provoke or destabilize the United States or its partners.

Terrorist organizations have expressed interest in developing offensive cyber capabilities. They continue to use cyberspace for propaganda and influence operations, financial activities, and personnel recruitment.

Cyber criminal organizations are as ubiquitous as they are problematic on digital networks. Motivated by profit rather than ideology, cyber criminals play a major role in the international development, modification, and proliferation of malicious software and illicit networks designed to steal data and money. They will continue to pose substantial threats to the trust and integrity of global financial institutions and personal financial transactions.

Other Potential Cyber Issues

Critical infrastructure, particularly the Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems used in water management, oil and gas pipelines, electrical power distribution, and mass transit, provides an enticing target to malicious actors. Although newer architectures provide flexibility, functionality, and resilience, large segments of legacy architecture remain vulnerable to attack, which might cause significant economic or human impact.

Physical objects such as vehicles, industrial components, and home appliances, are increasingly being integrated into the information network and are becoming active participants in generating information. These “smart objects” will share information directly with Internet-enabled services, creating efficiencies in inventory supervision, service-life tracking, and maintenance management. This so-called “Internet of Things” will further transform the role of information technology in the global economy and create even further dependencies on it.  The complexity and nature of these systems means that security and safety assurance are not guaranteed and that threat actors can easily cause security and/or safety problems in these systems.

The US health care sector, in particular, is rapidly becoming networked in ways never before imagined. As health care services become increasingly reliant on the cross-networking of personal data devices, medical devices, and hospital networks, cyber vulnerabilities might play unanticipated roles in patient outcomes.

Virtual currencies—most notably Bitcoin—are fast becoming a medium for criminal financial transfers through online payment companies. In May 2013, Costa Rica-registered Liberty Reserve—

—processed $6 billion in suspect transactions and sought to evade enforcement action by moving funds into shell companies worldwide prior to being indicted by US authorities.

Emerging technologies, such as three-dimensional printing, have uncertain economic and social impacts and can revolutionize the manufacturing sector by drastically reducing the costs of research, development, and prototyping. Similarly, they might also revolutionize aspects of underground criminal activity.



Threats posed by foreign intelligence entities through 2014 will continue to evolve in terms of scope and complexity. The capabilities and activities through which foreign entities—both state and nonstate actors—seek to obtain US national security information are new, more diverse, and more technically sophisticated.

Insider Threat/Unauthorized Disclosures

In addition to threats by foreign intelligence entities, insider threats will also pose a persistent challenge. Trusted insiders with the intent to do harm can exploit their access to compromise vast amounts of sensitive and classified information as part of a personal ideology or at the direction of a foreign government. The unauthorized disclosure of this information to state adversaries, nonstate activists, or other entities will continue to pose a critical threat.

Priority Foreign Intelligence Threats

Attempts to penetrate the US national decisionmaking apparatus, defense industrial base, and US research establishments will persist. We assess that the leading state intelligence threats to US interests in 2014 will continue to be Russia and China, based on their capabilities, intent, and broad operational scope. Sophisticated foreign intelligence entities will continue to employ human and cyber means to collect national security information. They seek data on advanced weapons systems and proprietary information from US companies and research institutions that deal with energy, finance, the media, defense, and dual-use technology.



 Terrorist threats emanate from a diverse array of terrorist actors, ranging from formal groups to homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) and ad hoc, foreign-based actors. The threat environment continues to transition to a more diverse array of actors, reinforcing the positive developments of previous years. The threat complex, sophisticated, and large-scale attacks from core al-Qa’ida against the US Homeland is significantly degraded. Instability in the Middle East and North Africa has accelerated the decentralization of the movement, which is increasingly influenced by local and regional issues.  However, diffusion has led to the emergence of new power centers and an increase in threats by networks of like-minded extremists with allegiances to multiple groups.  The potential of global events to instantaneously spark grievances around the world hinders advance warning, disruption, and attribution of plots.

Homeland Plotting

Homegrown Violent Extremists. US-based extremists will likely continue to pose the most frequent threat to the US Homeland. As the tragic attack in Boston in April 2013 indicates, insular HVEs who act alone or in small groups and mask the extent of their ideological radicalization can represent challenging and lethal threats.

Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Operating from its safe haven in Yemen, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has attempted several times to attack the US Homeland. We judge that the group poses a significant threat and remains intent on targeting the United States and US interests overseas.

Core al-Qa’ida. Sustained counterterrorism (CT) pressure, key organizational setbacks, and the emergence of other power centers of the global violent extremist movement have put core al-Qa’ida on a downward trajectory since 2008. They have degraded the group’s ability to carry out a catastrophic attack against the US Homeland and eroded its position as leader of the global violent extremist movement. It probably hopes for a resurgence following the drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan in 2014.

Terrorist Activities Overseas

Persistent Threats to US Interests Overseas. We face an enduring threat to US interests overseas. Most Sunni extremist groups will prioritize local and regional agendas, but US embassies, military facilities, and individuals will be at particular risk in parts of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Syria’s Impact. Syria has become a significant location for independent or al-Qa’ida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom might conduct external attacks. Hostilities between Sunni and Shia are also intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries, which is increasing the likelihood of a protracted conflict.

Iran and Hizballah are committed to defending the Asad regime and have provided support toward this end, including sending billions of dollars in military and economic aid, training pro-regime and Iraqi Shia militants, and deploying their own personnel into the country. Iran and Hizballah view the Asad regime as a key partner in the “axis of resistance” against Israel and are prepared to take major risks to preserve the regime as well as their critical transshipment routes.

Iran and Hizballah

Outside of the Syrian theater, Iran and Lebanese Hizballah continue to directly threaten the interests of US allies. Hizballah has increased its global terrorist activity in recent years to a level that we have not seen since the 1990s.

Counterterrorism Cooperation

As the terrorist threat is becoming more diffuse and harder to detect, cooperation with CT partners will take on even greater importance. The fluid environment in the Middle East and North Africa will likely further complicate already challenging circumstances as we partner with governments to stem the spread of terrorism.



Nation-state efforts to develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems constitute a major threat to the security of the United States, deployed troops, and allies. We are focused on the threat and destabilizing effects of nuclear proliferation, proliferation of chemical and biological warfare (CBW)-related materials, and development of WMD delivery systems. The time when only a few states had access to the most dangerous technologies is past.  Biological and chemical materials and technologies, almost always dual use, move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with scientific expertise to design and use them. The latest discoveries in the life sciences also diffuse globally and rapidly.

Iran and North Korea Developing WMD-Applicable Capabilities

We continue to assess that Iran’s overarching strategic goals of enhancing its security, prestige, and regional influence have led it to pursue capabilities to meet its civilian goals and give it the ability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so. At the same time, Iran’s perceived need for economic relief has led it to make concessions on its nuclear program through the 24 November 2013

Joint Plan of Action with the P5+1 countries and the European Union (EU). In this context, we judge that Iran is trying to balance conflicting objectives. It wants to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities while avoiding severe repercussions—such as a military strike or regime-threatening sanctions. We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.

Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. These technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.

Of particular note, Iran has made progress during the past year by installing additional centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant, developing advanced centrifuge designs, and stockpiling more low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (LEUF6). These improvements have better positioned Iran to produce weapons- grade uranium (WGU) using its declared facilities and uranium stockpiles, if it chooses to do so. Despite this progress, we assess that Iran would not be able to divert safeguarded material and produce enough WGU for a weapon before such activity would be discovered. Iran has also continued to work toward starting up the IR-40 Heavy Water Research Reactor near Arak.

We judge that Iran would choose a ballistic missile as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if Iran ever builds these weapons. Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD, and Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.  Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles—along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies—provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

We assess that if Iran fully implements the Joint Plan, it will temporarily halt the expansion of its enrichment program, eliminate its production and stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium in a form suitable for further enrichment, and provide additional transparency into its existing and planned nuclear facilities. This transparency would provide earlier warning of a breakout using these facilities.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States and to the security environment in East Asia, a region with some of the world’s largest populations, militaries, and economies. North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to several countries, including Iran and Syria, and its assistance to Syria’s construction of a nuclear reactor, destroyed in 2007, illustrate the reach of its proliferation activities. Despite the reaffirmation of its commitment in the Second- Phase Actions for the Implementation of the September 2005 Joint Statement not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how, North Korea might again export nuclear technology.

In addition to conducting its third nuclear test on 12 February 2013, North Korea announced its intention to “adjust and alter” the uses of existing nuclear facilities, to include the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, and restart its graphite moderated reactor that was shut down in 2007. We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding the size of its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the reactor that was previously used for plutonium production. North Korea has publicly displayed its KN08 road-mobile ICBM twice. We assess that North Korea has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested. North Korea is committed to developing long-range missile technology that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States. Its efforts to produce and market ballistic missiles raise broader regional and global security concerns.

Because of deficiencies in their conventional military forces, North Korean leaders are focused on deterrence and defense. We have long assessed that, in Pyongyang’s view, its nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy. We do not know Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or employment concepts.

WMD Security in Syria


Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 October 2013 and is in the preliminary phases of dismantling its offensive CW program. Previously, we had assessed that Syria had a highly active chemical warfare (CW) program and maintained a stockpile of sulfur mustard, sarin, VX, and a stockpile of munitions—including missiles, aerial bombs, and artillery rockets—that can be used to deliver CW agents. Until the CW materials are completely destroyed or removed from country, groups or individuals in Syria might gain access to CW-related materials. The United States and its allies are monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile through the inspection and destruction process of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare (BW) program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program. To the best of our knowledge, Syria has not successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional weapon systems that could be modified for biological-agent delivery.



Threats to US space services will increase during 2014 and beyond as potential adversaries pursue disruptive and destructive counterspace capabilities. Chinese and Russian military leaders understand the unique information advantages afforded by space systems and are developing capabilities to disrupt US use of space in a conflict. For example, Chinese military writings highlight the need to interfere with, damage, and destroy reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites. China has satellite jamming capabilities and is pursuing antisatellite systems. In 2007, China conducted a destructive antisatellite test against its own satellite. Russia’s 2010 military doctrine emphasizes space defense as a vital component of its national defense. Russian leaders openly maintain that the Russian armed forces have antisatellite weapons and conduct antisatellite research. Russia has satellite jammers and is also pursuing anti satellite systems.



Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) is an abiding threat to US economic and national security. Criminals can play a significant role in weakening stability and undermining the rule of law in some emerging democracies and areas of strategic importance to the United States.

Drug trafficking will remain a major TOC threat to the United States. Mexican drug cartels are responsible for high levels of violence and corruption in Mexico. Drugs contribute to instability in Central America, erode stability in West and North Africa, and remain a significant source of revenue for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

  • Synthetic drugs, notably new psychoactive substances (NPS), pose an emerging and rapidly growing global public health threat. NPS were first reported in the United States in 2008 and have emerged in

70 of 80 countries that report to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Although most global markets for drugs such as cocaine and heroin are stable or declining, the use and manufacture of synthetic drugs are rapidly rising.

The Department of State’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report notes that an estimated 27 million men, women, and children are trafficking victims. Virtually every country in the world is a source, transit point, and/or destination for individuals being trafficked.

Worldwide, money laundering totals more than a trillion dollars annually. Criminals’ reliance on the US dollar exposes the US financial system to these illicit financial flows.  Financial transfers and vehicles designed to obscure beneficial ownership, inadequate and uneven anti-money laundering enforcement and regulations, and new forms of digital financial services have the potential to undermine the international financial system.

Illicit trade in wildlife, timber, and marine resources constitutes an estimated $8-10 billion industry annually, endangers the environment, threatens rule of law and border security in fragile regions, and destabilizes communities that depend on wildlife for biodiversity and ecotourism.


Global economic growth rates entered a marked slowdown with the global financial crisis that began in 2008. From 2008 to 2013, the global growth rate averaged less than 3.0 percent, well below its 30-year average of 3.6 percent.  The lengthy global slowdown has meant lower job creation, income growth, and standards of living that many came to expect before 2008. Although worldwide economic growth will likely strengthen in 2014 to 3.7 percent, it will fall well short of its 2004-2007 peak when it averaged 5.1 percent.

Although emerging and developing economies will continue to grow faster than advanced economies, the gap between their respective growth rates will probably narrow to 3 percentage points in 2014, its lowest level since the cascade of emerging-market financial crises in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Combined with faster population growth in the emerging and developing economies, the pace at which per capita incomes in that group converges to those in developed countries is slowing considerably, potentially fueling resentment of Western leadership on global issues. Growth will probably be particularly slow among some of the emerging economies of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Latin America and the Caribbean.

Stronger economic growth in certain advanced economies might mean a general tightening of global monetary conditions in 2014. Although such growth will benefit the global economy broadly, higher interest rates might pose new challenges to countries that rely heavily on global capital markets to service existing debt. Destabilizing outflows of international capital from emerging markets to advanced ones are possible in response to rising US interest rates and sustained recoveries in the United States and Europe. Tighter monetary conditions might also increase the risk of deflation in economies with slow growth, high unemployment, and low aggregate demand. Numerous European countries, in particular, have seen annual inflation rates fall below 1.0 percent and even intermittent periods of deflation. Such deflation might worsen the fragile finances of indebted households, corporations, and governments.

Declines in many commodity prices will probably continue through 2014. Although the moderation in prices is welcome from the perspective of major commodity importers, such as China, India, and Japan, and from the humanitarian perspective related to food security, it can pose balance-of-payments problems for commodity exporters, such as Brazil, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, and Venezuela, especially those that depend on commodity export revenue to finance their governments. Forecasts in the past year project global trade volume to grow moderately in 2014 at roughly 5 percent; the World Trade Organization (WTO) notes that its growth projections are down from earlier in 2013, however.


Competition for and secure access to natural resources (e.g. food, water, and energy) are growing security threats. Rapidly increasing unconventional energy production and ample water and agricultural resources mitigate the impact of global scarcity on the United States. However, many countries important to the United States are vulnerable to natural-resource shocks that degrade economic development, frustrate attempts to democratize, raise the risk of regime-threatening instability, and aggravate regional tensions. Demographic trends, especially increasing global population and urbanization, will also aggravate the outlook for resources, putting intense pressure on food, water, and energy. Extreme weather will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism. Criminal or terrorist elements can exploit these weaknesses to conduct illicit activity, recruit, and train. Social disruptions are magnified in growing urban areas where information technology quickly transmits grievances to larger, often youthful and unemployed audiences. Relatively small events can generate significant effects across regions of  the world.


Increased global supplies of grain have pushed global food prices downward in recent months, easing the risk of a price spike in the coming year. However, natural food-supply disruptions, due to weather, disease, and government policies, will stress the global food system and exacerbate price volatility. Policy choices can include export bans, diversions of arable lands for other uses, and land leases to and acquisitions by foreigners. Lack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to US national security that do not have the financial or technical abilities to solve their internal food security problems. In other cases, important countries to US interests will experience food-related, social disruptions, but are capable of addressing them without political upheaval.

Although food-related, state-on-state conflict is unlikely in the next year, the risk of conflict between farmers and livestock owners—often in separate states—will increase as population growth, desertification, and crop expansion infringe on livestock grazing areas, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Shrinking marine fisheries—for example, in the South China Sea—will continue to spark diplomatic disputes as fishermen are forced to travel farther from shore. Terrorists, militants, and international criminals can use local food insecurity to promote their own legitimacy and undermine government authority. Food and nutrition insecurity in weakly governed countries might also provide opportunities for insurgent groups to capitalize on poor conditions, exploit international food aid, and discredit governments for their inability to address basic needs.


Risks to freshwater supplies—due to shortages, poor quality, floods, and climate change—are growing. These forces will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, potentially undermining global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia particularly will particularly face difficulty coping with water problems. Lack of adequate water is a destabilizing factor in developing countries that do not have the management mechanisms, financial resources, or technical ability to solve their internal water problems. Other states are further stressed by heavy dependence on river water controlled by upstream nations with unresolved water-sharing issues. Wealthier developing countries will probably face increasing water-related, social disruptions, although they are capable of addressing water problems without risk of state failure.

Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than to violent conflicts. However, where water-sharing agreements are ignored or when infrastructure development for electric power generation or agriculture is seen as a threat to water resources, states tend to exert leverage over their neighbors to preserve their water interests. This leverage has been applied in international forums and has included pressuring investors, nongovernmental organizations, and donor countries to support or halt water infrastructure projects. In addition, some local, nonstate terrorists or extremists will almost certainly target vulnerable water infrastructure in places to achieve their objectives and use water-related grievances as recruiting and fundraising tools.


Increasing US production of shale gas and tight oil in combination with ongoing energy efficiency gains will almost certainly provide the United States with a more secure energy future. Decreasing reliance on energy imports will reduce the economic impact on the United States of disruptions in global energy markets but will not insulate the United States from market forces. With a shrinking reliance on energy imports, an oil disruption will have a diminished impact on the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the current account deficit, and value of the dollar.  The greater availability and lower price of natural gas and natural gas liquids will sustain the country’s competitive edge in petrochemicals and energy-intensive production processes. However, some key energy-producing and consuming countries, which link US policy interests and energy imports, are concerned that greater US oil production will reduce US engagement in the Middle East and diminish US protection of critical oil supply routes.

Oil from deepwater deposits, tight oil, and oil sands will be the principal sources of new global oil supplies in 2014 and beyond. Oil extraction is trending toward production that is farther offshore in deeper waters, which might lead to increasing competition for desirable areas. Conventional oil production will continue to supply the majority of the world’s oil, although discoveries are slowing and prospects for new sources are diminishing. However, conventional oil reservoirs also have the potential to supply significant increases in oil with the improvement of extraction methods. The exploitation of unconventional oil resources in the Western Hemisphere has the potential to reduce US, European, and Asian reliance on imports that pass through vulnerable choke points, such as the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, or originate from less stable regions in the Middle East and Africa.

Extreme Weather Events

Empirical evidence alone—without reference to climate models—suggests that a general warming trend is probably affecting weather and ecosystems, exacerbating the impact on humans. This warmer atmosphere, wetter in some areas, drier in others, is consistent with increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. In recent years, local food, water, energy, health, and economic security have been episodically degraded worldwide by severe weather conditions. These include more frequent or intense floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, cyclones, coastal high water, and heat waves. Rising temperatures, although greater in the Arctic, are not solely a high-latitude phenomenon. Scientific work in the past few years has shown that temperature anomalies during growing seasons and persistent droughts have hampered agricultural productivity and extended wildfire seasons. In addition, intense storms—including typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, and derechos—when exposed to growing human infrastructure, contribute to greater damage and threaten ever-increasing urban populations and economic development. This trend will likely continue to place stress on first responders, nongovernment organizations, and militaries that are often called to provide humanitarian assistance.

The Arctic

Harsh weather and relatively low economic stakes have enabled the countries bordering the Arctic to cooperate in pursuit of their interests in the region.  However, as polar ice recedes, economic and security concerns will increase competition over access to sea routes and natural resources. Some states see the Arctic as a strategic security issue that has the potential to give other countries an advantage in positioning in their military forces.


Health security threats arise unpredictably from at least five sources: the emergence and spread of new or reemerging microbes; the globalization of travel and the food supply; the rise of drug-resistant pathogens; the acceleration of biological science capabilities and the risk that these capabilities might cause inadvertent or intentional release of pathogens; and adversaries’ acquisition, development, and use of weaponized agents. Infectious diseases, whether naturally caused, intentionally produced, or accidentally released, are still among the foremost health security threats. A more crowded and interconnected world is increasing the opportunities for human, animal, or zoonotic diseases to emerge and spread globally. Antibiotic drug resistance is an increasing threat to global health security. Seventy percent of known bacteria have now acquired resistance to at least one antibiotic, threatening a return to the pre-antibiotic era.

In addition to the growing threat from resistant bacteria, previously unknown pathogens in humans are emerging and spreading primarily from animals. Human and livestock population growth results in increased human and animal intermingling and hastens crossover of diseases from one population to the other. No one can predict which pathogen will be the next to spread to humans or when or where this will occur. However, humans remain vulnerable, especially when a pathogen with the potential to cause a pandemic emerges. For example, we judge that the H7N9 influenza in China that emerged from birds in early 2013 is not yet easily transmissible from person to person. However, it bears watching for its extreme severity, high death rates, and potential to mutate and become more transmissible. Between late March 2013, when the virus was first recognized, and the following May, when it was brought under control, H7N9 influenza killed over 20 percent of those infected and caused severe disease with long- term hospitalization in nearly all other cases. If H7N9 influenza or any other novel respiratory pathogen that kills or incapacitates more than 1 percent of its victims were to become easily transmissible, the outcome would be among the most disruptive events possible. Uncontrolled, such an outbreak would result in a global pandemic with suffering and death spreading globally in fewer than six months and would persist for approximately two years.


The overall risk of mass atrocities worldwide will probably increase in 2014 and beyond. Trends driving this increase include more social mobilization, violent conflict, including communal violence, and other forms of instability that spill over borders and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions; diminished or stagnant quality of governance; and widespread impunity for past abuses. Many countries at risk of mass atrocities will likely be open to influence to prevent or mitigate them.  This is because they are dependent on Western assistance or multilateral missions in their countries, have the political will to prevent mass atrocities, or would be responsive to international scrutiny. Overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond, although support for human rights norms to prevent atrocities will almost certainly deepen among some non-government organizations. Much of the world will almost certainly turn to the United States for leadership to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.



Arab Spring


In the three years since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, a few states have made halting progress in their transitions away from authoritarian rule. Nevertheless, political uncertainty and violence will probably increase across the region in 2014 as the toppling of leaders and weakening of regimes have unleashed ethnic and sectarian rivalries that are propagating destabilizing violence.

  • In Syria, the ongoing civil war will probably heighten regional and sectarian tensions. Syria has become a proxy battle between Iran and Lebanese Hizballah on one side and Sunni Arab states on the other. Fear of spillover has exacerbated sectarian tensions in Iraq and Lebanon and will add to the unrest. The influx of over two million Syrian refugees into neighboring countries will continue to impose hardships, particularly on Jordan and Lebanon.
  • The turmoil associated with government transitions has prompted political backsliding in some cases, most notably Egypt, where the military ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood- dominated government in summer 2013.
  • Public support for the governments that came to power across the region in 2011 is dissipating, a dynamic which will likely invite renewed unrest, increase the appeal of authoritarian or extremist solutions among Arab publics, and reduce the likelihood of the implementation of needed but unpopular economic reforms.

The following three regional trends will pose a challenge to US interests in the Middle East in 2014 and beyond.

  • Ungoverned Spaces. The ongoing struggles for new governments in places like Tripoli and Cairo to extend their writ countrywide and worsening internal conflict in Syria have created opportunities for extremist groups to find ungoverned spaces from where they can try to destabilize new governments and prepare attacks against Western interests.
  • Economic Hardships. Many states in the region are facing economic distress that will not likely be alleviated by current levels of Western aid. The failure of governments in the region to meet heightened popular expectations for economic improvement might prove destabilizing in vulnerable regimes.   Gulf States provide assistance only incrementally and are wary of new governments’ foreign policies as well as their ability to effectively use outside funds.
  • Negative Views of the United States. Some of the transitioning governments are more skeptical than before the Arab Spring about cooperating with the United States. They are concerned about protecting sovereignty and resisting foreign interference, which has the potential to hamper US counterterrorism and other efforts to engage transitioning governments. Additionally, the unhappiness of some Arab Gulf States with US policies on Iran, Syria, and Egypt might lead these countries to reduce cooperation with the United States on regional issues and act unilaterally in ways that run counter to US interests.
The interim Egyptian Government has for the most part completed transition tasks on time, but Cairo’s crackdown on dissent, including designating the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a terrorist group, has dampened prospects for stability and an inclusive government. Egypt faces a persistent threat of militant violence that is directed primarily at the state and exploits the interim government’s lack of control over the Sinai Peninsula. Since 2011, the Sinai has emerged as a growing staging ground for militants— including terrorists—to plan, facilitate, and launch attacks. The level of protests and militant violence probably will not delay Egypt’s progress toward legislative and presidential elections.


We assess that the Syrian regime and many insurgents believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict. However, given their respective capabilities and levels of external support, decisively altering the course of the conflict in the next six months will prove difficult for either side.

President Asad remains unwilling to negotiate himself out of power. Asad almost certainly intends to remain the ruler of Syria and plans to win a new seven-year term in presidential elections that might occur as early as mid-2014.

Humanitarian conditions in Syria in the next year will almost certainly continue to deteriorate. Ongoing fighting is driving internal displacement as well as flows of refugees into neighboring countries.  The UN, as of January 2014, estimated that 9.3 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance in the country—including 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs)—and that at least 2.4 million Syrian registered refugees are in the region out of a July 2012 population estimate of 22.5 million. International aid agencies consistently face challenges accessing parts of Syria because of checkpoints, road closures, Syrian Government restrictions, and violence.


President Ruhani has heralded a shift in political momentum in Iran toward the center, but we do not know whether he heralds a reversal of the authoritarian trend in Iranian politics during the past many years. Iran’s economy will continue to struggle without comprehensive sanctions relief, which drives Ruhani and his team of technocrats to pursue nuclear negotiations. Since his election, Ruhani has had the support of the Supreme Leader, which has silenced some conservative critics. Hardliners, however, have consistently argued that sanctions fatigue will eventually break the international sanctions coalition and are wary of Ruhani’s engagement with the West, as well as his promises of social and political moderation. Ruhani must maintain the backing of the Supreme Leader in order to continue to advance his political agenda. (Information on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and intentions can be found above in the section on WMD and Proliferation.)

Iran will continue to act assertively abroad in ways that run counter to US interests and worsen regional conflicts. Iranian officials almost certainly believe that their support has been instrumental in sustaining Asad’s regime in Syria and will probably continue support during 2014 to bolster the regime. In the broader Middle East, Iran will continue to provide arms and other aid to Palestinian groups, Huthi rebels in Yemen, and Shia militants in Bahrain to expand Iranian influence and to counter perceived foreign

threats. Tehran, which strives for a stable Shia-led, pro-Iran government in Baghdad, is concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Tehran is probably struggling to find the balance between protecting Shia equities in Iraq and avoiding overt actions that would precipitate greater anti-Shia violence.  In Afghanistan, Tehran will probably seek its own additional security agreements with Kabul, promote pro-Iranian candidates in the 2014 presidential election to increase its influence at the expense of the United States, and maintain its clandestine aid to Afghan insurgent groups. Iran sees rising sectarianism as a dangerous regional development, but we assess that Iran’s perceived responsibility to protect and empower Shia communities will increasingly trump its desire to avoid sectarian violence. Hence, Iran’s actions will likely do more to fuel rather than dampen increasing sectarianism.


Iraq’s trajectory in 2014 will depend heavily on how Baghdad confronts the rising challenge from al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and manages relations with the country’s disenfranchised Sunni population. A pivotal event will be the national elections slated for 30 April. The Sunni population in particular must be convinced that the elections will be fair in order to keep them committed to the political process and help check Iraq’s rising violence.

Iraq is experiencing an increase in the total number of attacks countrywide to levels not observed since the departure of US forces in 2011. Although overall level of violence remains far lower than in 2007, high-profile suicide and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks initiated by al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) in 2013 returned to 2007-2008 levels, roughly 68 to 80 per month.

The protracted civil war in Syria is destabilizing Iraq, hardening ethno-sectarian attitudes, and raising concerns about the spillover of violence. The Syrian conflict has also facilitated a greater two-way flow of Sunni extremists between Syria and Iraq that has contributed to AQI’s increased level of high-profile attacks.


We judge that Yemen has achieved provisional success in the early stages of its transition from the regime of Ali Abdallah Salih. However, it still faces threats to its stability from a resurging al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and disputes over the future structure of the state. The government of Abd Rabbih Mansur al-Hadi has completed an inclusive National Dialogue (ND) Conference, but the parties have not reached an agreement on how to implement the federal state structure called for by the Dialogue.

  • The Yemeni military’s willingness to sustain pressure on AQAP will be critical to preventing its resurgence.
  • Yemen’s economy has stabilized since Hadi took office in 2012, but substantial foreign assistance will remain important to alleviate the country’s serious economic and humanitarian problems.


Lebanon in 2014 probably will continue to experience sectarian violence among Lebanese and terrorist attacks by Sunni extremists and Hizballah, which are targeting each others’ interests. The conflict in neighboring Syria is the primary driver of the sectarian unrest and terrorist attacks in Lebanon; already this year, sectarian fighting and political assassinations in Tripoli, Beirut, and Sidon have killed more than

a hundred Lebanese. Increased frequency and lethality of violence in Lebanon could erupt into sustained and widespread fighting.

  • Hizballah’s secretary general, Hasan Nasrallah, has framed the conflict as an act of self-defense against Western-backed Sunni extremists who he claimed would target all Lebanese if the Asad regime fell.
  • Sunni extremists have conducted multiple bombings in Beirut in 2013 and early 2014 in the Shia- dominated areas of southern Beirut that killed 75 and injured more than 500 people. Sunni extremists claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings in November 2013 against the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
  • Sunni Salafist leaders are calling for supporters to back the Syrian opposition, which threatens to escalate sectarian tensions.

Lebanon is facing increased challenges in coping with the continuing influx of numerous Syrian refugees. As of early January 2014, over 800,000 Syrian refuges were residing in Lebanon—roughly 25 percent of Lebanon’s population prior to the Syrian conflict. Syrian refugees are straining Lebanon’s fragile economy and burdening its weak healthcare and education systems. Refugees almost certainly will not return to Syria, given the continued violence and lack of economic prospects.


Nearly three years since the revolution that toppled Qadhafi, Libya’s political, economic, and security landscape is fragmented and its institutions are weak, posing an ongoing threat to stability and cohesion of the Libyan state. Libya’s democratically elected government struggles to address the many competing challenges that threaten to undermine the transition.

  • Efforts by various regional, minority, and tribal groups to seek redress of grievances through violence and disruption of oil facilities are weakening national cohesion.
  • Since the end of the revolution, federalist groups have declared autonomy for the east or south at least four times. The federalist-led takeover of eastern oil facilities in July 2013 has been the most sustained and aggressive pursuit of self-rule.
  • Libya’s numerous quasi-governmental militias often demonstrate little loyalty to Tripoli and challenge central government authority.
  • The terrorist threat to Western and Libyan Government interests remains acute, especially in the east of the country, where attacks against government officials and facilities occur nearly daily.  Regional terrorist organizations exploit Libya’s porous borders and massive amounts of loose conventional weapons, further destabilizing the country and the Maghreb and Sahel region.
  • To the benefit of the government, most Libyans oppose violence by federalists, militias, and extremists and generally support government efforts to usher in a successful democratic transition, including the drafting of a constitution and holding elections for Libya’s first post-revolution permanent government.


Tunisia’s long-suppressed societal cleavages and security and economic challenges will remain impediments to the country’s political transition in 2014. The political environment since the ouster of President Ben Ali in 2011 has exposed sharp divisions over the role of religion in the state and the separation of powers. However, the Constituent Assembly’s late January 2014 passage of a new constitution by a wide majority suggests an increased willingness among the parties to compromise.



The status of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) remains unresolved despite its endorsement by Afghan leaders during the mid-November 2013 Loya Jirga. Regardless of the status of the BSA, the bilateral relationship still might be strained if Afghan officials believe that US commitments to Afghanistan fall short of their expectations.

  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that Afghanistan’s GDP growth rate fell from 12 percent in 2012 to 3.1 percent in 2013. It forecasts 4 to 6 percent growth in 2014 and beyond, largely because of reduced ISAF spending.

Afghan elections in 2014 will be an important step in Afghanistan’s democratic development. President Karzai has stated that he will step down after the election; eleven candidates are currently competing to succeed him.

The Taliban, confident in its ability to outlast ISAF and committed to returning to power, will challenge government control over some of the Pashtun countryside, especially in the south and east. The Taliban senior leadership will maintain a structured and resilient leadership system. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), however, will probably maintain control of most major cities as long as external financial support continues.


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s primary focus will be on improving the economy, including the energy sector, and countering security threats. Sharif probably won the May 2013 election primarily because the previous government failed to improve either the economy or the generation of electricity.

Islamabad secured an IMF program in September 2013. Pakistan satisfied IMF conditions for fiscal and energy reforms under its three-year, $6.7 billion Extended Fund Facility, paving the way for a second disbursement of $550 million in December. However, continued use of scarce foreign exchange reserves by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) to prop up the Pakistani rupee might make future disbursements difficult.

Sharif seeks to acquire a more central policymaking role for civilians in areas that the Army has traditionally dominated. His push for an increased role in foreign policy and national security will probably test his relationship with the new Chief of Army Staff (COAS), particularly if the Army believes that the civilian government’s position impinges on Army interests. However, Sharif has publically stated that the Army and the civilian government are “on the same page.”

Islamabad wants good relations with the United States, but cooperation with Washington will continue to be vulnerable to strains, particularly due to Pakistani sensitivities toward perceived violations of sovereignty.

  • Prime Minister Sharif entered office seeking to establish good relations with the United States, especially in areas that support his primary domestic focus of improving the economy. Sharif and his advisers were pleased with his late October 2013 visit to Washington. Pakistan was eager to restart a “strategic dialogue” and its officials and press have touted results of the initial meetings of several of the five working groups that comprise the dialogue.
  • Sharif also seeks rapprochement with New Delhi in part in anticipation of increased trade, which would be beneficial to Pakistan’s economic growth. Sharif will probably move cautiously to improve relations, however, and India also will probably not take any bold steps, particularly not before the Indian elections in spring 2014.


In this election year in particular, coalition politics and institutional challenges will remain the primary drivers of India’s economic and foreign policy decisionmaking. Any future government installed after the 2014 election will probably have a positive view of the United States, but future legislation or policy changes that are consistent with US interests is not assured.

  • Coalition politics will almost certainly dominate Indian governance. Since the 1984 national elections, no party has won a clear majority in the lower house of Parliament. We judge that this trend will continue with the 2014 election, and the proliferation of political parties will further complicate political consensus building.
  • In 2014, India will probably attain a 5 percent average annual growth rate, significantly less than the 8 percent growth that it achieved from 2005 to 2012 and that is needed to achieve its policy goals.

India shares US objectives for a stable and democratic Pakistan that can encourage trade and economic integration between South and Central Asia. We judge that India and Pakistan will seek modest progress in minimally controversial areas, such as trade, while probably deferring serious discussion on territorial disagreements and terrorism.

India will continue to cooperate with the United States on the future of Afghanistan following the drawdown of international forces. India also shares concerns about a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, seeing it as a long-term security threat and source of regional instability.

India and China have attempted to reduce long-standing border tensions through confidence-building measures, such as holding the first bilateral military exercise in five years in November 2013 and signing a Border Defense Cooperation Agreement during Prime Minister Singh’s visit to China in October 2013. However, mutual suspicions will likely persist.


Sub-Saharan Africa will almost certainly see political and related security turmoil in 2014. The continent has become a hothouse for the emergence of extremist and rebel groups, which increasingly launch deadly asymmetric attacks, and which government forces often cannot effectively counter due to a lack of capability and sometimes will. Additionally, a youth bulge will grow with unfulfilled economic expectations and political frustrations; conflict will increase for land and water resources; and strengthening transnational criminal networks will disrupt political and economic stability.

The Sahel

Governments in Africa’s Sahel region—particularly Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania—are at risk of terrorist attacks, primarily as retribution for these countries’ support to the January 2013 French-led international military intervention in Mali. Additionally, this region faces pressure from growing youth populations and marginalized ethnic groups frustrated with a lack of government services, few employment opportunities, and poor living standards. Limited government capabilities, corruption, illicit economies, smuggling, and poor governance undercut development and the region’s ability to absorb international assistance and improve stability and security, which would impede terrorists’ freedom of movement.


In Somalia, al-Shabaab is conducting asymmetric attacks against government facilities and Western targets in and around Mogadishu. The credibility and effectiveness of the young Somali government will be further threatened by persistent political infighting, weak leadership from President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, ill-equipped government institutions, and pervasive technical, political, and administrative shortfalls.

East Africa

Security has increased and ongoing counterterrorism and policing partnerships with Western nations have strengthened in the wake of the September 2013 attack by al-Shabaab-affiliated extremists at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Nevertheless, East African governments will have difficulty protecting the wide range of potential targets. Al-Shabaab-associated networks might be planning additional attacks in Kenya and throughout East Africa, including in Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Uganda, to punish those countries that deployed troops to Somalia in support of its government.

Sudan and South Sudan

Sudan’s President Bashir and the National Congress Party (NCP) will almost certainly confront a range of challenges, including public dissatisfaction over economic decline and insurgencies on Sudan’s periphery. Sudanese economic conditions since South Sudan’s independence in 2011 continue to deteriorate, including rising prices on staple goods, which fuel opposition to Bashir and the NCP. Khartoum will likely resort to heavy-handed tactics to prevent resulting protests from escalating and to contain domestic insurgencies. The conflicts in the Darfur region and in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states (the “Two Areas”) will likely continue. Sudan will likely continue an offensive military campaign in the Two Areas that will lead to increased displacement and the continued denial of humanitarian access in the area. Darfur will likely remain unstable as militia forces and the government continue to skirmish, and as internal fighting among local armed groups, general banditry, and insecurity rise.

South Sudan will almost certainly continue to face ethnic conflict, resource constraints, and rampant corruption in 2014. Widespread clashes across South Sudan in late 2013 will make economic recovery difficult. Without a cessation of hostilities and a stable peace process, Juba will also struggle to rebound in 2014 because international partners will be more reluctant to invest after the emergency evacuation of foreign diplomats in December of 2013 and an increasingly precarious security environment across the country. Additionally, President Kiir will likely continue his authoritarian approach to running the country and dealing with opposition groups; any peace process will likely be slow and continue despite continued attacks by anti-government forces. Ethnic conflict in Jonglei will likely continue as the South Sudanese military faces internal divisions and threats from multiple rebel groups. We assess that Juba will continue to rely on assistance from the international community, but might lose donor funding following its heavy- handed approach to suppressing political opposition groups in late 2013 and it might be conditioned on any peace process. The oil fields, South Sudan’s main source of revenue, might be threatened by anti- government forces, thereby decreasing or halting production. The South Sudanese government will also struggle to govern regions outside of the capital and provide basic public goods.  South Sudan’s economy suffered significant setbacks after Juba shut down oil production early in 2012.


Rising political tensions and violent internal conflict are likely in the leadup to Nigeria’s 2015 election. Nigeria faces critical terrorism threats from Boko Haram and persistent extremism in the north, simmering ethno-religious conflict in communities in central Nigeria’s “Middle Belt,” and militants who are capable of remobilizing in the Niger Delta and attacking the oil industry. Abuja is in a reactive security posture, and its limited capability will hinder its ability to anticipate and preempt threats. Southern Nigeria’s economy, centered in Lagos, is among the fastest growing in the world but presents a sharp contrast to northern Nigeria, where stagnation and endemic poverty prevail amid insecurity and neglect. Given these domestic challenges, Nigeria’s ability to project leadership across Africa and deploy peacekeepers will probably wane.

Central African Republic

Civilian casualties and humanitarian needs in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been severe since the overthrow of former President Bozize in early 2013 by rebel forces from the largely Muslim northeast. Communal conflict—largely along Muslim-Christian lines—has included formation of Christian militias, reprisal killings, atrocities, burning of homes, and destruction of religious sites across the country. The former rebels have used their de facto political authority to violently monopolize the country’s most lucrative resources and territory, eroding CAR’s historically peaceful Muslim-Christian relations. New interim President Samba Panza is a more unifying figure, but the government has almost no presence outside the capital and much of the country has devolved into lawlessness. In December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized an African Union peacekeeping force, supported by French forces, to restore security and public order and stabilize the country.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has abated somewhat since the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels suffered a series of setbacks in 2013, gradually losing materiel support from Rwanda and control of its territorial strongholds. The conflict ended with M23’s military defeat and the signing of an agreement with the DRC government in December 2013. We judge that M23 will probably not reconstitute and pose a significant threat to stability in Congo in 2014 without a substantial influx of troops and other military support from an external partner. However, Rwanda will probably consider supporting other armed groups in Congo to secure areas along the border, threatening attempts by the Congolese Government and UN forces to consolidate control of the territory. Other armed groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, continue to pose significant risks to civilians and contribute to instability and violence.

Lord’s Resistance Army

Pursuit operations of the African Union Regional Task Force in central Africa, enabled by US military assistance, has the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) on the run and in survival mode, hindering LRA’s recruiting and training. Increased cooperation between partners has facilitated information sharing and, combined with other efforts, enabled an increased operational tempo, leading to a significant number of defections. LRA still raids settlements in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and CAR and periodically abducts civilians. LRA leader Joseph Kony is often on the move and has long been able to elude capture. Getting a “fix” on his location will remain difficult in this very remote part of the world.



Chinese leaders will try to focus primarily on domestic priorities during 2014 while leveraging China’s growing influence in the region. A new generation led by Xi Jinping is in place and its ambitious policy agenda is coming into focus: accelerate economic reforms, make governance more efficient and accountable, and tighten Communist Party discipline.

China will probably continue its increasingly proactive approach to maritime disputes, including a hardline stance toward Japan over the Senkaku Islands. More broadly, China’s growing confidence, new capabilities, and other perceived challenges to China’s interests or security will drive Beijing to pursue a more active foreign policy.

  • Growing regional competition in territorial disputes and competing nationalist fervor increase the risk of escalation and constrain regional cooperation. Sovereignty concerns and resurgent historical resentments will generate friction and occasional incidents between claimants in the East and South China Seas and slow or stall bilateral or multilateral efforts to resolve the disputes.

Beijing has highlighted its pursuit of a “new type of major power relations” with Washington, but China is simultaneously working at least indirectly to counterbalance US influence. Within East Asia, Beijing seeks to fuel doubts about the sustainability of the US “rebalance” and Washington’s willingness to support its allies and partners in the region.

China is pursuing a long-term comprehensive military modernization designed to enable its armed forces to achieve success on a 21st century battlefield. China’s military investments favor capabilities designed to strengthen its nuclear deterrent and strategic strike options, counter foreign military intervention in a regional crisis, and provide limited, albeit growing, capability for power projection. During 2013, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) introduced advanced weapons into its inventory and reached milestones in the development of key systems. China’s first domestically developed heavy transport plane, the Y-20, successfully conducted its initial test flight. Additionally, China has continued to develop multiple advanced ballistic and cruise missiles.

  • Developments in PLA capabilities support an expansion of operations to secure Chinese interests beyond territorial issues. For example, China is pursuing more effective logistical support arrangements with countries in the Indian Ocean region.
  • Elements from China’s army, navy, air force, and strategic missile forces from multiple military regions participated in Mission Action 2013 in September and October 2013. The exercise included two large-scale amphibious landings and coordinated long-range air force and naval air operations in a maritime environment.

North Korea

Two years after taking the helm of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has further solidified his position as unitary leader and final decision authority. He has solidified his control and enforced loyalty through personnel changes and purges. The most prominent was the ouster and execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek in December 2013. Kim has elevated the profile of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) through appointments of party operatives to key leadership positions and the convening of party conferences and plenums. Kim and the regime have publicly emphasized his focus on improving the country’s troubled economy and the livelihood of the North Korean people while maintaining the tenets of a command economy. He has codified this approach via his dual-track policy of economic development and advancement of nuclear weapons. (Information on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and intentions can be found above in the section on WMD and Proliferation.)



Putin’s 2012-2013 crackdown on the opposition defused the popular challenge to his hold on power; however, the Kremlin confronts a growing trend of opposition politicians taking their fight to the local ballot box. This trend was illustrated by the consolidation of support in Moscow around a single opposition leader—Aleksey Navalnyy—who finished second in Moscow’s mayoral election in September 2013.

The Kremlin also faces a rise in ethno-religious tensions—as underscored by the October 2013 riot in the outskirts of Moscow—which will probably grow as the Muslim population in Russia increases. Moscow must balance an increasing immigrant Muslim population needed to offset its shrinking labor pool against growing nationalist sentiment among the ethnic Russian population.

In February 2014, Russia will host the Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi—an area bordering the turbulent North Caucasus region where Russian security forces have battled a local insurgency for the past 20 years. We have seen an increase in threat reporting just prior to the Olympics, which is not unusual for a major international event, and have offered assistance to the Russian Government.

Putin’s claim to popular support and legitimacy as head of the Russian state has rested in part on a record of economic growth and the promise of stability, increasing prosperity, and relative personal freedom. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects that the Russian economy will grow by 2.3 percent in 2014, putting at risk a number of ambitious Kremlin projects—including the $700 billion defense modernization plan, the 2018 World Cup, and social welfare enhancements pledged by Putin during his 2012 election campaign.

Moscow has hailed its CW initiative in Syria as a major foreign policy accomplishment. It positions Russia to play a major role in any future settlement of the Syrian conflict and adds legitimacy to the Syrian regime. Russia also will almost certainly continue to seek to fill the vacuum it believes is developing between the United States and Egypt.

The campaign to keep Ukraine from signing an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union (EU) underscores the importance the Kremlin continues to attach to its goal of Eurasian integration. Russia will have to compete for influence with the EU in the West and increasingly with China in Central Asia; both will pose challenges to its pursuit of Eurasian integration.

The bilateral relationship with the United States will remain a priority for Russian foreign policy. We assess that Russia will continue its engagement with the United States on issues that address its priorities—Syrian CW as well as Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea.

The Russian military remains a symbol of Russia’s national power. Following measured improvements to its capabilities in the past year, it is setting its sights on the long-term challenges of professionalization

and rearmament. The new leadership that assumed command of the military last November has made many tactical adjustments to the sweeping reforms the military enacted in 2008, but has largely kept the military on the same strategic trajectory.

The military in the past year has taken an increasingly prominent role in out-of-area operations, most notably in the eastern Mediterranean but also in Latin America, the Arctic, and other regions, a trend that will probably continue. Moscow is negotiating a series of agreements that would give it access to military infrastructure across the globe. These bases are generally intended to support “show the flag” and “presence” operations that do not reflect wartime missions or a significant power projection capability.

The Caucasus and Central Asia

Georgia’s new political leaders have inherited pressing domestic and foreign policy problems amid high public expectations for progress. The economy, which has slowed since the Georgian Dream Coalition was elected in October 2012, will be an area of greatest immediate concern.  The new government will also continue to balance a series of high-profile legal cases against former government officials for past abuses. The cases, while popular inside Georgia, have generated concerns of political retribution abroad and risk polarizing Georgian politics. Tensions with Russia have eased over the past year, decreasing the risk of renewed conflict. Progress nonetheless remains unlikely on the core disputes between Tbilisi and Moscow.

The standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories will remain a potential flashpoint. Neither side will see advantages in deliberately renewing hostilities, but prospects for peaceful resolution are also dim. Azerbaijan is willing to bide its time and wait for stronger economic growth to enable increased military spending to give it a decisive advantage. Armenia has a strong interest in maintaining the status quo because ethnic Armenians already control the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and much of the surrounding territory. Nevertheless, the close proximity of opposing military forces and recurring ceasefire violations along the Line of Contact (LOC) continue to pose a risk of miscalculation.

Central Asia continues to host US supply lines that support operations in Afghanistan, and its leaders remain concerned about regional instability after the Coalition drawdown in 2014. Central Asian militants fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely continue to pose a threat, but sources of potential internal instability in Central Asia will probably remain more acute than external threats. Unclear political succession plans, endemic corruption, weak economies, ethnic tensions, and political repression are

long-term sources of instability in Central Asia. Relations among the Central Asian states remain tense due to personal rivalries and disputes over water, borders, and energy. However, Central Asian leaders’ focus on internal control reduces the risk of interstate conflict in the region.

Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus

As Ukraine heads toward the presidential election scheduled to take place in 2015, political developments in Ukraine probably will continue to be shaped by opposition and public anger over the Yanukovych administration’s abuse of power, the need for Yanukovych to maintain the loyalty of key elites, and his efforts to balance Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the West. Political developments in Ukraine will increasingly be shaped by public protests over Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement (AA) and the presidential election scheduled to take place in 2015.  Yanukovych backed away from signing the AA with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2013, probably because Moscow offered the only option for immediate financial support to avert a financial crisis that would threaten his reelection bid. Firmly intent on maintaining his hold on power, Yanukovych will probably resort to coercion, extralegal means, and other tactics to tilt the playing field in his favor and ensure his reelection, threatening a further erosion of democratic norms.

The first tranche of Russia’s $15 billion aid package that Kyiv and Moscow signed in December will allow Kyiv to stave off a fiscal crisis in the short term but risks increasing Ukraine’s economic dependence on Moscow. Russia’s aid package removes incentives for Kyiv to enact painful economic reforms necessary to spur growth, and the ambiguous terms of the bailout leave Kyiv more vulnerable to Russian pressure, particularly on energy issues.

Moldova will continue to try to deepen its integration with the EU.  Chisinau initialed an Association Agreement with the EU at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2013.  It is working to formalize the AA, its associated free trade agreement, and an EU visa liberalization agreement before the scheduled November 2014 parliamentary election. However, both the EU and Moldova still need to sign the AA for it to come into full force. Moldova’s pro-European coalition government suffers from low approval ratings after a series of political scandals and coalition infighting; its loss to the opposition Communist Party in the upcoming parliamentary election could delay or derail the country’s EU

integration course. A settlement of Moldova’s conflict with its separatist region of Transnistria is highly unlikely during 2014 as they remain far apart on key issues and show no real willingness to compromise. Transnistria and its primary political and financial backer Russia oppose Moldova’s EU integration; they also have little interest in resolving the ongoing conflict because that would remove a key obstacle to Moldova’s European integration and risk reducing the influence Russia retains over Moldova.

In Belarus, the Lukashenko regime has managed to obtain the acquiescence of the Belarusian public, thanks largely to his regime’s clampdown on civil society and also to Russian largesse which has enabled relatively stable standards of living. Lukashenko has done so despite a structurally flawed, centralized economy that leaves Minsk perpetually on the edge of economic crisis and in need of foreign financial assistance to stay afloat. Lukashenko’s economic model has become increasingly unsustainable since

his regime’s crackdown on mass protests following the presidential election in December 2010. Continued repression of civil society has left him increasingly isolated from the West and with decreased leverage to resist Moscow’s economic conditions.



Stability in Haiti will remain fragile due to extreme poverty and weak governing institutions. Meaningful long-term reconstruction and development in Haiti will need to continue for many years. Haiti remains vulnerable to setbacks in its reconstruction and development goals due to the possibility of natural disasters. Food insecurity, although improving, also has the potential to be a destabilizing factor.  Periods of political gridlock have resulted due to distrust between President Michel Martelly, in office since May

2011, and opponents in Parliament. Martelly is generally still popular, but politically organized protests, possibly violent, might occur before the elections, scheduled for 2014.

During the next decade, Haiti will remain highly dependent on assistance from the international community for security, in particular during elections. Donor fatigue among contributors to the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), however, will likely lead to reductions in force, evident by the

2013 mandate which calls for consolidating and downsizing forces. Although the Haitian National Police is making progress on its plans to increase force size from 10,000 in 2011 to 15,000 by 2016, the larger force will probably still need support from MINUSTAH to provide for its own security.

Central America

Central America’s northern tier countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—will likely struggle to overcome the economic and security problems that plague the region.  All three countries are facing debt crises and falling government revenues because of slow economic growth, widespread tax evasion, and large informal economies. Entrenched political, economic, and public-sector interests resist reforms. Domestic criminal gangs and transnational organized crime groups, as well as Central America’s status as a major transit area for cocaine from source countries in South America, are fueling record levels of violence in the region. Regional governments have worked to improve citizen security but with little-to- moderate success.

  • The gang truce in effect in El Salvador since March 2012 has reduced the homicide rate there, mostly among gang members. However, other crimes such as kidnappings, robberies, and extortion are undermining security for many citizens.
  • Guatemala still has one of the world’s highest murder rates despite lessened impunity for violent crimes during the past several years. Many areas of the country, particularly along the borders, are under the direct influence of drug traffickers.
  • The homicide rate in Honduras remains the highest in the world. New Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez will likely prioritize security policy and seek to build a coalition within the divided legislature to push his economic reform agenda. However, weak governance, widespread corruption, and debt problems will limit prospects for a turnaround.


Key Partnerships

Ongoing US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations, European Parliament (EP) elections, the withdrawal of Allied forces from Afghanistan, and new leadership in the EU and NATO will create new dynamics in the transatlantic partnership in 2014.

  •  Europeans likely recognize the need to isolate the TTIP negotiations from the other issue areas. The

TTIP has high potential for generating economic growth for both the United States and Europe and for reinforcing the transatlantic link. However, data privacy will probably become a political issue in the runup to the May 2014 EP elections; some opponents of TTIP might use the unauthorized disclosures of NSA information as political cover for their opposition to the TTIP.

  • The NATO Summit in September 2014 will be an opportunity to reinforce NATO’s purpose, as well as announce a new Secretary General.

Imbalances in the euro zone and slow economic growth in Europe are changing the political economy in Europe, potentially spurring support for nationalist and populist political parties.

  • Radical nationalist and populist political parties are gaining ground in several western and central European countries and will probably do well in the May 2014 EP elections. In November 2013, two far-right parties—the Dutch Freedom Party and France’s Front National—announced that they would cooperate in the EP elections and hope to form a new Euroskeptic bloc, probably linking up with similar parties in Central Europe. Public fears over immigration and Islam, alienation from EU policies, and perceptions that centrist parties are unable to deal with high unemployment and income inequalities will increase the resonance of the rhetoric of far-right and far-left radical parties.


Turkey’s foreign and security policy will be shaped by domestic events, especially the ongoing corruption scandal. Furthermore, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Erdogan, will be in election mode for municipal and presidential elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in early 2015. The corruption allegations initiated in December 2013, allegedly by elements within the AKP associated with Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, represent the greatest challenge to Erdogan. Ankara will continue to pursue foreign policy objectives that maximize economic advantage for Turkey while proceeding with caution on issues that could alienate Turkey’s nationalist voters. Erdogan’s pursuit of a peace deal with the Turkish-Kurdish terrorist group Kurdistan People’s Congress (KGK, formerly PKK) also risks antagonizing Turkish nationalists and neighboring governments. Erdogan is pursuing a multifaceted strategy of promoting domestic reforms and engaging the Kurds to end the armed KGK insurgency in Turkey. The protracted Syrian conflict is generating an increased extremist presence in Turkey, the primary transit country for foreign militants seeking to join the fight in Syria. It is also raising the potential for unsanctioned or opportunistic attacks by supporters of the Bashir al-Asad regime.

The Western Balkans

Despite many positivedevelopments in the Western Balkans in 2013, the region in 2014 will continue to be characterized by deep ethnic and political divisions. The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) and ethnic cleavages in Macedonia are particularly volatile.

  • In Bosnia-Herzegovina, different interpretations of the political framework, based on the 1995 Dayton Accords, as well as efforts by Bosniak, Croat, and Serb leaders to maintain control over their political and ethnic fiefdoms will continue to undermine BiH’s central state institutions. Elections in 2014 will not likely bridge these differences, diminishing hopes for BiH’s Euro-Atlantic integration that its neighbors have achieved.
  • The Macedonian Government continues to push programs geared to promote ethnic Macedonian nationalism at the expense of the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The longer that Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership paths remain stalled over the country’s constitutional name dispute with Greece and poor bilateral relations with Bulgaria, the greater the risk that ethnic tensions will increase.

An Authoritarian Future

January 7, 2014

Why The West Slowly Abandons Its Civil Liberties

By Werner de Gruijter of Global Research





Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic who construct an image of toughness – tough on crime, on terrorism, on humanistic-inspired idealism etc. – are tapping into a sensitive spot that blocks critical thought among the public. Obama’s brute and harsh reaction on Edward Snowden’s revelations is just another example. Somehow it seems like  “We, the people…”  lost track of ourselves. Four main reasons why we abandon our once hard fought civil rights.

Many countries in the West, like Britain, France, Spain the US and the Netherlands have experienced in recent years an exponential increase in technological surveillance and a resolute decline in parliamentary and judicial control over state police and secret service.

Issues like the ban on torture, the possibility of detention without charge, privacy and freedom of speech were in the public debate reframed in favour of state control. And everybody accepted it. To be fair, there was some opposition – but it lacked intensity. Why is this happening?

To give an example, under former British Prime Minister Tony Blair 45 criminal laws were approved creating 3000 new criminal offences. British writer John Kampfer argues that in the past ten years more criminal offences were made in his country than in a hundred years before. All this was legitimized by the idea that a ‘terroristic’ virus attacked Western civilization. Of course, there is some truth in it – but these risks were grossly exaggerated. Still, we fearfully went along with the proposed measures.

This cultural shift towards perhaps a more authoritarian future for the West is no coincidence of nature. It is manmade. If the opportunity is there, top down induced shifts happen only if politicians, corporations, media pundits and other cultural icons are able to find the right symbols and techniques to get a new message across.

 But first, besides these techniques, famous American psychologist Abraham Maslow is probably aware that there is also something else which stimulates our apathy in this respect. He signified the importance of leisure time for our own personal well being as well as for the well being of the community as a whole – it creates so to speak the possibility to make well informed decisions. Currently our leisure time is under assault. Thirty years of income stagnation in the midst of rising prices – people have to struggle to earn a living – meant that for most of us there is less time for critical thought.

 But it has even been made harder to reflect on important issues since politicians and opinions leaders use marketing tools in order to seduce. Remember that soon after the 2008 banking bailout the discussion was reframed in such a way that government spending instead of the unregulated financial sector itself, was the root cause of all ‘evil’ – this message was repeated like a commercial, over and over again. This technique of repetition effectively neutralizes critical thinking. Hence, Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebels, was on to something when he famously stated:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Long after Goebbels died, psychologists experimentally discovered that it is a natural tendency of human beings to react more receptive to whatever kind of message the more they are exposed to it. They call this “the law of mere exposure”. We should question ourselves if this habit is healthy for our general welfare.

 Furthermore, psychologists discovered that our ability to think critically is severely limited when we act under stress. Frightened people tend to perceive reality through a prism of simple right and wrong answers, leaving the complexities aside. Scared, we are easily fooled. Politicians and corporations can’t resist the temptation to manipulate this animal instinct – like when we started a war without having been shown any serious proof of its legitimacy.

 One could expect that the mainstream media in its role as guard dog was attacking those politicians that create black & white polemics. However, currently most (privately owned) media echo the voice of corporations, which these days doesn’t differ much in substance from that of the government. As a result alternative and more nuanced voices are underrepresented in cultural discourse which, again, makes it harder to produce well informed decisions.

And, when considering the information that is filtered thru to a broad audience – one also notes the slow, but steady disappearing of the separation line between news media and entertainment. American academic Daniel Hallin argues that the average time for sound bites politicians are given in media performances has shrunk from forty seconds in the 1960s to ten seconds in 1988. Hallin’s crucial point is that he believes that the biggest victim of this still on going process is the careful scrutinizing of social problems. This results in so called ‘horse race’ news – news about politics presented as a game of  “who’s the most witty” in which politicians try to be popular instead of reasonable. The blur of catchy one-liners reaching the audience creates a further alienation from reality.

Taken together an assault on leisure, repetition of information, fear policies and the transformation of our media outlets from guard dogs to lap dogs create a situation wherein our spirit for the common good slowly dissolves into an ocean of noise, distraction and misinformation.

Meanwhile, the social environment which politicians, corporations and media gurus are constructing produces anxieties and illusions in order to make profits or political gains. Together these social forces act as a gravitational pull for government and corporate empowerment. That is to say, they pull away strength from the people to participate in the maintenance of a mentally healthy, meaningful democratic environment.

Thomas Jefferson once argued that a government should fear the power of the people. In that respect the apathy with which the audience in general responds to the revelations of Snowden is a cynical demonstration of our time frame. Although, however little, a message this confronting does still stir society a tiny bit. We are not completely brain-dead – and there is some hope in that.

Probably the best question contemporary Westerners can ask themselves is: will today’s power structure be able to obscure these clear violations of human civil rights or is this message too loud to ignore?

Or to say it more bluntly than that: will there be a transition to a meaningful democracy in the West or to an advanced form of authoritarianism? What’s your point of view…




The problem with beliefs – Jim Walker

December 9, 2013
Belief, Justice, to think, to know.

Belief, Justice, to think, to know.




People have slaughtered each other in wars, inquisitions, and political actions for centuries and still kill each other over beliefs in religions, political ideologies, and philosophies. These belief-systems, when stated as propositions, may appear mystical, and genuine to the naive, but when confronted with a testable bases from reason and experiment, they fail miserably. I maintain that faiths (types of beliefs) create more social problems than they solve and the potential dangers from them could threaten the future of humankind.

Throughout history, humankind has paid reverence to beliefs and mystical thinking. Organized religion has played the most significant role in the support and propagation of beliefs and faith. This has resulted in an acceptance of beliefs in general. Regardless of how one may reject religion, religious support of supernatural events gives credence to other superstitions in general and the support of faith (belief without evidence), mysticism, and miracles. Most scientists, politicians, philosophers, and even atheists support the notion that some forms of belief provide a valuable means to establish “truth” as long as it contains the backing of data and facts. Belief has long become a socially acceptable form of thinking in science as well as religion. Indeed, once a proposition turns to belief, it automatically undermines opposition to itself. Dostoyevsky warned us that those who reject religion “will end by drenching the earth in blood.” But this represents a belief in-itself. Our history has shown that the blood letting has occurred mostly as a result of religions or other belief-systems, not from the people who reject them.

However, does rational thinking require the adherence to beliefs at all? Does productive science, ethics, or a satisfied life require any attachment to a belief of any kind? Can we predict future events, act on data, theories, and facts without resorting to the ownership of belief? This paper attempts to show that, indeed, one need not own beliefs of any kind to establish scientific facts, observe and enjoy nature, or live a productive, moral, and useful life.

Relative to the history of life, human languages have existed on the earth for only a few thousand years, a flash of an instant compared to the millions of years of evolution. (Estimates for the beginnings of language range from 40,000 to 200,000 years ago). It should come to no surprise that language takes time to develop into a useful means of communication. As in all information systems, errors can easily creep into the system, especially at the beginning of its development. It should not come to any surprise that our language and thought processes may contain errors, delusions and beliefs. It would behoove us to find and attempt to deal with these errors and become aware of their dangers.

The ability to predict the future successfully provides humans with the means to survive. No other animal species has a capacity to think, remember, imagine, and forecast to the degree of Homo sapiens. To replace our thoughts with intransigent beliefs belies the very nature of the very creative thinking process which keeps us alive.

Before I go on, I’d like to apologize for the sloppy writing style of this article. I intend this as a work in progress as this reflects my thoughts about the subject of belief along with what science has discovered about it. As new information arrives, I either make changes or add information on the fly, so some things may seem out of order, anachronistic or repeated. I have no expertise in neuroscience or psychology and my main source for disowning beliefs comes from my own experience, thus I use the word “I” a lot, something that authors of scientific papers should never use. Sorry.

I learned how to disown beliefs even before I had any scientific understanding on the subject. Many people do not understand how a person can do this so I hope to explain that one can indeed live without beliefs, or at least give them a better understanding about the subject. I also hope to explain what belief means and what it doesn’t mean and the problems they can cause. If my experience only applies to me and no one else, then I probably have an abnormal brain. Fortunately the scientific information that has arrived has tended to support my case and diminished the argument against it. Nor do I intend to proselytize or try to convince you that you should abandon your beliefs. Perhaps some people can’t disown beliefs, even in principle, because of some unknown reason that I have no awareness of.



Origins of belief


“The closest relative of the chimp is the human. Not orangs, but people. Us. Chimps and humans are nearer kin than are chimps and gorillas or any other kinds of apes not of the same species.”
-Carl Sagan

Very little evidence has yet appeared about how belief arose in humans. As social animals, we probably have always held beliefs to some degree. Studies of our closest DNA relatives, the apes, have suggested that primate social animals require both followers and leaders. The followers must assume the codes of conduct of their leaders if they wish to live without social conflict. Since there always occurs more followers than leaders, the property of accepting the leaders without challenge and the introduction of language may have led human primates towards the expression of beliefs.

As one possibility, perhaps the human animal believes because of an inherent result from expressed genes (phenotypes). Interestingly, some animals have in their DNA a predisposition for imprinted programming. [1] One extreme example of maturation imprinting occurs with newborn greylag geese where they regard the first suitable animal that it sees as its parent and follows it around. In nature geese usually see their natural mother when born, but if humankind interrupts the natural process and a newborn goose first sees a human, then it comes to regard itself, in some sense, as a human, thus compromising its natural life as a goose. Some young animals have a kind of “eidetic” memory; they will believe whatever gets taught to them. Do humans exhibit a similar kind imprinting while young as do many other animals? Or do we learn how to believe from our parents, expressed from memetic inheritance? Most people accept, without question, the religion of their youth. The degree that humans have imprinted or learned belief memories, or the ability to control their beliefs, or reduce them remains open for further investigation. Learning about the mechanism of beliefs at this early stage may help us understand the consequences of impressionable teaching and may lead us to modify the strategy of early learning so as to avoid the debilitating effects of unexamined beliefs.

Some evolutionary biologists think that beliefs require an evolutionary explanation because every known culture through history has had beliefs. And if beliefs have an evolutionary survival advantage, how can they serve that advantage? Of course no one knows how for sure because beliefs do not leave behind fossil evidence. Nevertheless one can still propose a hypothesis and the best one I’ve heard comes from Richard Dawkins. In his book, “The God Delusion,” he explains this on pages 172-179. I’ll give you a brief section from this chapter. Although he writes about religion, it also applies to beliefs in general:

“My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule of thumb to believe.” [Dawkins] (also watch a video of his explanation)

[Humans also communicate these belief rules through spoken or symbolic language. Since other animals do not have the language ability to the degree of humans, that explains why animals do not have religions.]

However, as children grow up, they no longer need to listen to their parents because their brains have now fully developed and they can think for themselves. Unfortunately, evolution has no way to clean up these evolutionary belief traits while in adulthood so the beliefs they inherited from their parents remain.

The evolutionary advantage of utilizing beliefs while young, although they help the survival of our species, can also lead to bad consequences later in adult life but not so severe as to prevent the survival of our species. These bad consequences of beliefs may have led early humans toward violence against members of their own. As early Homo sapiens collected beliefs, some of them must surely have contained beliefs of violence, possibly to protect them from other tribes who might harm them or who they believed might harm them.

The earliest evidence of human culture from Paleolithic and Mesolithic societies show that humans practiced some form of violence against fellow humans. These violent actions appear similar to the brutality of other primate species (chimpanzees, our closest primate relative, for example, reveals they engage in chimpanzee warfare). Later, the skills of human weaponry increased during the Neolithic period, and archeologists have uncovered evidence for executions and sacrifices. Although no one has direct evidence for languages spoked in the Neolithic period, violence of this kind, no doubt requires commination so they probably had language along with beliefs to justify their executions and sacrifices.

Many early societies believed in spirits and animism, the belief that animals and inanimate objects possess a spirit. Indeed, the Latin word, anima, means soul. The word “spirit” also derives from the Latin word for breath. No doubt ignorance about the nature of wind, breath and movement of animals led them to construct an “explanation” about things in their world. How could they possibly know the difference between beliefs, facts, and evidence? These early societies hardly had anything that we would call multiculturalism, and this alone would isolate their belief systems from other belief systems. Imagine, for example, that you lived in a tribe that held strong beliefs and you came across another tribe that held an entirely different set of beliefs. Without an understanding of cultural diversity, or even the difference between beliefs and facts, how could they not feel threatened by another tribe that held beliefs that conflicted with their beliefs?

With language came the contemplation and study of thoughtful systems. Socrates and Plato introduced beliefs of “forms” of things existing independently of their physical examples. These philosophical beliefs represented superficial representations of an underlying and absolute “reality.” Aristotle carried the concept further but placed these forms to physical objects as “essences.” He posited the existence of a soul and introduced the concept of an immovable mover (God) to justify matter which moves through the “heavens.” These ghostly concepts live today, not only in religion, but in our language. Many times we express essence ideas without thinking about them because they exist in the very structure of common communication derived from ancient philosophers. Since no one can see or measure these essences, the only way to comprehend them comes in the form of belief. Sadly, people still accept these essences as “real” based on nothing but faith without ever investigating whether they exist or not.

Orthodox religionists hinged their “sacred” philosophies upon the shoulders of ancient philosophers. Plotinus reorganized Plato’s work as the bases for Platonism which lasted for many centuries. Thomas Aquinas became the foremost disseminator of Aristotle’s thought. Aristotelianism and its limited logic still holds the minds of many believers. Today people still believe in inanimate objects, spirits, gods, angels, ghosts, alien UFOs, without ever questioning the reliability of their sources. Belief and faith can overpower the mind of a person to such an extent that even in the teeth of contrary evidence, he will continue to believe in it for no other reason than others around him believe in it or that people have believed in it for centuries.

“Religion. n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”
-A. Bierce



The meaning of belief

To establish a common ground for the general concept of belief, I hold to the common usage of the term from the American Heritage dictionary:

Belief: 1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing; faith. 2. Mental acceptance or conviction in the truth or actuality of something. 3. Something believed or accepted as true; especially, a particular tenet, or a body of tenets, accepted by a group of persons.

Believe: 1 To accept as true or real. 2. To credit with veracity; have confidence in; trust.

In its simplest form, belief occurs as a mental act, a thinking process in the brain that requires two things: a feeling and a logical statement. To “believe” requires a conscious feeling of truth. To communicate what this feeling refers to requires some form of logical structure such as spoken or written language. Thus a belief requires a thought and a conscious feeling of “truth” which, according to neurological brain research, stems from the limbic part of the brain (discussed in the mechanism of belief, below). Thus, belief occurs as a thought with a feeling or emotion “attached.” In other words: Belief= emotion + logic. Because belief requires emotion, it also represents a psychological state, not simply a mechanical thinking state.

In all cases, I refer to beliefs as occurring in an aware state of consciousness. Beliefs here do not refer to subconscious thoughts, or any mental activity occurring below the threshold of consciousness. Nor do beliefs apply to sleeping and dream states, or to unconscious habits, or instincts. When a person owns a belief, s/he consciously accepts their own belief. The degree of feeling to which one accepts their own beliefs, as valid, can vary from mild acceptance to certain absoluteness. Thus it would prove meaningless to say that a person has beliefs without them knowing it or for them to deny their own beliefs. Obviously, a person who does not believe in something, does not believe in that something; a person who believes in something, does believe in that something. Belief requires conscious acceptance.


How belief confuses arguments

In the mildest form of belief, that of acceptance without absoluteness, a speaker or writer could simply replace belief words with more discriptive words to avoid confusion.

Note that in most instances, one can replace the word “believe” with the word “think”. For example:

“I believe it will rain tonight.”

can transpose into:

“I think it will rain tonight.”

Most simple beliefs come from the expression of the experience of external events. From past experience, for example, people believe that dark clouds can produce rain, therefore, we attempt to predict the weather by forecasting from past events. However, to believe that an event will occur can produce disappointment if the prediction never happens. To make a prediction based on past events alone does not require believing in the future event, but rather, a good guess as to what may or may not happen. We can eliminate many of these simple beliefs by replacing the word “believe” with the word “think.” The word “think” describes the mental process of predicting instead of relying on the abstraction of belief which reflects a hope which may not happen. And if we replaced Aristotelian either-or beliefs with statistical thinking we would reflect probable events instead of believed events.

Belief represents a type of conscious mental thought, a subclass of many kinds of mental activity. Thinking may or may not include beliefs or faiths. Therefore, when I use the word “think” I mean it to represent thought absent of emotional belief.

If “think” won’t work as a substitute for belief, then it should prove easy to find another substitute word. For example:

“Our challenge then, is to believe only evidence claims that are likely.”

can transpose into:

“Our challenge then, is to use only evidence claims that are likely.”

Because belief statements contain logical propositions, one should consider if emotions and feelings have anything to do at all with our logic. The anecdote about Archimedes running through the streets crying, “Eureka!” after discovering the relationship between mass and volume describe his emotion after making his discovery. This could have led him to believe that density equals mass divided by volume, but do feelings and emotions add anything at all useful to his logical statement? If feelings really do add to our logical structures then why not add them to our mathematical statements? One could, for example, make up a table of ordinal words to express the intensity of the feelings such as “eureka!” (for the highest emotion), “good!” (for a lesser emotion), “meh” (an ambivalent emotion), etc. We can then plug our emotions into our logical statement:

 D[eureka!] = M/V

Now we have an attempt to use mathimatical statements as beliefs. Belief = emotion + logic.

As you should see by this silly example, the variable of emotion, not only does nothing to help the equation, the belief could vary from person to person. And if the holder of that belief dies, so goes their belief. Archimedes died with his beliefs but mathematicians today might think of his equation as: D[meh] = M/V, yet the truth value still holds even if no one believes it.

The example above appears silly when you attach an emotion to a mathematical statement, but the very same thing happens when you use beliefs in your language. Once you take out the emotional aspect of your belief from your statement, it would not, by definition, equal a belief. You would simply have a propositional statement. “I believe that it will rain,” would turn into, “It will rain.” Now if that seems too certain an expression, simply describe your uncertainty such as: “It probably will rain tonight”, or “It may rain tonight.” In a mathematical statement you might include a probability number.

Belief words can have many meanings. They can range from a guess (I believe so) to absolute certainty (I BELIEVE in God). So when a person uses a belief word in a sentence, the reader might get an entirely different meaning than you intend. It could mean just opposite of what you mean to your audience. For example, If you say to religious people that “I believe in science,” they might think you mean it as an absolute in the way they believe in god. It comes from this very kind of misinterpretation that can lead a religious person to think that science represents a religion. Realize that some religious people quote-mine popular scientific literature just to prove what some scientist believes or has faith in. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Danniel Dennet, for example, have all used “belief ” in their books and speeches but with the intention of justifying their belief with evidence and logic. The reader, however, might think of it as the strong version of the word. So why use belief at all? To avoid this problem, simply don’t use belief and faith and substitute it with a more descriptive word. Of course if you do have beliefs stronger than mild forms of belief, for example, if you hold supernatural beliefs, then of course, you should use the words belief or faith.

Many kinds of concepts occur without the need for belief. People can invent rules, maps, games, social laws, and models without requiring a belief or absolute trust in them. For example, a map may prove useful to get from point A to point B, but to believe that the map equals the territory would produce a falsehood. Humans invented the game of baseball, but it requires no need to believe in the game, or to attach some kind of “truth” to it. People can enjoy baseball, simply for the game itself. Technological societies invent “rules of the road” and construct traffic lights, signs and warnings. We do not take these rules as absolute but realize that they form a system of conduct that allow mass transit to exist. If any confidence results from the use of models and rules, it should come from experience of past events predicted by the models rather than from the emotions connected to beliefs.



Examples of non-beliefs

Many people misunderstand what constitutes belief and what does not. For many, belief has so infiltrated their minds, that everything perceived or thought incorporates a belief for them, including all of their knowledge and experience. This hierarchical, top-down, approach, in effect, puts such a person entirely within a world of solipsistic reasoning. Why? Because all thoughts describe a belief for them and since beliefs only occur within the mind, every belief refers to the self.

However, beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements; although one can believe in knowledge, one can obtain knowledge without owning beliefs; although one certainly accepts their own beliefs, not all things accepted require beliefs.

Consider that if one defined belief to incorporate all forms of thought, then the word belief would become tautological and meaningless, not to mention that knowledge and experience would fall as a subset of belief. Need I remind the reader that words differ not only in their spelling, but in their meanings? The following gives examples of non-beliefs:

Acceptance: Although belief requires some form of acceptance, not all things accepted require belief (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Examples: I can accept the premise of a fictional story, but I do not for one moment believe in it. I can accept a scientific hypothesis without believing in it. Computers accept data and produce solutions, but computers have no consciousness, let alone beliefs. Many arguments can take the form of Devil’s Advocate to oppose an argument with which the arguer may not necessarily disagree.

Action: Although many people believe in the actions they perform, one can act without beliefs (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Actions can occur out of a desire, a submission to an authority, or by unplanned events or even by mechanical means completely absent of humans. Examples: I can act a part without believing in it. I can act from a set of rules, but I do not need to believe the rules. I might act from an order from the police or government. I may act out of a desire to achieve something. There occurs no action which requires belief.

Agreement: Although belief requires some form of agreement (believers agree that their beliefs have validity), not all agreements represent beliefs (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). However, for some people (myself included), agreement requires no belief at all. Examples: I might agree that Captain Kirk served aboard the Starship Enterprise, but I hold no beliefs in Star-Trek fiction. I may agree with the rules of football, but I do not need to believe in football in order to understand the game; I may not even like the game! I may agree with any premise, without believing in it.

Knowledge: Knowledge comes from awareness of the world, or understanding gained through experience. Although people may believe in what they know, knowledge has no requirement for belief (beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Examples: I may have knowledge of a story, poem or song, but I have no need to believe it. I know the rules of many games, but I do not believe in games. I know the mathematics of calculus, but I do not believe in calculus. I have knowledge of information, but I do not believe in information. I have direct knowledge of my existence through sensations, thought, and awareness, but I do not believe I exist: I know I exist (even though I may not know how I exist).

Information: Although many people believe the information they receive, information received does not require belief (again, beliefs have no bilateral symmetry requirements). Examples: the information from books, stories, science, theories, fiction, religion, etc., all represent communicated ideas, but one does not need to believe in any communication in order to utilize it.



Differences between beliefs and thinking without beliefs

The two charts above represent a visual abstract concept of the differences between the paths of belief and the path to knowledge. Both paths represent a form of thinking or mental activity. Note that the chart on the left shows a convergence point at the bottom where simple beliefs and thoughts coexist. At this level, they appear virtually the same with the only difference amounting to its semantic designation (“believe” can substitute for “think” and vise versa). However as each path progresses, they diverge; the path of belief progresses towards intransigence and the path of knowledge leads to factual knowledge. Each progresses as a matter of degree and each forms an independent path. For example, beliefs requires no external evidence whatsoever (examples: belief in ghosts, gods, astrology, etc.) The path of knowledge requires no reliance on beliefs (examples: the observation that the earth orbits the sun and airplanes fly, etc. appears regardless of whether you believe in them or not.) However, the path towards knowledge requires external verification (observation and testing) whereas the path of belief does not. The path towards workable knowledge (facts) must agree with nature if we wish to utilize it. The path of belief requires no agreement with nature at all (although it might coincide with it).

Unfortunately, the usual practice of thinking involves the combination of beliefs with theory and factual knowledge (see the right chart). Most people tend to own beliefs of facts and knowledge, including perhaps the most rational people of all– scientists and philosophers. A hypothesis or a theory may lead a scientist to strongly believe in his or her theories, the verification of test results may lead them to havefaith in the results, and an established fact may lead some scientists to dogmatically hold to its verification (even if later evidence contradicts it). Thus even a scientist can attach beliefs to theories, faith to verification, and dogma to facts. Although scientists rarely approach intransigence (although some do), they usually believe in their data and theories and most philosophers believe in their philosophies and most of them will die with their beliefs. As Maxwell Planck once said, “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”   Fortunately, scientific dogmatic beliefs do not appear as prevalent as it once did in the last two centuries. Scientists like Freud, Jung, Velikovsky, and even Einstein held stubborn beliefs bordering on inflexible religious-like thinking, even when presented with evidence that contradicted their beliefs. I suspect that much of the reduced degree of dogma in the scientific communitiy today results in better communication (especially through the internet), and a broader understanding of the sciences around them, and a humbling realization that some other scientist will call them out on their theories, but it still occurs to an unnecessary degree in my opinion.

If facts about nature come from nature itself, then every scientific fact can stand as the evidence alone and the theories that explain those facts. At no time do we need beliefs to understand facts and theories. Nature occurs without human beliefs and so does reliable evidence. And once we understand our facts and theories we call it knowlege. There simply exists no apparent necessity for attaching beliefs to knowledge.

Think about the following: Regardless of how strongly one has attached faith to scientific facts, no matter how religious the disposition of a scientist, there has never appeared a single workable theory or scientific fact that required the concept of a god or superstitious idea. Not a single workable mathematical equation contains a symbol for a “creator.” There occurs not the slightest evidence for ghosts in our machines or in our bodies. Even the most ardent non-believers can live their lives in complete accord with nature and live as long as the most fanatical believer. The same holds true for non-religious beliefs and in spite of the temporary mental comfort that belief might bring, (as do drugs) then what purpose can belief serve in the establishment of useful knowledge about the world? Note that when a person dies, so goes his or her beliefs, but if that person lived as a scientist and provided a world with a workable piece of knowlege about nature, then only the knowlege remains useful. The beliefs during the person’s lifetime have no bearing, whatsoever, on the usefulness of the knowlege that he or she brought into the world.

Now you might argue that the knowlege brought to us by persons no longer living still requires people to believe in the knowlege that they brought, but on what grounds and to what degree?

“Have you ever noticed…. Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” –George Carlin

I find it interesting to observe the state of belief in people. They most always see the problems of fanatical belief above them on the chart, but they never accept the disbelief of those below them. Believers always retain just the right amount of belief, it seems, and they unconsciously put themselves in a kind of self-centered, subjective dogma. I contend that most of us do not own beliefs of every kind and, indeed, we disbelieve more than we believe. Just as some believers have fewer beliefs than others, non-believers simply sit at the bottom of the scale. If you can, temporarily, put yourself outside of your own beliefs, you can question why you dismiss the beliefs of others, while perhaps understanding why non-believers dismiss yours.

The degree problem goes away once you understand that the amount of belief says nothing about the usefulness or factual nature of knowledge. If you squint your eyes, pray, or through sheer willpower force your belief to strengthen, will that improve your knowledge? (It can certainly produce falsehoods, but how can it improve on knowledge?) Conversely, if you act on your knowledge without belief, will thatchange the status of your knowledge? If you think knowledge requires belief between the extremes of strong belief and no belief, then just what degree of belief do you think it necessary for the proper understanding of knowledge?

Some people have argued that all knowledge represents forms of beliefs. Well it certainly can if you believe that and, no doubt, most people do believe that knowledge describes a belief, but that doesn’t mean it has to. Even Plato and Socrates defined knowledge as “justified true belief,” but this only describes what I already mentioned above (combining beliefs with knowledge), and again, this certainly serves far better than a belief without knowledge (I suppose Plato might call that unjustified false belief). But can knowledge exist without beliefs at all? Yes. And I can give examples.

I could use examples of animals such as insects or reptiles but someone might object on the grounds that they possess some form of consciousness and beliefs, so I will give an example of non-life entities: Autonomous computers. Autonomous drones, for example can take-off, fly and land without a human pilot or even a remote pilot. These aircraft take in information from the world around them through cameras and sensors, process that information, make algorithmic decisions and act on them by navigating, taking photos, or sending lethal bombs to kill enemy targets. To give another example, IBM’s computer called Watson (also autonomous) defeated the best Jeopardy players in the world. Its designers made it capable of understanding human language and knowledge by data mining documents, dictionaries, anthologies, and encyclopedias and deriving a correct answer. These computer systems, in fact, posses some knowledge about the world around them, otherwise they would not have the ability to carry out their tasks. These Autonomous computers  have no consciousness or emotions, so they cannot possibly have beliefs. Knowledge can indeed exist without beliefs. Humans, too, can act on knowledge even without consciousness. Sleep walking, driving a car while having a conversation, for example, can result in actions from subconscious knowledge even without that person consciously knowing what has happened.

Of course humans do not live like computers and we grow up with beliefs, perhaps even ingrained into our genes, but I submit that to suggest that an intelligent conscious human cannot understand knowledge without beliefs has no bases. Humans have a unique ability to understand abstractions and even abstractions about abstractions (metacognition) At least some humans have that ability (more on this below). One can understand how a belief can adversely affect knowledge and thusly learn to act on knowledge without owning beliefs. Nor do I claim that all people have the ability to disown beliefs. Perhaps some people can’t, even if they wanted to. It certainly seems that some people, especially highly religious people, do not have that ability. Perhaps their genetic and/or cultural upbringing forever prevents them from doing so, I don’t know. However, to suggest that every human must have beliefs belies the very fact that some of us don’t.

I submit that some, if not most, conscious human beings can learn to gather, understand, and accumulate knowledge and act on it without owning a single belief and that this provides far more of an advantage for the advancement of knowledge than a disadvantage.



Problems that derive from belief

Although one can argue that beliefs supported by scientific evidence represent a benign form of beliefs, they also act as barriers towards further understanding. Even the most productive scientists and philosophers through the ages have held beliefs which prevented them from seeing beyond their discoveries and inventions.

For example, Aristotle believed in a prime mover, a “god” that moves the sun and moon and objects through space. With a belief such as this, one cannot possibly understand the laws of gravitation or inertia. Issac Newton saw through that and established predictions of gravitational events and developed a workable gravitational theory. Amazingly, Newton began to think about relativity theory long before Albert Einstein. However, his belief in absolute time prevented him from formulating a workable theory. Einstein, however, saw through that and thought in terms of relative time and formulated his famous theory of General relativity. But even Einstein owned beliefs which barred him from understanding the consequences of quantum mechanics. He could not accept pure randomness in subatomic physics, thus he bore his famous belief: “God does not play dice.” Regardless, physicists now realize that for quantum mechanics to work, nature not only plays with dice, but randomness serves as a requirement if one wishes to predict with any statistical accuracy. And on it goes.

Even though great scientists, like any human, can fall prey to beliefs, their discoveries live beyond the barriers of their naive beliefs. Not only did they establish new knowledge about the universe but they also established its limits and, with them, the elimination of absolutes (and if you think about it, only a believer could pretend to know about absolutes, something not even in principle testable for mortal humans). For example, Einstein found the limits to velocity and time (once believed as absolute), Heisenberg saw the limits to reality (uncertainty principle), and Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem set a limit on our knowledge of the basic truths of mathematics. A belief in absolutes that directly contradict these scientific discoveries can only bar one from further understanding.

Although thinking without beliefs does not, by any means, guarantee that people will make scientific breakthroughs, it can, at the very least, remove unnecessary mental obstructions. Belief, even at its lowest form of influence can create problematic and unnecessary barriers.

As belief progresses towards faith and dogma, the problems escalate and become more obvious. We see this in religions and political ideologies, especially those that contain scripts (bibles, manifestos) which honor war, intolerance, slavery and superstitions. We see this in the religious inquisitions, “holy” wars, and slavery. During the period of the black plague, millions of humans died out of ignorance of the disease with beliefs that God or Satan caused it. Meanwhile their religious leaders did little or nothing to encourage experimental scientific investigation. In the 1930s and 40s the world saw the fanatical idealism of communists (which has far more in common with religion than it does with atheism) as they destroyed millions of lives. We saw how Christianized Germany produced Nazism and the holocaust in order to defend against the Jews in order to fight for the Lord (Hitler’s belief). To this day, one can observe religious and ethnic beliefs creating war and intolerance in Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Israel, Africa, Russia and in Muslim countries. The tragedy of 9/11 could not have occurred without religious belief in an afterlife. Only religion produces the concept of moral war. Only a religious minded government would allow science to flounder while emphasizing faith-based programs.

Why does religious belief create such monstrous atrocities? Because religion expresses everything into terms of belief, faith, and absolutes, without need for reason or even understanding. Religion puts reality, morality, love, happiness and desire in a supernatural realm inaccessible to the mind of man. How can humans ever achieve peace when their religious scripts has their god condoning war and violence, while man must accept the superstitious belief that their unknowable god does this for mysterious reasons, forever beyond the comprehension of man? How can you understand the physics of the universe if you believe that an unfathomable supernatural agent created everything just a few thousand years ago? How can you live a full happy life if your religion denies the nature of sex, desire, and mind? How can you have workable government if you believe laws derive from an incomprehensible super-being? How can you have the future of the planet or your grand children if you believe that supernatural predestination will end the world?

Parents teach children at a very young age to believe in abstract concepts such as Santa Claus, the toothfairy, and supernatual gods. These parants have no understanding of the dangers that their beliefs might cause. Thus we prepare our society to not only accept beliefs, but to honor and fight for them. This commonly results in conflicts between free expression and censorship. For a believer, expression of ideas in-and-of-themselves represent beliefs. Thus violent television, movies and fictions present opportunities for the unaware to believe in them.

If, instead, we taught our children about beliefs and how they infect the mind and the dangers they can produce, society would have little need for censoring ideas. For without believers, there would live no one to believe them and the violence and fantasy portrayed by their fictions could only represent just that– fictions.

“Don’t believe anything. Regard things on a scale of probabilities.
The things that seem most absurd, put under ‘Low Probability’, and
the things that seem most plausible, you put under ‘High
Probability’. Never believe anything. Once you believe anything, you
stop thinking about it.”
–Robert A. Wilson



The mechanism of belief

Because belief requires a mental process involving neural activity, this allows scientific investigation into its mechanism. Although the abstractions of belief sit at a hierarchical level above the neuron level, there obviously occurs a connection between neuron activity to mental thought and vise versa. Unfortunately we still have only minute knowledge about the working of the brain, let alone the complex process that produces thought. However, studies have shown that some forms of delusional thought involve problems with the neocortex. Indeed, one of the characteristics of schizophrenic delusion involves grandiose and religious thinking [3] Some have even suggested that schizophrenia involves beliefs and attitudes taught to them while young [4]

Also, in epilepsy, neurological storms can trigger feelings and thoughts divorced from external events. Although the neocortex and its sensory equipment gets its information from the external world, the limbic system takes its cues from within. The neuroscientist, Paul MacLean became fascinated with the “limbic storms” suffered by patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy. [5] MacLean reported:

“During seizures, they’d have this Eureka feeling all out of context– feelings of revelation, that this is the truth, the absolute truth, and nothing but the truth.”

“You know what bugs me most about the brain? It’s that the limbic system, this primitive brain that can neither read nor write, provides us with the feeling of what is real, true, and important.”

This provides an important clue as to the mechanism of belief because it suggests that what we think of as true or real, actually produces or triggers a feeling. Belief in this sense then means a thought with a feeling attached where the feeling gives us a sense of conviction or truth. In normal people, a well reasoned thought can trigger a eureka-like feeling, thus the generation of a belief. This emotional tag attached to a thought may very well have served an important evolutionary role because it would allow Homo sapiens a way to prioritize thoughts that give a survival advantage. These eureka-like emotions also feel good and might very well enhance the memory of survival thoughts.

In abnormal thinking, even an irrational thought can trigger the same eureka-like feeling. In other words, regardless of a reasoned thought or an irrational thought, both can trigger a feeling of “truth”; or in other words, a belief. In its most extreme form, epiphany-like beliefs can result from the ingestion of hallucinogenic chemicals, fanatical religious rituals, extreme fasting, or chemical imbalances in the brain (i.e., manic-depressive, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) All of these mental disorders can lead to excessive beliefs and intense feeling, yet with only irrational thoughts attached to them.

The worst forms of schizophrenia almost always involve extreme forms of delusional beliefs. Schizophrenics hear voices, act on impulse, think they hear the voice of God, Satan, or act out whatever belief-myth they grew up with. Interestingly, it appears that only thinking animals develop schizophrenia. We have no other animal model for this disease for holding false beliefs and the perception of unreal things. [6] Schizophrenia appears to exist only in humans.

According to V.S. Ramachandran, patients with temporal lobe epilepsy may experience a variety of symptoms that include an obsessive preoccupation with religion and the intensified and narrowed emotional responses that appear characteristic of mystical experience.

I present epileptic storms and schizophrenia here because they represent examples of mental disorder that can result in beliefs pegged to their extreme limit. I trust that most people will recognize that these mental diseases can result in dangerous forms of thinking. If the extreme beliefs held by schizophrenics represents a danger and an undesirable trait, then at what point below this do we consider beliefs desirable?

Since I first posted this article, further research has arrived on the subject that supports the connection of emotions to belief.  In 2007, Sam Harris, et all, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brains of 14 adults while they judged written “truth,” “false” or “undecidable” statements. They found “strong reciprocal connections from the limbic system, the basal ganglia, and the association cortex of the parietal lobe. This region of the frontal lobes appears to be instrumental in linking factual knowledge with relevant emotional associations.” The study suggests an anatomic link between purely cognitive aspects of belief and emotional reward. It also suggests that “the physiological difference between belief and disbelief can be independent of a proposition’s content and affective associations.” (italics, mine) [Harris] This suggested independence means that a proposition, or knowledge itself, does not require any emotion at all. In disbelief (a form of negative belief, and not the same as no-belief), the researchers also found a similar pattern of activation as that of belief.

Many believers seem to think that all humans believe and that belief represents a requirement for human life. We can show the falsity of this assumption by simply eliminating thought entirely. Not everyone can do this, especially schizophrenics, but for those that wish to, there exists methods for doing so.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some people can completely stop their thoughts. And when someone can stop their thought process, beliefs cease to exist, at least temporarily. Ancient meditation or modern biofeedback practices show how to reduce or stop the semantic noise within our heads. During this practice, concentrating on a single idea or word (mantra) can reduce the thought level to a minimum (ekaggata). The final aim at eliminating this single thought results in a state of no-thought (“higher” levels of jhanic samadhi). While in such a state, all thoughts, ideas, and beliefs cease. Indeed EEG (electroencephalography) scans reveal that during meditative states, theta and alpha brain waves (brain waves associated with relaxed attention) dominate whereas delta waves (associated with goal-oriented and mental thoughts) are eliminated.

I bring up meditation and delusion to show that there occurs some range of degree of intensity of belief between the two extremes.

DEGREES OF BELIEFSThe curve above represents a population of beliefs from 0 (no beliefs, no thinking) to 1 (extreme beliefs, irrational thinking), charted with only two data points (x). The dotted line represents a guess since I have no data to plot actual probabilities (future investigators will have to gather this information). The degree of belief determines dispositions to hold an idea as absolute or true. Thus, insane forms of thinking (delusional, schizophrenia, etc.) would appear on the far right end of the graph. The extremists (far-right-political and religious-right, for example) might appear at around .8-.9. The opposite of extremism would fall toward the left end of the chart (meditators, day dreaming, etc.). From my personal observation, most people do not fall at either end of the spectrum; most fall somewhere well between the two limits. For the general population, I suspect the graph would appear as a Bell curve as shown above.

Although schizophrenia describes an obvious dysfunctional disease that causes harm to themselves and possibly to others, many schizophrenic properties can coexist in the “normal” human thinking process without causing notice to people observing them. Delusional thinking usually accompanies schizophrenia. But note that delusions represent false beliefs, virtually the same as the conditions for faith. Faith has become acceptable mainly because powerful social institutions support it.

Symptoms of mental disease, of course, do not appear identical for everyone. Some people may have only one episode of schizophrenia in their lifetime. Others may have recurring episodes but lead relatively normal lives in between. Others may have severe symptoms for a lifetime. Indeed, many who we consider sane commit the most atrocious criminal acts without a diagnoses of insanity. Even legal acts such as war, inquisitions, and pogroms can cause harm to its believers as well as to others. Yet we do not diagnose these acts of belief as a mental disease because the very engine of belief puts them in the context of acceptability. Most societies do not abhor war; instead, they honor it because their belief-systems support the notion of solving problems through mass killing called war. If, instead, we approached belief supported violence the way we attempt to solve mental diseases, perhaps we might produce solutions to some of our cultural problems.

A question arises out of these low-to-extreme forms of beliefs: If extreme beliefs represent a symptom or cause of mental disorder, then can a lack of belief produce a better, healthier, [or whatever desirable characteristic word you may want to use] way of socially interacting with people? At the low limit, that of meditation, one not only stops belief, but all forms of thought. This of course would result in a dangerous living condition if continued indefinitely, but only at the expense of the meditator. At worst the meditator might die for lack of food, but he or she could hardly harm anyone else. But what if one could learn how to think without beliefs? Might it not serve and advantage to make our thoughts more efficient?

Of course accidents will happen and tragedies will occur. Errors in our models of perception will no doubt always happen. But if we can reduce or eliminate beliefs, wouldn’t we have fewer reasons to harm others through prejudice or violence? Without beliefs, our thoughts would follow the prevailing evidence instead of blocking them with unnecessary convictions.

Even if we cannot solve all mental diseases or prevent dangerous beliefs from forming, we might at least become aware of the mental processes that create beliefs and why they sometimes lead to intransigence. Although no one yet has a clear understanding of how schizophrenia originates, it appears that it may have some connection with genetics, brain damage, chemical imbalances or social upbringing. Fortunately treatments have become available for many mental diseases. For those who have mild cases of mental problems, education alone may redirect the neural path towards productive thinking. For others, drugs and therapy can help alleviate mental problems. Likewise, early education in critical thinking, identification of logical fallacies, and the mechanism of belief may alleviate many of our dangerous beliefs.



Disowning beliefs


From the meaning of beliefs as described above, a person who owns a belief must possess two things: a thought and the feeling of that thought as ‘true.” The first requires a functioning neocortex and the second requires a functioning limbic system (note, by functioning, this also includes abnormal as well as normal functioning). This evolutionary and biologically inherited function brings up a valid question:

If a functioning human brain produces thought along with a feeling of ‘truth,’ then all humans who have functioning brains must experience beliefs, no?

Yes! And although this seems to contradict the very concept of no-beliefs, we humans have something that other animals don’t have (except for, perhaps, some other primates): the power of retrospection and the ability to see our own abstractions (at least some humans have this ability). Psychologists call this ability, metacognition (coined by John Flavell). Metacognition simply means “cognition about cognition.” Indeed, I have the experience of belief as when reading a convincing novel or watching a movie or a play, but I know that novels and movies represent fictions because I have the ability to think about my feelings and thoughts. Although I buy, temporarily, the belief for the entertainment value, I do not own the belief. It would prove not only silly but dangerous to walk out of a theater (say The Exorcist) and still believe the story. The same goes with any belief experience whether it comes from rational scientific reasoning or to fictions or myths. I may feel (believe) that I have discovered a scientific truth, but I know that my belief comes as a property of brain function and I have the ability to disown the belief. I can say that it feels right, but I also know that feelings don’t represent facts or knowledge any more than color exists as a property in matter. I also know that feelings-of-truth can mislead, especially when future evidence contradicts the truth-valve of the belief and can lead to intransigence. I can acknowledge the feeling but I don’t have to acknowledge the belief.

By putting yourself in a higher abstraction, you can ‘see’ the abstractions below you. In this sense you act at the arbitrator of your thoughts, picking out which produces the best results and dismissing those which don’t work, all without owning any belief. Owning beliefs means that you blind yourself to seeing them as what they represent: abstractions. You must also defend the beliefs you own or else feel oppressed when someone attacks them, and this can lead to depression, argument, violence, or to any ultimate tragic end. By disowning beliefs, you not only don’t have to defend them, but you avoid the problems associated with them.

If you still don’t understand how you can disown an inherited biological function, let me give you an analogue using an even older biological function: the sense of balance.

Every normal human has it, those little grains of calcium carbonate, the otoconia, in the inner ear that tickle the hairs of the maculae, that detect gravity and acceleration. Pilots of early aviation used to rely on this sense in what they called, “flying by the seat of the pants.” But during stormy weather or night flying, pilots became disoriented and began to lose their lives. At first the survivors chalked it up to high winds (how dare they accuse these brave pilots of becoming disoriented). But the aviation scientists knew better. When they invented instrument flying, the old timers balked, but pilots grudgingly learned to rely on the instruments. They learned to distrust their own senses and replaced it with more reliable instruments. One might even ask the heretical question: Do humans really need a sense of balance to fly at all? Note that nowhere in that statement does it say that one should eliminate the sense of balance.

I simply ask a similar question about belief. Do humans need beliefs to survive? Nowhere in that statement do I claim that one should eliminate the feeling of beliefs, only that one can eliminate the ownership of them. We humans have an evolved brain that can contemplate our own abstractions and beliefs. We can disown beliefs and replace them. So in the analogy of the sense of balance, what mechanism serves as the flying instrument that replaces belief? Critical thinking coupled with empirical testing (science).

You can feel that something seems true, even if false, while at the same time you do not have to think of it as true.


Inside our head vs Outside our head


Many people have a difficult time telling the difference between what happens inside their heads as opposed to what happens outside their heads. And I don’t mean just schizophrenics or psychopaths, but also sane people. Most of us have had confusions about “reality” at some times in our lives. Since all sensations and information comes to the brain filtered, we experience all our perceptions in our head. To establish the difference between outside verses inside events, we usually derive, through intuition, some sort of comparative test. Most of our sensations instinctively tell us what occurs outside. As infants, we quickly learn that the sounds we hear in our heads actually emanate from the outside. We learn to manipulate objects through touch, observe movement through sight, etc. As we grow, we begin to form abstract thought and we attach these abstractions to our perceptions. Observation, reasoning, and experimentation gives us the means to determine the difference between outside our heads and inside our heads.

Errors can creep into our thinking process. And from there it can invade our language system. This happens, virtually in any information system. If we do not correct these linguistic and logic errors, we may go for years propagating ancient errors without thinking about them. It seems obvious that this has already occurred to many cultures that have promoted dangerous belief sets. Although most will agree that dangerous beliefs present a threat and that we should do something about them, many beliefs that seem inconsequential receive no concern at all. These, seemingly, innocent beliefs act through our language system and can give us a false sense of “knowing.”

To give an example, we usually think of color as “out there.” We observe green foliage, blue skies, red apples, etc. Yet color, demonstrably, does not occur “out there,” but rather, exclusively inside our heads. Matter contains no color. Color has no bases from the physics of light. Color, rather, describes a sensation. [10] However, matter does “reflect” or produce light. Our eyes absorb this energy and our brains interpret this information by “tagging” a sensation of color to it. Many times we express this perception through an error of language that projects color as “out there.” We use ancient “essence” words like “is” and “be” that put mystical properties to events which occur only in our heads. For example, “the grass IS green” seems to project the property of “greenness” to an external plant form. Regardless of how much chlorophyll a plant may contain, it contains no “green.” The color green occurs in our brains as a “tag” to an indirect reflective property of light. Yet our “essence” words and ideas continually fool us into thinking that things exist outside our heads, without the slightest evidence to support it. To help eliminate these “essence” verbs, we can simply replace them with descriptive verbs. Instead of saying “The grass is green,” I might say, “The grass appears green (to me).” The descriptive verb “appears” connects perception to the observer instead of placing it outside the body. Many sentences which use “to be” verbs produce false or misleading statements. [9]


From belief to faith


Many rational people, including most scientists, still insist on utilizing beliefs with the rationale that beliefs must accompany evidence to support them. Of course it proves more prudent to attach evidence to one’s beliefs than to own beliefs without evidence, but why should anyone feel compelled to attach beliefs to evidence at all? Why not stand on the evidence without beliefs? Consider a measurement, for example the velocity of light. I can simply state the calculated or measured velocity as a numerical figure or I can say “I believe that the speed of light equals 299,790 KPS. But the velocity represents a measurement of an external event, not a belief. The belief of the velocity of light adds nothing to the information about the velocity of light. The belief only reflects an intransigent property of the believer and nothing at all about the measured property. Regardless of how mild the intransigence, the belief itself provides no scientific value at all. On the contrary, the belief within that individual may grow to such extent that it overshadows the evidential data and may cause the believer to hold on to his theory even if future evidence contradicts it. As a theory only, without belief, the possibility of future evidence may reveal new data that would modify and improve the theory.

I have met such believers before and when shown evidence of the differing velocity of light in crystals, their belief of an absolute value of light rose to the occasion to combat this new (to them) information. Note that when I say that belief appears unnecessary to evidence, I do not mean that ideas and thoughts should not accompany them. On the contrary, instead of beliefs, we can establish theories and models about the evidence, a predictive and productive way of understanding the consequences of the evidence. (I’ll add more about this later.)

Although the reasons why people tend towards certain belief-systems remains unclear, Frank Sulloway, a research scholar, has proposed that family dynamics and birth order influences social survival strategies [8]. In general terms, firstborns tend to think conservatively and laterborns tend to think as liberals. In the extremes of both liberals and conservatives, the beliefs can take on a fantastical form of thinking. In its most dangerous form, belief can take its most intransigent property as faith, the reliance on hope and ignorance. Indeed, many psychopaths and schizophrenics provide extreme examples of faith as the beliefs inside their heads take over the evidence from outside their heads. Some researchers have noted the higher prevalence of schizophrenia in certain religions [11].



Hypotheses, theories and models

Many religious people who challenge scientists, attempt to make their scientific theories equivalent to faith. I suspect this gives the faithful comfort, as reducing theory to the level of faith puts both on an equal plane. However, useful theories do not rely on faith and do not even require belief. Scientific theories must agree with nature to some degree, faith does not. If a theory’s prediction fails to produce results, then the theory itself cannot provide usefulness and the scientists must throw it out. A hypothesis represents nothing more than a good guess subject to further verification and usually precedes a theory. A workable theory, however, represents a good guess based on evidence and makes useful predictions.

“It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is– if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”
-Richard Feynman

Newton’s theory of gravity, for example, represents a useful set of guesses that make predictions about matter traveling through space. Newton’s mechanics, however, does not give us absolute or exact predictions. It only allows predictions about matter within acceptable tolerances. Einstein’s theory of gravity carries Newton’s theories to ever more exact figures and we can make even better guesses. But note that the theories of gravity must rely on outside evidence, and the guess must agree with experiment. A theory, therefore, without supporting evidence has no meaning. The following provides some examples of theories:

The kinetic theory of matter depends on the measurable properties between the forces between particles of matter.

The theories of gravitation depend on the facts of the measurable results of matter in the field of gravity.

The theory of natural selection depends on the facts of evolution as confirmed by observation, evidence and experiment.

Note that understanding any scientific aspect about the physical world requires some form of theoretical thought.

Models differ from theories, in that they usually represent an abstract copy of the event or thing that we wish to understand. They may provide us with predictions, but they can never fully represent the subject in all its nature. A model represents an incomplete abstraction of a thing outside our heads. Maps, scale models, computer simulations, etc. all provide us with methods to predict the future of an event or thing. For an example of scientific modeling, look at the history of the investigation of atoms. As the evidence accumulated, the physicists made better and more accurate (although incomplete) models of the structure of matter.

A hypothesis may lead to experiment and both may lead to a theory. If the theory of the evidence provides accurate predictions every time, sometimes we call these “laws” or “knowledge.” Note, however, that “knowledge” does not mean that it comes absolute. A fact or theory may change in the future and we may have to modify our knowledge to accommodate the changing evidence.

By utilizing hypotheses, theories and models, we can express thoughts about the world without resorting to beliefs and faith.



Logic, mathematics, and reason

Unfortunately, many people misuse the concept of logic and believe that it provides a method of arriving at “truth” about the world; that if they propose a logical argument it, somehow, has validity to external events. However, logic, by itself, says little about the world and does not guarantee “truth.” Logic provides a language of self-consistent reasoning that pertains only to the construction of itself. A logical conclusion based on sound reasoning, in fact, might disagree with the external event we wish to understand. For example, in the following logical construction:

All judges are lawyers

No bishops are lawyers

Therefore: No bishops are judges

The above syllogism consists of valid logic. However, each of its propositions must agree with observation before its conclusion can provide any usefulness. Does every judge actually serve as a lawyer? Have no bishops ever served as lawyers? Reason and logic without evidential support cannot determine much about the world until the evidence supports the propositions.

All ghosts are spirits

No cartoons are spirits

Therefore: No cartoons are ghosts

The logic above appears sound, but what in the world does it mean and how does it relate to the world? In what context does it refer? What about Casper the ghost?

Interestingly, one of the signs of mental illness, especially schizophrenia, involves their irrational thinking and the errors they make in syllogistic reasoning [12].

Note also that many different “Logics” occur for many different fields. Traditional logic, for example, simply does not work in the world of quantum physics. The math, the reasoning, and the logic of the quantum world differs widely from the macro-world. Unfortunately, today most people rely on only one kind of logic, usually some from of aristotelian logic. We tend to think in terms of black/white, true/false, good/evil, guilty/not-guilty, up/down, inside/outside, etc. Although many things, indeed, follow this simple kind of logic, a plethora of things operate through a continuum. Although aristotelian logic may work great for digital circuits, or simple syllogisms, it fails miserably when trying to understand the human condition or things that work through calculus.

Mathematics represents a symbolic language of logic and provides us with a tool for reasoning. But mathematics and logic must accommodate the external events if it wishes to explain them. Of course people may have beliefs about one mathematical system over another, but any philosophical belief always fails in light of nature. Only the results of the accuracy of the predictions matter in the mathematical world; beliefs have no requirement in the outcome, regardless of how good it may make its believers feel. In fact, it has appeared commonplace in physics, especially quantum mechanics, where two entirely different mathematical approaches derived from different starting points turn out to give identical quantitative answers [13].

Although logic and mathematics may provide a useful tool for reason, scientists may encounter information about the world that matches no logic whatsoever. Unknowns and incomplete information occurs many times, but that does not necessarily prevent establishing useful results. Doctors knew that aspirin, for example, worked as a pain blocker, but for many years they had no workable explanation of how it worked. Even gravity, to this day, with all the mathematics predicting its effect on matter, has stumped physicists as to the nature of its mechanism. Many times the physicists do not even understand why their system works. They only know that it works. The prime requirement of making useful predictions must come from nature herself, from things outside our heads. All the beliefs, theories, logics and models, regardless of how well they got constructed, cannot do us any good unless they have some support from evidence. Many times events outside our heads provide us with life sustaining support without our thinking about them at all (such as breathing air)!

Instead of relying on one logical system, as most people do, we might instead incorporate a language that incorporates a system of logics and we might choose the system that best fits the object of investigation. Sadly our English language contains severe limitations and cannot possibly express many of the extraordinary discoveries of the new physics. Mathematics allows a language of continuum, multiple dimensions, and infinities and all without the need for introducing ghostly beliefs.



Preconceived beliefs

I once heard an amusing story about the artist, Picasso. I don’t know if this actually happened but it makes a point about how people construct beliefs of reality from abstractions:

A stranger recognizing Picasso asked him why he didn’t paint pictures of people “the way they really are.” Picasso asked the man what he meant by “the way they really are,” and the man pulled out of his wallet a snapshot of his wife as an example. Picasso responded: “Isn’t she rather small and flat?

To believe that an abstract representation shows the actual thing leads to an unnecessary biased form of perception. Belief of any kind puts a kind of shield on the thinker and puts in its place a form of thought which in effect says: “This is real.” Preconceived beliefs coupled with the lack of information can lead to false conclusions.

To take another example, I might say to a group of people, “I love fish.” Everyone may hear me correctly, but because of their preconceived beliefs and a lack of context, some may interpret my meaning as a statement about dining and others may believe I have a love for aquarium fish. Virtually all expressions of thought contain some limitations and to add preconceived ideas without evidentiary support can produce false statements and beliefs.

Without resorting to belief, I can look at a photograph and see that it only resembles some aspect of a particular thing or person, and that it represents an indirect abstraction. Without belief, I can question a proposition before arriving at a conclusion.



Limitations of knowledge

“It used to be thought that physics describes the universe. Now we know that physics only describes what we can say about the universe.”
-Niels Bohr

“It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.”
-Thomas Jefferson

Our thoughts and expressions through language represent abstractions about the world, metaphors and models about things and not the things themselves. Language and thought cannot describe the totality of a thing anymore than a painting or picture can. A picture does not equal its subject, and a map does not equal its territory. But our myths, maps, models, and abstract thoughts do provide a limited means to understand the world and to make predictions about external events. They provide a way to quantify and simplify our communication systems so that we can perform desirable and useful actions in the world. But if we allow unnecessary thoughts and beliefs to reside with our abstractions, we develop semantic noise which can lead to incorrect information.

As limited humans, we do not possess absolute knowledge. Our perceptions and information comes to us incomplete. When we look, touch and measure an object, for example, we only observe part of its totality. Belief, on the other hand, can produce the illusion that we understand without limitations. Eliminating concepts of beliefs, at least puts us closer to the range of our perceptions. We inherit mortal limitations, we cannot know with absolute certainly about the external world; we cannot completely remove doubt about our conclusions. Many philosophers and scientists have come to this same observation [14]. Doubt leaves the door open for further investigation. Intransigent belief puts a mental barrier to further knowledge.



Bias (point of view)

Because our models and theories represent limited knowledge about the world, this forces us to examine the universe within boundaries. This produces a point of view. Bias represents a focus, direction, or preference towards a point of view without examining or ignoring existing evidence. One cannot avoid a point of view. Regardless of how one might try to prevent bias, there will most always occur something left out of the description. Similar to Heisenburg’ Uncertainty Principle, as a focus becomes narrow, the more outside its focus gets left out. And vice versa, the more general a view becomes, the more the details get left out. If one tries to include the details with the general, a view can bog down with an overblown aggregation of information, turning a direction of thought into a cloud of complexity; and even still, the entire system would reside within a framework of limitations. Regardless of how one may reject beliefs, a point of view occurs if only because we represent a unique and limited spatial entity within the universe.

The negative aspect we usually associate with bias does not come from bias itself but rather the belief that comes with it. Belief produces a set of brackets around a point of view that says in effect “The answer lies here.” Once you believe you have found the answer, your point of view becomes biased, (intransigent and prejudiced) and prevents you from looking at other possible alternatives. Again, beliefs act as a barrier to further understanding. If a person develops a faith in a point of view, then it becomes overwhelming to the point that nothing, even in the light of convincing evidence, will the faithful yield to better information. A biased belief can convince its believers that they hold the key to all understanding and “truth” without providing any evidence to support it.

A point of view, however, does not demand a predisposition to belief; it can simply represent a direction of thought. Ideas, by their very nature, represent limitations of thought. As long as a point of view produces a reasonable explanation, uses only pertinent information necessary to make predictions and leaves open the possibility of change in favor of better evidence, then it serves as a useful and productive tool. As we learn and understand our limitations, that a point of view represents an understood direction, we have the possibility to transcend it into an even more productive point of view.



Imagination, fantasy and wonder

Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
-Albert Einstein

As humans, we have the remarkable ability to make things up and to pretend. Imagination and fantasy provides us with one of the most pleasurable ways to experience thoughts and gives us one of the fundamental requirements for the ability to create. Our imagination provides us with the mental capacity to express models in our heads and to act out scenarios of love, conquest, gamesmanship and adventure. I can’t imagine any new invention, art, or literature deriving without its author engaging in the pleasure of a fantasy. The feeling of wonder about things in the world and the mysteries of the universe fills us with imagination and speculation. Although Einstein put imagination above knowledge (something I don’t necessarily agree with), it certainly serves a very useful function.

Fantasies and imaginations, of course require no belief in them. They provide us a way to model and hypothesis non-actual events that may eventually lead to knowledge of actual things or perhaps even a novel invention. Fantasy coupled with ideas about actual events can lead to great insights about future events. Many a science fiction story, for example, has inspired scientists to construct hypothesis that lead to verifiable experiment and the invention of useful machines. Even fantasy by itself provides an enjoyable way of expressing thoughts. But if an individual begins to believe in his own fantasy, or worse, has faith in it, then usually only disappointment or tragedies result.



Natural desire

“We always move on two feet– the two poles of knowledge and desire.”
-Elie Faure

Desire comes to us as a natural feeling. As biological animals, we cannot avoid desires. We desire food, shelter, freedom of expression, etc. As exploratory animals, we humans use our minds as a tool to help satisfy the desires within us. With reflection and thought, we learn the limits to our desires. Eating too much, for example, can lead to limited heath and the prevention of satisfying other desires. By understanding the consequences of desire, we can avoid the excesses and blockages of desire. To express and satisfy our desires (sex, feelings, hunger, etc.) provides a human need. And if we do not satisfy our natural needs, then severe consequences can result.

Sadly, many of our belief-systems put a stranglehold on our natural instinctive desires. If a belief-system teaches that “sex is evil,” “only godly belief will help you,” or suppresses expression and communication, we may turn depraved, depressed, or violent.

Believers many times express desire indirectly in terms of hope, a form of wishful thinking. Indeed faith hinges on the requirement of hope and ignorance. Hope without an adequate method of achieving our desires can lead to debilitating disappointment and sorrow. I can only imagine the number of tragedies that have occurred from failures due to excessive wishful thinking. Instead of relying on faith and hope, we might analyze our desires and use our knowledge and creative minds to find a way of satisfying them.



Many people think that morality stems from religion, usually from some form of ‘divine’ instruction in the form of scripture, holy writ or from the teachings of shamans or priests. However, research from evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists have shown that the precursors of human morality occur in many other social animals, especially primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos (our closest animal relatives). Religion emerged after morality and, thus, human morality cannot have come originally from religion. As an example from personal experience, I remember as a child that I learned about golden rule behavior by interacting with my fellow school mates in the sandlot before anyone taught me about religion, nor did I even know about what the golden rule or morality meant! I simply behaved in a manner that felt right to me at the time. (A few other children acted through Iron rule behavior, the “bullies”).

Morality ultimately stems from the brain and it requires emotions and consciousness. The science of human behavior suggests that innate morality comes to us from birth, perhaps similar to the language instinct where humans have an innate capacity for language even though any particular language comes from cultural development (see Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky). Religion may have served as the first system to control morality through religious belief instruction (and force) but that says nothing about the workability of a moral system. In fact, one can argue that religious morality creates more moral problems because it does not conform to reality (because it relies on supernatural beliefs, not on nature) and it produces dogma which can prevent one from establishing workable morality in light of new evidence. After all, the three most influential religions in the world (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) stem from books written during the Bronze and Iron ages long before people understood the science of biology and human behavior. Clearly thousands of years of moral instruction from these religions have never produced a workable moral system (do I really need to go into wars, slavery, pogroms, witch hunts, intolerance’s, etc. to explain this?)

Since humans live in the natural world and science provides the only tools to understand the natural world, it follows that science might provide us with the best way to establish workable moral systems. Unfortunately, much of human nature remains unknown to us and scientists have barely begun to study moral systems. Moreover, the dogmatic belief that morality can only come from religion further bars people from thinking about it, even from many scientists. Nevertheless, the science of morality started with the philosophical ideas from Jeremy Bentham, the philosophy of consequentialism, the research on human cooperation from Robert Axelrod, and many scientists now studying how the brain creates moral judgments.

Innate morality does not require ownership of beliefs because it acts through our biological system in response to stimulus and our environment (although many people do attach beliefs to them). I do not have to believe in order to act. However religious morality almost always requires belief because it involves religious instruction which one must believe in order to accept the dogma. In both cases, innate morality or religious morality might prove tragically wrong because of particular circumstances (for example, I might treat someone altruistically not knowing that that person relies on deception and trickery to get what he wants, or I might turn the other cheek to an enemy which could result in the death of myself and others).

Instead of relying on innate feelings or belief, I can spend more time thinking and evaluating my feelings and the feelings of others around me and to try to establish the consequences of my actions (ethics).

Morality requires feelings and emotions because our subjective values stem from emotions, and we need values to establish morality. Here we have emotions that trump logical reasoning (just opposite of beliefs). For morality, we want to use emotions with logical structures but not as beliefs but as a way to achieve desires and wants. Beliefs involve statements about external truths which do not require the feelings but in morality we must use our feelings to direct us toward a workable moral system. But one does not need to use belief statements to do this. Instead one need only use desire statements. For example, I want people to live together peacefully because everyone will feel better as a result. And then I might describe a way to achieve this want by using a theory to establish it. At no time do I require beliefs to establish statements about morality.

Much of our innate feelings already drives us in this direction but only a full study of the behavior and feelings of humans can result in any kind of consensus on the right action to take. And this requires science. In any case, one could construct an ethical system that remains flexible, based on human nature and science, all without owning a single moral belief. Of course disowning beliefs does not guarantee a workable moral system but it does get rid of all the belief based systems that have no connection at all with human nature. At the very least, this opens up opportunities to create a moral system that works for both the individual as well as others.



Everyone believes in something?

Many a believer, religious and atheist alike, will become astonished at any statement against belief, if for no other reason because they believe and the people around them have beliefs. They tend to form a belief-of-its-own that projects beliefs onto others. However, simply because most people own beliefs does not necessarily follow that all people own beliefs. To claim the knowledge that everyone on earth believes in something portends an astonishing proclamation. It would require an omniscient ability to see into the minds of every human on earth. Moreover, many people fail to understand that belief requires conscious acceptance. People who own beliefs (unless they lie) do not deny them. Quite the contrary, people who believe, admit their beliefs quite readily. Furthermore, few people stop to ask what we mean by beliefs or understand that one can replace belief with other forms of “thinking.”



I don’t believe the sun will rise tomorrow, but I predict it will

Not believing in something does not mean thinking something may not happen. The absence of belief does not prevent one from predicting the event. It may seem fatuous not to believe the sun will not appear the next day. However, as a limited human being, I maintain no absolute certainty that a sunrise will occur. At best. I can only make a prediction based on past experience. Since I have experienced daylight every day of my life, and know of no human who hasn’t, I have little evidence that a sunrise will not occur tomorrow. Therefore I can make a prediction based on past experience that a sunrise will appear highly likely to occur the next day. Note that I do not require believing to do this, only observation, experience, and good guessing. Prediction based on experience, in this case, replaces belief. But note that my prediction may prove wrong, regardless of how remote the chances. We have evidence that supernovas exist in the universe that can destroy local solar systems. If, indeed, such an event occurred in our part of the galaxy, our sun could possibly get absorbed, along with the earth and all humans on it. So although there exists a very remote chance that the sun will not appear, I can at least predict with great (but imperfect) accuracy that I will see sunlight the next day.

By replacing belief with predictive thought, one can eliminate the need for belief, yet still maintain an outlook on life and make useful predictions.



Don’t you believe you exist?

To the believer who poses this question, I can only respond with “I know I exist, but apparently you only believe you exist.”

Questions about belief of our own existence aim to put a philosophical end to the discussion by proposing an impossible (to believers) proposition that no one could possibly deny. However, eliminating belief does not deny the evidence of existence. This appears so obvious and apparent that it only shows the power of belief to blind people from the world around them.

Any fair observer will note that no animal, including humans, require a need to believe in their existence. Humans, however, have the power of knowledge and the ability to express themselves. I know I exist because I get knowledge of my existence every second of my conscious life directly from my feelings, perceptions, or thoughts – no belief required. Belief only introduces an unnecessary proposition. I can simply say “I exist,” instead of “I believe I exist.” My knowledge of existence comes from experience, not belief. The elimination of beliefs, makes our statements more concise, accurate and meaningful.

However, when one only believes in their existence, they automatically reduce their entire life to an abstraction: a belief. In effect, they have put an unnecessary barrier between their minds and the world around them.



Owning no beliefs does not result in nihilism

To characterize no beliefs as nihilist only creates a straw man. Of course a nihilist might very well claim to abandon knowledge of existence but usually it comes in the form of a belief– one who believes that nothing exists or one who believes that no one can know anything. Nothing I have written rejects the notion of existence or knowledge, whether it comes from metaphysical, political or ethical thought. Abandoning beliefs does not prevent one from reality, morality or sociality. On the contrary, I submit that eliminating ownership of beliefs tends to enhance the knowledge of things by the very act of eliminating the very obstruction which prevents us from knowing how things work in the universe. The elimination of beliefs as I describe it illustrates the very antithesis of nihilism. The problems that derive from beliefsprevent us from knowledge of existence, morality and workable political systems.

Ironically many believers who accuse others of nihilism follow a similar path of nihilism by denying reality in favor of superstitious beliefs. How in the world can one know about reality when one believes in a supernatural force which (according to religious philosophers) remains entirely separated from the world, and in principle, no one can know?

So if you think (or believe) that I submit to a form of nihilism, then you will have abandoned a main premise and put yourself at a personal disadvantage by ignoring or denying an idea (a valid and very workable idea in my opinion).



No, I don’t believe my own words

And neither should you. But I do ask questions, and because you’ve read this far you, and even if you strongly disagree, you must ask yourself this: Which method works best: acting on beliefs or acting on knowledge? If you have difficulty answering this question, then perhaps your beliefs prevent you from acknowledging the obvious.

This text presents points of views based from my (and others) experiences, observations, and research about the thought process. I do not present them as beliefs but rather as an investigation into the mechanism of belief. If any of my statements prove false, then they will show simply that, and subject to further revision. Disowning beliefs does not guarantee “truth” or accuracy, only a method to help clear away superstitions and falsehoods.




Beliefs and faiths represent a type of mental activity that produces an unnecessary and dangerous false sense of trust and wrongful information (thinking coupled with the feeling of ‘truth’). Faith rarely agrees with the world around us. History has shown that beliefs and faith, of the most intransigent kind, have served as the trigger for tragic violence and destruction and sustained the ignorance of people. Replacing beliefs with predictive thoughts based on experience and evidence provide a means to eliminate intransigence and dangerous superstitious thought.

Beliefs and faiths do not establish “truths” or facts. It does not matter how many people believe or for how many centuries they have believed it. It does not matter how reverent or important people think of them, if it does not agree with evidence, then it simply cannot have any validity to the outside world. All things we know about the world, we can express without referring to a belief. Even at its most benign level, beliefs can act as barriers to further understanding.

I present a very simple observation at the limits of ignorance and knowledge: If you don’t know about something and you submit it to nothing but belief, it will likely prove false; if you know about something, then you don’t need to believe it, because you know it. Between ignorance and knowledge you have the uncertainties about the world, and the best way to handle uncertainties involves thinking in terms of probabilities. So what use does belief have?

If you have awareness of abstracting, you can then begin to replace believing with thinking.

Instead of owning beliefs, we can utilize hypothesis, theory, and models to make predictions about things in the world. In its semantic form, we can replace “belief” words with “thinking” words which better describes the formation of our ideas. We can use our imaginations to create new hypothesis towards desired goals. The wonder of the universe gives us a powerful feeling of inquisitiveness. Certainly we will fail sometimes, but disowning beliefs allows us to correct our mistakes without submitting our ideas to years or centuries of traditional time consuming barriers. Theory coupled with imagination can yield inventive thoughts and points of views. By further understanding our language and eliminating unworkable essence words, we can communicate without resorting to preconceived ideas based on past beliefs. Our feeling of wonder about the universe provides us the fuel for exploration; how much more magnificent the results from useful thoughts than ones based on faith.




[1] Sagan, C., Duryan, A., “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” p. 198

[2] Eisler, Riane, “The Chalice & the Blade,” Chapter 2

[3] Shapiro, Sue A., “Contemporary Theories of Schizophrenia, Review and Synthesis,” p.10

See also Early Warning Signs of schizophrenia: http://www.mentalhealth.com/book/p40-sc02.html#Head_5

[4] Modrow, John, “How to Become a Schizophrenic,” See Introduction & Chapter 1

[5] Hooper, Judith & Teresi, Dick, “The 3-Pound Universe, “p. 48 (paperback)

[6] Hooper, Judith & Teresi, Dick, “The 3-Pound Universe, “p. 106 (paperback)

[7] Scheibe, Karl E., “Beliefs and Values,” p.27

[8] Sulloway, Frank J., “Born to Rebel: Birth Order; Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives.” Sulloway presents a scientific statistical analysis of radical believers in history compared to conservative believers. His findings offer evidence that family dynamics influences the behavior of siblings. Firstborns tend to identify with parents of authority and status quo, while laterborns tend to rebel against authority. This engine of behavior can influence what we believe in.

[9] Bourland, Jr., D. David, and Johnston, P. D., “To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, 1991, International Society for General Semantics

[10] Feynman, Richard, “The Feymnan Lectures on Physics,” Vol 1, pp. 35-10

[11] Bellak M.D., Leopold, “Disorders of the Schizophrenic Syndrome,” pp. 26-27

[12] Chapman, Loren J. & Champman, Jean, P., “Disordered Thought in Schizophrenia,” Chapter 8: “Errors in Syllogistic Reasoning”

[13] Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Schrodinger’s wave mechanics provide an example of two mathematical systems which give equivalent results. See Polkinghorne, J.C., “The Quantum World,” p.14 (paperback)

[14] Levi, Isaac, “The Fixation of Belief and its Undoing,” pp. 2-3



Bibliography (click on an underlined book title if you wish to obtain it):

Bellak M.D., Leopold, “Disorders of the Schizophrenic Syndrome,” Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1979

Bourland, Jr., D. David, and Johnston, P. D., “To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology,” International Society for General Semantics, 1991

Chapman, Loren J. & Champman, Jean, P., “Disordered Thought in Schizophrenia,” Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973

Crees, Adrian, “Anatomy of Religion,” Freshet Press, 1989

Dawkins, Richard, “The God Delusion,” Bantom Press, 2006

Feynman, Richard, “The Character of Physical Law,” The M.I.T. Press, 1965

Feynman, Richard, “The Feymnan Lectures on Physics,” Vol. 1, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1963

Gottesman, Irving I., “Schizophrenia Genesis, the Origins of Madness,” 1991

Harris, Sam, Sameer, A. Sheth, Cohen, Mark S, “Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty,” 2007

Herbert, Nick, “Quantum Reality, Beyond the New Physics,” Anchor Books, 1985

Hoffer, Eric, “The True Believer, “The New American Library,” 1951

Hooper, Judith & Teresi, Dick, “The 3-Pound Universe,” Dell Publishing, 1986

Is Religion a Form of Insanity a Free Inquiry Symposium, [Free Inquiry, Summer, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1993]

Levi, Isaac, “The Fixation of Belief and its Undoing,” Cambridge University Press, 1991

Modrow, John, “How to Become a Schizophrenic,” Apollyon Press, 1995

Murphy, H.B.M., “Cultural Factors in the Genesis of Schizophrenia, in the transmission of schizophrenia,” Rosenthal, D., & Kety, S.S., Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1968

Polkinghorne, J.C., “The Quantum World,” Princeton University Press, 1984

Ramachandran, V.S; Blakeslee, S., “Phantoms in the Brain : Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind,” Quill, 1999

Sagan, Carl & Druyan, Ann, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” Random House, New York, 1992

Scheibe, Karl E., “Beliefs and Values,” Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970

Shapiro, Sue A., “Contemporary Theories of Schizophrenia, Review and Synthesis,” McGraw-Hill Book Co. 1981

Sinclair, W.A., “The Traditional Formal Logic,” Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1937

Sulloway, Frank J., “Born to Rebel: Birth Order; Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives,” Pantheon Books, New York, 1996


Internet sites:

An Essay on Belief and Acceptance by Jonathan Cohen

Atoms, a short history of the knowledge of the atom by Jim Walker

Brain Waves and Meditation

Confusing the Map for the Territory by Jim Walker

Schizophrenia: early warning signs by Max Birchwood, Elizabeth Spencer & Dermot McGovern

Pictures of the brain’s activity during Yoga Nidra by Robert Nilsson

Understanding E-Prime: by R. A. Wilson 




Paying dues to the military industrial complex – Gil Scott-Heron

September 13, 2013


Back when Eisenhower was the President,

Golf courses was where most of his time was spent.

So I never really listened to what the President said,

Because in general I believed that the General was politically dead.

But he always seemed to know when the muscles were about to be flexed,

Because I remember him saying something, mumbling something about a Military Industrial Complex.

Americans no longer fight to keep their shores safe,

Just to keep the jobs going in the arms making workplace.

Then they pretend to be gripped by some sort of political reflex,

But all they’re doing is paying dues to the Military Industrial Complex.


The Military and the Monetary,

The Military and the Monetary,

The Military and the Monetary.

The Military and the Monetary,

get together whenever they think its necessary,

They turn our brothers and sisters into mercenaries, they are turning the planet into a cemetery.


The Military and the Monetary, use the media as intermediaries,

they are determined to keep the citizens secondary, they make so many decisions that are arbitrary.

We’re marching behind a commander in chief,

who is standing under a spotlight shaking like a leaf.

but the ship of state had landed on an economic reef,

so we knew he was going to bring us messages of grief.


The Military and the Monetary,

were shielded by January and went storming into February,

Brought us pot bellied generals as luminaries,

two weeks ago I hadn’t heard of the son of a bitch,

now all of a sudden he’s legendary.

They took the honour from the honourary,

they took the dignity from the dignitaries,

they took the secrets from the secretary,

but they left the bitch in obituary.


The Military and the Monetary,

from thousands of miles away in a Saudi Arabian sanctuary,

had us all scrambling for our dictionaries,

cause we couldn’t understand the fuckin vocabulary.

Yeah, there was some smart bombs,

but there was some dumb ones as well,

scared the hell out of CNN in that Baghdad hotel.


The Military and the Monetary,

they get together whenever they think its necessary,

War in the desert sometimes sure is scary,

but they beamed out the war to all their subsidiaries.

Tried to make So Damn Insane a worthy adversary,

keeping the citizens secondary,

scaring old folks into coronaries.


The Military and the Monetary,

from thousands of miles in a Saudi Arabian sanctuary,

kept us all wondering if all of this was really truely, necessary.

We’ve got to work for Peace,

Peace ain’t coming this way.

If we only work for Peace,

If everyone believed in Peace the way they say they do,

we’d have Peace.

The only thing wrong with Peace,

is that you can’t make no money from it.


The Military and the Monetary,

they get together whenever they think its necessary,

they’ve turned our brothers and sisters into mercenaries,

they are turning the planet, into a cemetery.

Got to work for Peace,

Peace ain’t coming this way.

We should not allow ourselves to be mislead,

by talk of entering a time of Peace,

Peace is not the absence of war,

it is the absence of the rules of war and the threats of war and the preparation for war.

Peace is not the absence of war,

it is the time when we will all bring ourselves closer to each other,

closer to building a structure that is unique within ourselves

because we have finally come to Peace within ourselves.


The Military and the Monetary,

The Military and the Monetary,

The Military and the Monetary.

Get together whenever they think its necessary,

they’ve turned our brothers and sisters into mercenaries,

they are turning parts of the planet, into a cemetery.


The Military and the Monetary,

The Military and the Monetary,

We hounded the Ayatollah religiously,

Bombed Libya and killed Quadafi’s son hideously.

We turned our back on our allies the Panamanians,

and saw Ollie North selling guns to the Iranians.

Watched Gorbachev slaughtering Lithuanians,

We better warn the Amish,

they may bomb the Pennsylvanians.


The Military and the Monetary,

get together whenever they think its necessary,

they have turned our brothers and sisters into mercenaries,

they are turning the planet, into a cemetery.

I don’t want to sound like no late night commercial,

but its a matter of fact that there are thousands of children all over the world

in Asia and Africa and in South America who need our help.

When they start talking about 55 cents a day and 70 cents a day,

I know a lot of folks feel as though that,

thats not really any kind of contribution to make,

but we had to give up a dollar and a half just to get in the subway nowadays.


So this is a song about tommorrow and about how tommorrow can be better. if we all,

“Each one reach one, Each one try to teach one”.

Nobody can do everything,

but everybody can do something,

everyone must play a part,

everyone got to go to work, Work for Peace.

Spirit Say Work, Work for Peace

If you believe the things you say, go to work.

If you believe in Peace, time to go to work.

Cant be waving your head no more, go to work.