First CIA Man To Predict America Would Beat USSR Says We’re In A Different Country Now
Herb Meyer is a long-term optimist and a short-term pessimist. In fact, he’s a long-term optimist because he’s a short-term pessimist. Meyer’s book entitled Why is the World So Dangerous is an outworking of the original memo he wrote for Bill Casey when Casey was the head of the Reagan CIA, and Meyer worked for him preparing the National Intelligence Estimate. His conclusion is a twist on Churchill’s wry observation that, “One can always depend on America to do the right thing… after she has exhausted all other options.” Meyer’s version is that America can be counted to do the right thing after the last possible moment. When we’re counted out, when even the dizzy optimists start saying that the end is nigh, then the somnambulist half of the country is roused from its entertainment-drenched stupor and sees the danger and acts.
I was curious about a few things, like who is going to win the election, how bad things are likely to get, what kind of disastrous setbacks are likely to occur and just how large they are going to have to be in order to steer the country back in the right direction. If America always does the right thing just after the last possible moment, what does that last possible moment look like?
I decided to satisfy my curiosity by sitting down across a Skype line with him recently. You can listen to the entire discussion here and read a partial transcript (edited for clarity) below:
Jerry Bowyer: Herb Meyer served during the Reagan administration; he was the special assistant to the director of the CIA. He was also vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. His job there was to manage production of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates. He’s widely credited as being the first person in the intelligence community to predict that the Soviet Union could and would be defeated. For this he received the prestigious National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal.
Herb produced a documentary video called The Siege of Western Civilization. That’s when I first met him in an interview about that fine documentary video.
He’s a former editor of Fortune. He’s authored a number of books: How to Analyze Information which I’ve read and learned a lot from, and Cure for Poverty, which I’ve also read and learned a great deal from.
His most recent book, it’s a short book, is Why is the World So Dangerous. And the books is essentially based on what is now the declassified work he did in a memo predicting that the Soviet Union could and would be defeated.
Herb Meyer, thanks for joining us today.
Herb Meyer: Well, thank you for having me.
Bowyer: Whenever anybody titles a book with a question the easiest thing for an interviewer to do is just ask the title back to the author. Herb Meyer, why is the world so dangerous?
Meyer: The world is dangerous because the United States has stepped aside from being its leader. And that has made an enormous difference.
You know all over the world people moan and groan about the United States, and we make mistakes, and they say we’re a bunch of sweaty, hairy-chested Bible-thumping morons. Then they run into trouble, and they want the 82nd Airborne; they want the Marines. And we always come through.
The entire world depends on the United States being the leader. And we’ve always done that. We’ve made mistakes; we always make mistakes, everyone does, but we’ve been the leader. And in the last few years we’ve simply stepped aside from that. We’ve left the world leadership, and that’s generated a terrible amount of danger. So that’s the short answer to the question.
Bowyer: So the answer to the question presupposes that up until this time of dereliction of duty, if it is indeed our duty to play that role, that we were a stabilizing force in the world. That we to some degree kept the the evil and the destructiveness of the world at bay, correct?
Meyer: Yes, that is exactly correct. And again, not that we didn’t make mistakes. The police make mistakes from time to time, but where would you be without a police force on the streets?
It’s easy to say well, we’re not the world’s police force. Well, you know what, yes we are, and no one else can do it. And we’ve done a really good job over the decades. And yes, it’s been stability. And everybody always knows the Americans are always there; you can always count on them. And we always help out, and we never ask for anything in return. And we’ve got some politicians today who think we should charge them for everything we do. Well, we don’t do that. We’re Americans, which is why they respect us. And that’s what we’re stepping away from, and that’s very dangerous.
Bowyer: How long can political leadership keep a war going when the people want to end it? In other words, McCain wanted to keep going. Obama wanted to pull out. We have these elections every four years. To some degree 2008 was a half a referendum on Iraq, and a half of a referendum on the financial crisis. So if the people don’t want to stick with it, the longest you can make the people stay in a war they don’t want to is four years if you happen to start the war at the beginning of a term; otherwise, they just get a new president. So can the people as we are constituted now, have the focus and fortitude it takes to give popular enough backing to a war that we can stay in in 2008 when tactically it’s probably unwise to withdraw?
Meyer: Well, interesting question. You know there was a general consensus from 1945 all the way to about 1980 and the early ’80s, that the Cold War was worth fighting. It was understood that we were in a titanic struggle against the Soviet Union, free world against the Soviet Union, and it was worth doing. Again, we disagreed, Republicans and Democrats. But by and large they were the consensus. And that was what, 40 years?
Meyer: So we’ve done that. Now, you’re asking a very important question, can we still do it? And the honest answer to the question, one reason I wrote this book Why is the World So Dangerous is we may not be able to do it anymore. You may have asked exactly the right question, Jerry. We’ve changed.
We Americans are not the same people we used to be. I don’t mean you’ve changed, or your listeners and readers have changed, or I’ve changed, but collectively, all of us, we’re not the same. I mean you can just look at the numbers. More than 40% of all births in the United States are to unwed mothers. That means about 45% of American children are growing up in households now without fathers. The percentage of working Americans has never been lower than it is now. We’re a different country.
And you can see it walking down the street. I mean not that I’m exactly a snappy dresser, but, you know when we Americans used to go out: to church, to the market, to work, you know, we’d try to make ourselves look neat and presentable. You walk out now we look like a bunch of slobs. Thirty-three percent of us, by the way, are overweight.
