Dispatch December 2009

We Regret the Error

Five Atlantic predictions of the past decade we’d like to take back

Peace Is Hell (October 2001)
by William Langewiesche

The October 2001 issue of The Atlantic went to press with an image of a complacent military man and the cover line “Peace Is Hell: Why keeping a few thousand heavily armed, seriously bored soldiers in Bosnia strains the whole U.S. Army.” It seemed like a clever story when the article went to press in late August. But the issue hit newsstands in September, just days before terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As weekly publications rolled out brilliant, timely special issues, our “seriously bored” soldier sat comfortably on the rack, unaware that the tedium of “Pax Americana” had just come to an abrupt end.

In Langewiesche’s defense, his article contained kernels of wisdom—and was more than a little prescient. It was certainly jarring to read that U.S. soldiers were practically “holding hands, singing Kum-ba-yah” just as President George W. Bush prepared to invade Afghanistan. But Langewiesche’s secondary theme—the endless span of U.S. peacekeeping missions—has now come into its own. “The United States goes in, enforces the peace, helps to fix things up and leaves—or that’s the intention, even if, case by case, things have never worked out that way,” Langewiesche wrote. That bored-looking soldier might have landed in Afghanistan before our October issue landed in the recycling bin. But eight years later, he’s still waiting to come home.

A Post-Saddam Scenario (November 2002)
by Robert D. Kaplan

“The Middle East,” wrote longtime Atlantic correspondent Robert D. Kaplan, “is a laboratory of pure power politics. ... Our dismantling the Iraqi regime would concentrate the minds of Iran's leaders as little else could.” The March 2003 invasion of Iraq was still months away, and it was difficult for anyone to guess what would happen once that statue of Saddam Hussein came tumbling down. Instead of prognosticating about Iraq, Kaplan stepped back and surveyed the rest of the region.

What he saw was a rather large nation just to the east of Iraq that was similarly in need of a change. But he noted a few important distinctions. “Vastly more developed politically than Iraq, Iran has a system rather than a mere regime,” he wrote. It also had a strong tradition of Persian modernity—and a pro-American population that, Kaplan guessed, would happily form new ties with the U.S. once its dictators were out of the way.

Kaplan’s vision went something like this: Iranians, stirred by Saddam’s fall, would begin their own political rebirth. With hard-line Iranian politicians out of the way, Hizbollah would crumble and Syria would move toward moderation. Iran—joining together with Turkey and Eritrea—would help Israel withdraw peacefully and gradually from Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians, no longer seeing Israeli soldiers on patrol, would redirect their anger toward elite, Westernized Palestinian leaders like Yasser Arafat.

Iran does seem to be moving toward epochal change, but not quite the way Kaplan had in mind. In his 2002 piece, he urged America to act pragmatically, to “foreswear evangelical lust to implement democracy overnight in a country with no tradition of it.” His warning went unheeded. The invasion was reckless, the new government was installed hastily, and as a result, the Middle East is more fragmented than ever.

“Eritrea has become a pariah state, and Turkish-Israeli relations have rarely been worse,” he reflects today. “Moreover, the Israelis still occupy Palestinian land. Even if we see a better Iranian government in the foreseeable future, that will not justify the human suffering of invading Iraq. My scenario was wrong, and that's all there is to it.”

Will Hillary Win the Nomination? (July/August 2005)
by Washington Insiders

A few months after Bush’s second inauguration, we began setting our sights on the 2008 election. It was difficult to say, at that point, who would win the next Republican nomination, but when we polled a group of Washington insiders, they seemed fairly certain who the Democratic candidate would be. “If Hillary runs, Hillary wins—simple as that,” one Democratic respondent wrote. “She is beloved in the party from the grassroots to K Street,” opined another. “It would take a cataclysmic failure on her part to lose the nomination.” A Republican participant elaborated: “No one on the Democratic side has the star power, the money, or the message that Hillary has.”

We can’t exactly blame these seasoned pundits and campaign managers for overlooking a certain Illinois senator who had just arrived in Washington a few months before. Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention had enlarged his profile, and his memoir Dreams From My Father had climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but he hardly seemed ready to eclipse a Clinton.

Even knowing all that we know now—the victory in Iowa, the endorsement from Ted Kennedy, the throngs of cheering Berliners—it’s difficult to look back and pinpoint exactly how a relative newcomer bested the longtime party favorite. Perhaps Andrew Sullivan provides the answer in “Goodbye to All That,” his 2007 essay on Obama’s unexpectedly compelling candidacy: “Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is caution. Close-up in this election campaign, Obama is unlikely. From a distance, he is necessary.”

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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