When Keeping Predictions Real Goes Wrong

I had to eat some shit last night for blowing my first big foreign prediction. I thought that Russian troop build ups were all for leverage at the negotiation table. I thought it would be too risky to launch a full assault when one could, theoretically, get a neutral Ukraine over the bargaining table. We don’t yet know if this was a realistic possibility or not. If Blinken and co sabotaged such a deal or if Putin did. I hate that Putin resorted to this in response either way. Fuck Vlad.

So yesterday I was getting ready to go to bed when suddenly some cursed impulse made me check my phone one last time. Only to be immediately jolted awake by The Great Gopnik War and cries of ‘Anuuuuuuuu cheeki breeki iv damke.’ I really wish I hadn’t looked. I wish I had a full night’s sleep and only got rudely awakened the next morning.

For now its too early to make super serious comments. But I will say this: If Putin’s goals are limited, he will likely scoop out either a diplomatic neutrality concession by Kiev or, more grossly, a new territorial swathe from the Donbass to Crimea, connecting them in a kind of Slavic Northern Ireland facsimile. He could get away with this and, in time, things might settle down. But if his ambitions are as stated and he wishes to go full American-style regime change…well, get ready for full insurgency, poisoned relations with neighbors in Europe, and a simmering guerilla war that will indirectly suck in other countries and hold the potential to directly involve more as it goes on. Russia’s inferiority complex to America, it seems, has caused it to flirt with repeating its mistakes too. I distinctly remember being a teenager in the Iraq invasion and having those first months seem a euphoric victory ride for most of the population. We know now how that turned out. Moscow has a choice, and choosing wisely involves recognizing your limits.

But I am not done eating shit, though I do wish to put it in context that makes it less bad. I never said Russia would ‘never’ attack Ukraine. I always quantified the prediction with ‘probably not’ and then went on to say ‘and here’s how they would do it if they did,’ which-so far-is still somewhat accurate from what I can tell. I do feel in taking this path Russia has burned a lot of diplomatic bridges it once could have crossed. This is precisely why I didn’t think they would go ahead.

For what its worth, Biden so far seems to be handling this better than any other President of my conscious lifetime would have. Ukraine is not a NATO nation, and we are under no obligation to defend them. Additionally, its location, political situation, and other factors mean it never was a likely inductee to NATO (another reason I thought Putin would refrain from attacking). It is truly baffling to me that no one in NATO could have admitted this publicly, and I wonder if they had if the current situation would be different now. Knowing this, Biden seems to be owning, much like he owned the issue on Afghanistan, the reality that war in Ukraine directly does not suit U.S. interest. Obama said the exact same thing in 2014, but now, due to Russiagate, his partisans seem to forget this. For now anyway. It is too close to Russia and all advantages go to team Moscow. Even in the event of a decisive U.S. victory that would mean permanent stationing of U.S. troops near Russia’s core area for decades. In a country with no core shared interest with the North Atlantic? Ridiculous. The cost would not be justifiable, especially considering how far east that would be. If Ice Cream Joe keeps it up, I might just vote for his reelection. And I haven’t voted for a major party candidate at the national level since 2012…including Joe himself. Granted, I suspect many of the others who yelled at me for not doing so in 2020 might jump ship by that point. Well, there’s little point to life without some contrarianism.

As I said already, its too early to go too much into detail on the war itself. If Kiev was wise they must have prepared interior defenses in depth to compensate for their numerical and firepower disadvantages and won’t contest every inch of ground but rather fight like hell in a core defensible area. If they didn’t prepare at all than their actor-president (who once played an actor-president on tv, peak clown world) is even more cavalier than I feared. Let us leave it at that for now.

What I can do, and what I will do right now, is examine why I got this one wrong by comparing it with my other bogus prediction: the 2016 Presidential election. Both are outliers in an largely on point predictive career, so maybe if smashed together they can be elucidating.