Listen to the music people are playing, not just young kids. But the music is obscene; it’s not melodic. I mean the indications are all over the place, we’re not the same people we used to be. Again, I don’t mean you’re not or the people listening aren’t or reading aren’t, but collectively we’re not. And if we’re not the same people then we may not be able to do the same kinds of things we used to do, and that’s the reason behind Why is the World So Dangerous. We’ve stepped aside from world leadership because we’re not the same people we used to be.
Bowyer: All right, Herb, you’re an analyst. I’m an analyst. We are also advocates. But advocacy and analysis are to some degree different disciplines, because an advocate says this is what I want you, America, to do, or this is what I want politicians to do, or this is what I want people to do, these are the changes I want to see. But at some point then you take off that advocacy hat and you look at your own country, and you say if I weren’t an American, if I were an analyst ‑‑ if I were working for Russian intelligence, or I was working for Chinese intelligence and I was looking at America, what kind of probabilities would I give it?
You looked at the USSR as an outsider, and you said they appear strong, but there are weaknesses which we see. We hear from channels that are not normally looked at. And you did not give a high probability of triumph or even survival. So let’s say you move out of the advocate role ‑‑ you’re an intelligence official for somebody else, or private intelligence, and you’re looking at this country from the outside. And someone says OK, what chance do they have? Ten, 20 years from now are they going to be the greatest world power still, or are they going to be a declining power? And what will help them be what they need to be? And if they fail, what is it that caused them to fail? So give me your non-American Herb Meyer analysis of the United States and her prospects.
Meyer: Boy, is that a good question.
Well, let’s imagine that I’m the chief of intelligence on Mars, and I’m looking down on Earth. I’m not a Republican; I’m not a Democrat; I’m not even an American. I can be completely objective, OK.
Meyer: I would say that one of the things that make the Americans different is that they never give up. Just when you think they can’t save the day, they figure out how to save the day. They don’t actually get their act together at the last minute, they get it together after the last minute.
When my kids were growing up, I used to go crazy, they would waste the weekend and then set down 10 o’clock Sunday night to do a book report. My son used to do his math homework on the Monday morning bus going into school. He turned out fine. Americans always get it together, not at the last possible minute, but after the last possible minute.
So the long-term answer to your question is I’m an optimist. We talk about these things, you and I are having this conversation, people will listen to it. Amazon’s placed, I don’t even know how many orders for the booklet now, Why is the World So Dangerous. People are talking about it; they’re interested in this. And what that gives me is a sense of optimism that just when all the experts tell us it’s too late to fix it, we fix it.
You know at the end of the 1970s it was sort of understood globally that the Russians are going to win the Cold War. And then we elected President Reagan and turned the whole thing around.
And my guess is ‑‑ not necessarily that we’ll elect another Reagan, but just when everyone kind of gives up on us and says, eh, it’s too late, they’re too far gone, that’s when we get our act together. And by the way, it’s conversations like the one you and I are having, and a dozen thousand others like it, which is where we actually talk about this stuff. And in the long run we fix it. So I’m a long-term optimist. I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist.
Bowyer: All right, let’s zoom in on that a little bit. I like conversations like this, and there are people who listen to them. In my experience the people who listen to this conversation are the people who don’t need it. If somebody lets a pop star or an actor tell them who to vote for, they’re probably not somebody who’s listening to or reading us right now. So I think what you’re doing is you’re sort of educating the remnant here probably more than changing the minds of the people who are almost post-rational, post-cognitive, and data immune. So I don’t know what changes them, maybe travail, pain.
So let’s talk a little bit about this. You said that Americans do the right thing, not only at the last minute, but after the last minute. They do it when they’ve reached a point where it’s so bad that people think they can’t reverse it.
Meyer: Exactly right.
Bowyer: Yeah, and that would be my same observation. So let’s go the step before that, the last minute, the thing that is so bad, such a reversal for U.S. fortunes, that people give up on us, and our non-cognitive sector of the electorate just wakes up for a moment and says something must be done, and kind of comes back to fundamental principles. What do you think that moment looks like? I’m not talking about the moment when we wake up, but when the bad thing that wakes us up happens. So again, this is your National Intelligence Estimate.
Meyer: It could be any one of a dozen things. It could be a second massive terrorist attack.
Bowyer: You mean like on the scale of 9/11.
Meyer: Yeah, on the scale of 9/11 yeah, San Diego is a pile of radioactive rubble kind of a thing. Could be something like that.
Bowyer: So bigger than 9/11, because look we went through 9/11 ‑‑
Meyer: It could be, yeah. It could also be something financial. You know everybody’s nightmare scenario is that some real estate company in Shanghai nobody ever heard of goes bankrupt, and somehow takes the whole financial system down with it. So it could be something financial.
There’s no way to know. That’s the thing about the future, you can come up with a million possibilities, and it turns out to be something you didn’t think of before.
Bowyer: Keep the analyst hat on. When you were with the CIA you would look and say well, who’s going to replace Brezhnev, who’s going to replace Khrushchev…you’re trying to figure out who the next leader is. So now you’re back in your post as Central Intelligence Director of Mars, and you’re looking at Earth, and you’re looking at the superpower on Earth, and your Martian overlords come and say well, who are the likely candidates? And you say well, it’s almost certainly going to be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And after they get done laughing or whatever Martians do in response to ludicrous scenarios, they say well, which one? We need our global intelligence estimate from you. Which one of them will win? What do you tell the Martian emperor?
Meyer: Well, one of the things you learn in the intelligence business is don’t fake it. So the answer to your question is I don’t know. I haven’t a clue. I can spend the next 15 minutes explaining to you why Hillary will win. And I can spend the next 15 minutes explaining with equal conviction why Trump will win. I simply don’t know. My guess is that all the rules you and I have learned over the decades no longer apply.
Originally published on Forbes.