In 2004, Richard Clarke wrote a piece for the January/February 2005 Atlantic predicting what the world would be like ten years after September 11, 2001. His predictions reflected the prevailing zeitgeist of the time: what people thought mattered and what was likely to happen, where we were going wrong and where we were going right. Like all such forecasts, time has proven some of Clarke’s predictions to be prescient, some to be misguided, and some to be mistaken. What he got right and wrong, where he was close and where he wasn’t, reveals just how much our post-9/11 world has changed since 2005, and the relevance that the September 11 attacks did and did not have on its course. We’ve pulled out some of his predictions, rating each on an accuracy scale from “Nostradamus” for the most accurate to “Chicken Little” for the least.
U.S. Government Rolls Out High-Tech Surveillance Security
Accuracy: Mixed. The U.S. hasn’t implemented 1984-style-Big Brother aerial surveillance or required all citizens to carry a fingerprinted, bio-coded, universal identification card. There aren’t roaming nuclear search-and-disarmament teams raiding storage facilities and setting up checkpoints on interstate highways. Congress never passed a sequel PATRIOT Act, but they have renewed the original, most recently in May 2011. Still, Clarke wasn’t wrong that government surveillance increased dramatically. Less than a year after his story came out, the New York Times broke what would become a national scandal over the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping of U.S. phone calls and other communications.
1. U.S. Muslims Targeted In Civilian Backlash
Accuracy: Mostly Wrong. There has been little to no vigilante justice against U.S. Muslims, no armed gangs attacking mosques. In fact, a recent study by the Pew center showed no signs of alienation or growth of extremism in Muslim America. But that hasn’t stopped the unfortunate rise in Islamophobia, which reached a fever pitch with a series of Summer 2010 protests, first against an Islamic cultural center planned for an area in New York near the World Trade Center site, and later against mosques and Islamic centers across the U.S.
2. U.S. Prisons Become Terrorism Recruiting Grounds
Accuracy: Chicken Little. Despite a few hysterical Congressional hearings warning otherwise, the still-hyped threat of “radicalization” of U.S. Muslims has never really materialized. One attempted terrorist, failed shoe bomber Richard Reid, had served time prior to his 2002 attack, converting to Islam while locked up. But his prison stint was in the UK, not the U.S., and he seems to have developed his radical ideas after leaving lock-up.
3. Osama bin Laden’s Death Followed by ‘Waves’ of Attacks
Accuracy: Chicken Little. Clarke predicated Osama would be killed in the spring of 2005, but it took U.S. forces another six years to track him down. Clarke’s prediction that a new wave of suicide attacks would be launched against the U.S. in retaliation, “every bit as well planned as those of 9/11,” has so far proven wrong, perhaps reflecting the group’s declining ability to launch large operations or even to scare Americans into thinking they might. .
4. GDP Plunges and National Unemployment Skyrockets
Accuracy: Mostly Right. Clarke placed his financial crisis and persistent rise in unemployment in 2007. The federal deficit as a percentage of GDP has, as he prediected, reached a new high as defense spending has continued to rise. What Clarke got wrong was the cause: instead of a global financial crisis triggered in part by the collapse of the housing market and financial instruments, he blamed a coup in Saudi Arabia that plunged global oil supply.
6. U.S. Bombs Iran From Saudi Bases, Sparking Coup
Accuracy: Chicken Little. In Clarke’s scenario, the U.S. uses Saudi air bases as a staging ground for attacking Iran, which gives “fundamentalist forces” in Saudi Arabia an opening to launch a coup, replacing the monarchy and renaming the country “Islamiyah,” which quickly withdrew all ties to the U.S. Not only did this not happen, but the Middle East’s recent revolutions have in fact come from the opposite end of the spectrum: young, liberal, tech-savvy, and (so far) largely secular opposition activists.
6. The Military Expands, But Not Enough
Accuracy: Nostradamus. While we haven’t reinstated conscription, we have increased the size of the army, albeit by about 100,000 rather than the 200,000 Clarke predicted. President George W. Bush found other ways to meet rising demand for U.S. troops: longer tours, sending the National Guard abroad, and “stop-loss” programs to extend tours of duty. Still, between Bush’s 2007 “troop surge” in Iraq and Obama’s 2010 surge in Afghanistan, even this bigger and longer-serving military has been stretched thin.
7. Dissatisfaction with Politics Gives Rise to An Influential Third Party
Accuracy: Nostradamus. Clarke predicted that as the two major parties attempted to outdo each other, the similarities between them and a public disillusioned with the state of the world would engender a powerful third party, who Clarke termed the American Liberty Party. The Tea Party was created in 2009. The Party won a surprising number of seats in the mid-term elections, advocating for limited government and reduced government spending. The only difference is that Clarke, writing during the Bush administration, assumed the third party would come from the far reaches of the left.
8. Fearing Shipping Container Attack, U.S. Ramps Up Port Security
Accuracy: Nostradamus. In late 2006, Congress passed the SAFE Port Act, enacting some of the same port and shipping security measures Clarke predicted. The U.S. now inspects many shipping containers bound for the U.S. at their departure port, scans them for radiation, and uses more advanced security tools to detect tampering. One difference: the U.S. never sent a submarine to sink a Trinidad-bound Yemeni oil tanker that had stopped answering radio calls.
9. U.S. Calls for Arab Democratization Fall Flat
Accuracy: Mixed. Channeling the consensus view that Arab regimes would only ever liberalize from U.S. pressure if at all, an assumption that held right up until the Tunisian revolution this January, Clarke wrote, “Although we occasionally lectured Arab states about the need for democracy and reform, we never developed a country-by-country program, or provided practical steps for moving theocracies and autocracies in that direction. Moreover, our haranguing Arab governments to be nicer to their citizens ended up producing a backlash against us, because our exhortations were seen as hypocritical in view of our bombing, torture, and occupation tactics in Iraq.” Although everything Clarke writes here came true, he missed, like so many of us, the popular Arab movements that would succeed where U.S. diplomacy had so failed.
10. “No one could stand here today, in 2011, and say that America has won the war on terror. … It has hurt us in world trade, swelled our national debt, and depressed our GDP. America [is] less wealthy, less confident, and certainly less free.”
Read the original 2005 essay here.
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