First, lets establish that I am actually on the whole good with predictions in politics. I am not going to go through everything I ever wrote for hyperlinks, but you can search this site and my external publications are largely linked to on the publications tab. Feel free to see for yourself. But I made many big calls successfully before. Nation building in Iraq would be a disaster (2002-still in high school!), proved true in 2004 onwards. NATO expansion being a mistake that could lead to further conflict in Europe (2005), proven true from 2014-present. That the U.S. and company should avoid the Syrian Civil War like the plague (2012), proven true 2013-present. Most on point, I predicted a Karabakh re-match (2016) where advantage would be strongly in Azerbaijan’s camp…this of course came true in 2020. Additionally, and more domestically, I predicted with a one state margin of error, every U.S. presidential election from 2000-2020 with the sole exception of 2016. 2004 and 2012 I got with not a single state in error. I also had one big but very mixed prediction made in 2020, that Afghanistan’s government would collapse post-U.S. pullout (yes) but not until at least 6 or so months had passed (no).

I am not listing this to brag or fellate my ego to compensate for messing the two I fumbled up. It is important to establish the overall record to investigate the flops. Furthermore, it is important when rating a geopolitical analyst to see the overall picture. Someone like Thomas ‘lets ally with ISIS’ Friedman is remarkable for his near total failure rate, while someone like George Kennan, who predicted both the overall course of the Cold War in the 40s, and, in the 90s, the current post Cold War mess, had a proper record that showed he was paying attention. Few if any get everything right, and some room for failure must be allotted, but proportionality remains a key attribute. And should I ever tip the balance near 50/50 or…even worse, under that, I promise to do something terrible and humiliating. Like drawing Uncle Klunk erotica, signing it, and sending it to whoever asks to adorn their wall of shame (as it will not be going on the blog).

So, what do my two big failures have in common? A domestic political call that thought the election would be close (correct) but totally misread several key states vs a tale of brinksmanship vs hard power deployment in a foreign country that came out on the wrong side of that equation?

I think, placed in binary, a common theme emerges. I am…and this pains me to say…far too trusting in the long term planning abilities of powerful people. Yes, me who dunks on lanyards all the time. But I thought ‘Hillary has the money and the connections, she’ll leverage them correctly.’ And I thought ‘Putin won’t burn most of his European bridges/NATO surely wouldn’t dangle out membership to Ukraine as an actual possibility.’

So clearly, I, who gets criticized for being too cynical, need to becomes more cynical. Because I am not yet cynical enough. Challenge accepted.

P.S.:

U.S. intelligence, possibly for the first time in my adult life, got something right out the gate and told us the truth of what was going to happen. This is a good thing actually (though last week it furthered my doubts as to Russian action given the general record of those-who-glow). I would like to see more of this. HOWEVER…so far this is one big public call for U.S. intelligence out of…what, dozens of failed or intentionally doctored calls? WMDs? Gadhafi’s Viagra rape army? Moderate rebels? Russiagate? Havana Syndrome? Kuwaiti baby incubators? Tonkin Gulf? The rise of ISIS? You get my point. They are going to use this one case as a ‘trust us’ pass in the future. Do not. The odds still do not bear out their claims on most issues. It is up to them, not to us, to earn the public’s trust again.

7 thoughts on “When Keeping Predictions Real Goes Wrong

  1. I give you a lot of credit for issuing this mea culpa so soon – something few political commentators ever do. It’s still hard to believe that Putin is doing this blindly without regard to the ramifications of these actions. Maybe it’s misguided, but I still believe there has to be some deeper strategy involved here, right? Time will tell…
    Regarding your final paragraph, I still disagree regarding Russiagate – Putin absolutely had/has leverage over Trump. We may not have conclusive evidence about the extent of it, and I do believe some of the charges were fantastical, but the general concept that Trump’s actions were/are manipulated by Putin seem borne out by his actions, past and present. And, there’s an increasing body of evidence from a wide variety of sources supporting a concerted Russian effort to sew chaos in both our elections and our social discourse. Sure, other actors, including the U.S., have been involved in these types of campaigns, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Russian troll farms exist and that they have an impact on the masses who are more than willing to swallow what they read on Facebook.

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    • Russia absolutely tries to spread disinformation online. Every major power does, but they are one of the better ones at it-though neither more prolific nor overall effective than the US is on the whole (we even have our official State Department troll farm-the Center for Global Engagement-which actually tried to recruit me once). The purpose is to manipulate the public of third party countries. I do not believe this translates to controlling the actions of Trump, however, because Trump’s own actions in office undermine this thesis. Specifically in that he was much more hawkish on Ukraine than Obama was, being willing to sell weapons to Ukraine en masse, continuing the overall economic pressure on Russian actors through the Magnitsky Acts, and taking hawkish positions regarding Russian partners like Syria and Iran. None of these policies served Putin’s goals. So even if Putin had something on Trump, it was clearly a bad investment. The only actual break Trump had on Europe policy was an increased skepticism towards NATO and how much the US spends on it, but this position wasn’t a huge break with Obama either, who constantly tried to get Germany and France to increase their defense budgets with the unspoken acknowledgement that US forces were moving to Asia (ie the pivot to Asia strategy).

      Couple this with the admission of people in the Clinton campaign shortly after 2016 that they wanted to pin their humiliating and unexpected loss on someone other than themselves as was documented on the ground by campaign embedded reporters in the book ‘Shattered’, as well as the obvious utility to certain state actors distancing themselves from an obnoxious president by boosting the theory and using it against the presidency, and you can see why I remain extremely skeptical that Russiagate is much more than the mundane pettifoggery that clusters around American politics. The best case you could make for it is how corrupt and internationally compromised it showed many campaign operatives to be, but this too is not unique to this election nor to any one country in particular, as Hunter Biden’s Ukraine connections or the purchase of the Steele Dossier by the Clinton campaign imply. By pinning all of this on Trump a far greater problem is ignored: the general fact that our elections are fully internationalized and partially off the record. Something the Supreme Court itself seems to be legalizing for years.

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  2. Sorry I wasn’t clear, those are two separate thoughts. I don’t think the propaganda campaign itself was the leverage, just that it was part of what people jumble up and consider (perhaps incorrectly) part of Russiagate. The primary issue I have is with the fact of Putin’s leverage over Trump which I consider the core of Russiagate. With Trump, money and fame/ego appear to be the main things that matter. While there’s still debate on Trump’s financial obligations to Russian figures tied to Putin, there’s no doubt that Trump has done a lot to kiss up to Russia, far more than might be expected. But if they hold sway over hundreds of millions or billions of dollars of Trump’s value, as is debated, it makes perfect sense.
    One can’t possibly equate leverage over Trump, the then president, with that of questionable payments to Hunter Biden for a board seat or a smear campaign orchestrated by Clinton. That’s whataboutism at its worst.

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    • Russiagate in most usages of the term is specifically the allegation that Russia decided the outcome of the 2016 election in some capacity, which it did not. Trump having assets in Russia I would consider to be a very different question. However, this is not different than say W Bush’s vast financial ties to Saudi Arabia. Meaning it is an extremely huge problem but it is not the central point of Russiagate nor is it unique to Trump. It is more common in the last few decades because of changes made on how international finance is regulated from Reagan-Clinton and thus can be expected to continue with future wealthy candidates as well. The super wealthy often keep vast amounts of their fortune abroad.

      I am sure this effects Trumps capacity of strategic calculation, but if Putin really was controlling him his policies, especially vis a vis Ukraine, would have been very different than they were. Putin was not a fan of Trumps decision to lift Obama’s ban of supply tons of military hardware to Kiev.

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    • Keep in mind also that the problem, as I said, is how international finance is handled. This means that to tackle this problem a hype fixation on Russia does not tackle the core issue. If half the effort spent on investigating Trump for Russia ties had been spent on investigating him for the ties Jared Kushner made in Israel, I bet a lot of things would have come to light. But even then, this wouldnt be an ‘Israel” problem, but a tolerated level of corruption among the elites of different countries. The reason people fixate on Russia (when I am sure Trump has shady investments there and elsewhere too) is because Russia doesn’t have a domestic lobby in the US, like Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia do, and therefore no one minds if DC focuses on just them.

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  3. “I am…and this pains me to say…far too trusting in the long term planning abilities of powerful people. Yes, me who dunks on lanyards all the time.”

    I’ve noticed this too, but can’t really blame ya too much. Betting on rational self interest is probably the best way to navigate the modern landscape. I wouldn’t say the answer is necessarily more cynicism in itself (now who’s going against their brand) but just understanding leaders personalities & histories better.

    Though I should probably get to your prediction level before I go running my mouth XD

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