U.S.

The Age of Miscalculation

The wreck of the World Trade Center smolders as a man passes a subway stop in New York City on September 11, 2001. (Peter Morgan/Reuters File Photo)
Some errors cost more than others, but we never recognize them as errors until it's too late.

On August 7, 1998, more than 200 people were killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Americans learned three names most of them never had heard before: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda.

On August 20, 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise-missile strike on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory north of Khartoum, Sudan, and the bombing of a purported al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. The Clinton administration said the factory was producing nerve gas and that its operators were linked to al-Qaeda. These attacks were preceded by two other noteworthy events: On Christmas Day, 1997, the film Wag the Dog, about a president who creates a fictional pretense for a war to distract from a sexual scandal, was released. On January 17, 1998, the Drudge Report broke the Clinton–Lewinsky story. Clinton would later announce Operation Desert Fox, a bombing campaign against Iraq, just as impeachment hearings against him were being opened in Congress.

It is impossible to say what President Clinton was thinking during all that — was he really attempting to “wag the dog”? Was the Iraq campaign “Monica’s War,” as the comedians called it? No one can say, and it is no good asking Bill Clinton, who is so habitually dishonest that he probably has forgotten how to tell the truth, and may not even know what it is.

But we do know, in part, what Osama bin Laden was thinking. According to his diaries and sources close to him, bin Laden believed that the United States under President George W. Bush would respond to the attacks of September 11, 2001, in much the same way the country had responded to the embassy bombings under President Clinton. Al Jazeera reports: “One of bin Laden’s former close confidants told Al Jazeera that bin Laden and al-Qaeda thought the U.S. would just do its usual bombing runs against their camps in Afghanistan, but not go as far as invading the country and occupying it. ‘The invasion of Afghanistan was a total disaster for us,’ said the confidant.”

President Clinton’s limp response to Dar es Salaam and Nairobi probably encouraged al-Qaeda to carry out the 9/11 attacks. Clinton could not have known that at the time, of course, and surely would have chosen another course of action if he had calculated that his pro forma retaliation would in some way help to precipitate what turned out to be the deadliest terrorist attack ever carried out on American soil. He miscalculated, if he made any such calculation at all in the matter. Bin Laden in turn miscalculated the U.S. response to 9/11, thinking that the United States would fear to get itself intimately involved in Afghanistan, overthrowing the Taliban and occupying the country.

The Bush administration, in its turn, miscalculated on many fronts in the War on Terror. President Bush began by making absurd promises in his September 21 speech to a joint session of Congress, defining victory as the moment when “every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Going on 20 years later, that is nowhere in sight. Bush told the nation — and, possibly, himself — a flattering story in which al-Qaeda et al. were motivated by their hatred of American democracy and liberty, in which the great majority of the Muslim world was unequivocally on our side, along with the entirety of “the civilized world,” etc. The administration retreated even farther into fantasy on the related matter of Iraq. “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom,” President Bush said, and that was not only the now-familiar histrionic presidential rhetoric: Policy was made on it. “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution,” President Bush insisted. It was a great miscalculation. Iraq is a shambles, having exchanged its domination by Iraqi socialists for domination by Iranian ayatollahs. President Donald Trump worries that Afghanistan will devolve into a “laboratory for terror.”

President Trump is right to fear that. But he also thinks — seriously, according to Larry Kudlow — that the United States should attempt to buy Greenland. Expect more miscalculation.

We already have seen plenty of that from President Trump and his team: Trade wars are “great” and “easy to win,” etc. The U.S. economy’s growth has slowed back down to the 2 percent mark that Trump once held in such contempt. Business investment has cratered to 14 percent of what it was during the first quarter. Many China scholars insist that Americans fundamentally misunderstand Xi Jinping and China. The Trump administration’s leading brain on China trade, Peter Navarro, is a crackpot with very little experience in China whose actual academic experience is in the economics of utilities companies and whose main contributions to intellectual life have been get-rich-in-the-stock-market books with such titles as If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks. But the Trump administration is hardly alone. As Kevin Rudd wrote in the New York Times after Xi’s ascension to caudillo-for-life:

The recent decision by China’s National People’s Congress to abolish term limits for the office of the president has sent shock waves through the West: Xi Jinping, the current officeholder, is suddenly being described as a new Confucian autocrat, overseeing a state still governed by a Marxist-Leninist party, presiding over a selectively capitalist economy, with ambitions to make his country a global superpower.

This sense of shock says more about the West than China. For the last five years, Western leaders and analysts have often projected onto China an image of their preferred imaginings, rather than one reflecting the actual statements of China’s own leaders, or in the physical evidence of Chinese statecraft.

The Chinese, for their part, are thought by many to be equally in the dark about Washington’s program and about the United States more generally.

It is, again, impossible to say what exactly President Clinton was thinking in 1998, unable to anticipate the massacre of 2001. But it would not be unreasonable to assume that he was thinking a lot more about Monica Lewinsky and Newt Gingrich than he was about Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

If the U.S. economy is deep in recession a year from today, what will President Trump be thinking about? Buying Greenland? It is not impossible to imagine Bill Clinton’s using military strikes to distract from his adultery with a young White House intern. What might Donald Trump do with GDP growth in the negative or gasoline at $6 a gallon? What might Xi Jinping be tempted to do if the scene on the street in Beijing starts to look like the one in Hong Kong?

Some miscalculations cost more than others. But we never understand the error until it is too late.

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