We Regret the Error

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

At The Atlantic, we pride ourselves on the foresight of our authors. We like to point out that “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush’s 1945 meditation on information networks, foresaw the creation of the World Wide Web. We less often highlight “The Coming Air Age,” another Atlantic article of the same period, which predicted that the average businessman would soon be commuting to work in a helicopter.

The last decade has been no exception: we’ve published some 2,000 articles, and many turned out to be eerily prophetic. Nine years after James Fallows’s cover story “The 51st State,” Uncle Sam is, as our cover image anticipated, staggering under the weight of a smoldering Iraq. But inevitably, our crystal ball has its flaws. Here are five thoughtfully argued

Dow 36,000 (September 1999)
by James K. Glassman and Kevin A. Hassett

This brazenly bullish article actually appeared in late 1999, but it captures the turn-of-the-millennium zeitgeist so perfectly (and so painfully) that we couldn’t resist including it. The authors, both fellows at the American Enterprise Institute, had listened to Alan Greenspan’s warning against “irrational exuberance” and emphatically rejected it. “Markets and media pundits have persistently warned that stocks are extremely risky,” they write in the opening of this piece. “About this they are wrong.  … Stocks are now, we believe, in the midst of a one-time-only rise to much higher ground—to the neighborhood of 36,000 for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.”

Needless to say, that swift, steady climb didn’t exactly happen. First there was the brutal dot-come crash, which sent the Dow down more than 30 percent. Then came the slow recovery march, which reached its summit in October 2007 at 14,164. By the end of this past February, when the Dow sank back down to less than half that level, Glassman and Hassett’s argument sounded breathtakingly naïve—an echo of the Roaring Twenties economist Irving Fisher, who announced shortly before Black Tuesday that stock prices had reached “a permanently high plateau.”

How could two financial experts have been so wrong? Mostly because the Internet was still in its infancy. The authors based their back-of-the-envelope calculations on late-’90s Silicon Valley trends—estimating, for instance, that Cisco stock would again double over the next five years. They also found it hard to imagine that investors of the information age, relying on abundant and up-to-the-minute data, would make the same mistakes their forefathers did. The primitive investor was like a nervous bather, dipping a toe into the chilly river of the stock market. In contrast, they wrote, Americans were now free to dive in head first, knowing from their Internet research that the water would be fine.

The authors now admit that their exuberance was perhaps a bit irrational after all. But they stand by their vision of a Dow index that will more than double the current all-time high. “I have no doubt about that,” James K. Glassman recently told The Washington Post. “I think that is absolutely true. But I’m not going to tell you what date.”

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.”