It must be five decades now since I began to research why US intelligence agencies had failed to predict the two-pronged Egyptian-Syrian attack against Israel in 1973. The October 1973 War was the subject of my PhD thesis and this aspect of my research naturally led me to study other cases featuring the element of surprise which has long been a subject of concern to political scientists. The best-known antecedent was the failure of all of the US’s 16 intelligence agencies to predict the attack against Pearl Harbour which precipitated the US’s entry into World War II. But there are many other instances. During the same war, Moscow failed to predict Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Moving forward in history, we have intelligence agencies’ inability to predict the Iranian Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid rise of the Islamic State group and its “Islamic caliphate”. Perhaps the 11 September 2001 attacks delivered the greatest shock to the US intelligence community because this was the first attack against the American mainland and, moreover, its economic capital, New York, and its political capital, Washington. In its report on this earth-shattering event, the Congressional investigations commission wrote: “The system was blinking red” long before the attack, but it happened anyway. Similar warnings preceded all the other surprises. There were signs, danger signals and even outright threats, but the system failed to believe them or take appropriate action.
On 25 March, US political scientist Mecah Zenko published in Foreign Policy, “The Coronavirus is the Worst Intelligence Failure in US History” with the subtitle, “It’s more glaring than Pearl Harbour and 9/11—and it’s all the fault of Donald Trump’s leadership.” A month before this, on 28 February, NBC’s intelligence and national security correspondent Ken Dilanian wrote that while the US intelligence community failed to anticipate some big developments, “the spies did forecast something like coronavirus”. He went on to describe how the US intelligence agencies had been warning for years of a virus with pandemic potential, possibly originating in China. In like manner, a headline by Tel Axelrod in The Hill of 20 March read: “Intel reports going back to January warned of coronavirus threat.”
Firstly, it should be stressed that Covid-19 took not just the US but the whole world by surprise and that the US is not alone making inadequate decisions in response. The Chinese response at the outset of the crisis is a case in point. Beijing’s reactions were not sufficiently thought out and the consequence was a large number of infections and many types of paralysis which were eventually overcome through some tough and courageous steps. Italy, Germany, the UK, France, Spain and European states as a whole were no better prepared or armed with knowledge for what lay ahead. India woke up too late to a disaster that was more difficult than ever to contain. The Arab world succumbed to a daze, then snapped to when indigenous cases appeared in every country. The world, as a whole, was not ready to face the other side of globalisation: viruses piggybacking on those unprecedented networks of communications, transport, production, travel and international intermingling. Economy, culture and politics were the focus of interest and concern. Even when it seemed that global warming threatened the planet with extinction, the general impression was that this was more of an imagined peril than a looming reality. Even with previous epidemics, from the plague to Ebola, the general attitude was that they were confined to certain regions and that we now have the international mechanics to contain them and come up with a vaccine.
Secondly, from the literature of “strategic surprises” the lesson to be drawn is twofold: the intelligence and warnings were available but the decision makers either chose to ignore them or grossly underestimated them, resulting in tardy reactions with tragic consequences. The literature frequently alludes to the “noise” that distorts information, removes it from context and diminishes its value. The noise, here, comes from, among other things, a worldwide trend to criticise and rollback globalisation, a focus on major transformations in the name of “identity” and “nationalism” that build walls and cut bridges, a US-Chinese cold war over trade and influence, a rise in populist leaderships and demagoguery. It is not that “health” was missing from the picture. In fact, it was often quite visible in election campaigns in the US and elsewhere. It is just that, more often than not, disease and epidemics were basically a Third World problem.
Thirdly, the virus hit at a time when the world was virtually without a leadership. Beneath the title “The world after coronavirus” in The Financial Times on 20 March, Yuval Noah Harari observes that the world is in a decade in which no one is there to take the decisions necessary to promote and steer vital global cooperation. “A collective paralysis has gripped the international community. There seem to be no adults in the room … In previous global crises — such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic — the US assumed the role of global leader. But the current US administration has abdicated the job of leader. It has made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far more than about the future of humanity… If the void left by the US isn’t filled by other countries, not only will it be much harder to stop the current epidemic, but its legacy will continue to poison international relations for years to come.”
Today, when the discussion turns to other countries to take the helm, the mind automatically turns to China, especially in light of its experience in combating the epidemic, an experience which it has shared with the world, offering aid, knowhow and expertise in the use of the advanced technologies of the fourth scientific revolution. The problem is that the shift from one leader to another in the international community has never happened without a great war or a protracted series of wars and, more importantly, without the willingness of the emergent power to undertake the task.
Last year, Graham Ellison, professor of international relations at Harvard, recalled what he called “Thucydides’ Trap,” named after the ancient Greek historian who authored The History of the Peloponnesian War. Although Sparta started that war and eventually won, according to Thucydides the cause of the war was Athens’ growing power, which invited a war to stop it. To translate this paradigm to our present day, China’s rising power topped by its nomination to lead the world in the time of Covid-19 could be an invitation to a road to hell. On the other hand, perhaps we should not fall into the trap of historical paradigms. After all, the US is not Athens, China is not Sparta and we are not in the Hellenic era but rather the 21st century.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly