Welcome to the world of George Friedman, founder of Stratfor (short for Strategic Forecasting) and prime mover in an organization that is, at once, a private intelligence firm, a sophisticated web publishing firm, and a bold epistemological experiment.
Early in the preface to his book, "America's Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle between America and Its Enemies" (Doubleday, New York, 2004, 339 pages, $25.95 HB) Mr. Friedman writes, "…this is not a passionate book. To the extent possible, it intends to be cold and clinical. Nothing has become cheaper than passionate discourse. This book deliberately treats Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as what they are, skilled and dedicated men with a clear vision of how they want the world to look. It treats George W. Bush the same way."
That lucidity is why I'm in his office: to listen to his view of what has happened and how we know, or don't know, what's going on.
"I don't have a position," he is quick to say. "I admire all the players."
"But 'What is your position?' is the most important question. In forecasting an outcome we're not necessarily advocating it. It's not in our hands. Life will determine the outcome…"
If life determines the outcome, what is the role of policy decisions, I asked.
"There are turning points when you can find policies that make a difference. But they are rare. And, usually, the result is unintended. The best example is Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System. It resulted in the creation of the suburbs, the dispersion of industry in the country, and the destruction of the inner city---none of which were intended. The intent was to improve the transportation network for military preparedness…"
"In economics we're all comfortable with the idea of the invisible hand. You look at a collection of a quarter billion people. You could talk to individuals but it isn't practical. But if you look at 50,000 they start to meld and you can start predicting what they are going to do. That's the window I look through. A world of 6 billion people, each thinking he is master of his life. We try to map out the direction this is heading."
"China, for instance. Here, we often do something very stupid. We listen to the finance minister. Don't talk to the minister. Look at the figure for bad loans. It's about $650 billion. Some think it's really $1 trillion.
"This is half of China's GDP. We've seen this before--- Japan and East Asia. Everyone can see why it doesn't matter but you can't tell me it won't crunch them like it crunched Japan.
"The macro picture is that China has grown dramatically for 30 years. So it will probably stop growing. Secondly, I can tell you what its problem is--- bad loans. And I can tell you why. They made some remarkably bad decisions.
"If you don't recognize that, you'll miss the center of gravity, the information that helps you distinguish the essential information from the inessential…"
"The President of Uzbekistan is probably smarter at his job than you are. You're not President of Uzbekistan. So before you declare him stupid, try to figure out what he is doing."
What did he think about public sources of information?
"The caricature of the Iraq war is as though a psychotic was facing a moron. The journalists never captured the idea that Osama knew what he was doing and made rational choices. In the same way they never understood that George Bush was a shrewd, relentless player who may well have made mistakes but never made frivolous moves…
"But forget about Bush. Think about how Osama was portrayed. We portray our enemies as fools or madmen. So many times in history we've underestimated our enemy. Basically, we've got an iron triangle--- the universities, the think tanks, and the press. Each brings something to bear, usually negative.
"The academic focuses on narrow points. The think tanks are advocates. And the journalists trivialize the problem--- so a citizen listening can only get a very obscure understanding, a partisan analysis, or a cartoon skit on television.
"We're trying to find the Fact Path, the one that looks at the whole, that doesn't advocate, and that doesn't trivialize."
"The difference between journalism and intelligence is that you are reporting. We are interpreting. We are not constrained to, say; transmit the words of the Secretary of Defense."
I asked for an example.
"We knew there was no way the U.S. was invading Iraq because of Weapons of Mass Destruction. If you know, you don't announce a year in advance. You do what the Israelis do, hit and apologize. His (President Bush's) explanation was transparently preposterous.
"Our job is to analyze the real reasons. The U.S. government realized the Saudis knew a great deal about Al Qaeda. But they weren't cooperating with us. So the question was how to persuade them to cooperate with us.
"The Saudis didn't believe we would invade Iraq." He also noted that after years of weak responses to earlier terrorist attacks and our failure to take out Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, we were seen as weak and not willing to take casualties.
"The President couldn't say that. The media never captured the strategic goals because the administration wouldn't tell them."
On the web:
Website for the book
Amazon information on the book
Website for Stratfor and its publications
John Mauldin on the Stratfor 10 year Forecast
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