China's role in the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has revealed undeniably just how hostile China is to the West, and how dismissive it is even of its supposed allies in the developing world. When will our leaders open their eyes to that fact and act decisively to counter China's ever more obvious attempts to achieve dominance over the West? Pictured: Security personnel stand guard on February 3, 2021 in Wuhan, China outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is suspected of being the source of a lab leak that started the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
The U.S. and the West are experiencing two unfolding intelligence disasters. Oxford Languages succinctly defines the two possible meanings of the word "intelligence:" (1) the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, or (2) the collection of information of military or political value. What we are experiencing today is not chiefly a failure to collect information, but the ever more tangible inability of our leaders to apply the information they have acquired.
The two debacles began to unfold around the turn of the millennium, within twelve months of each other. We are now seeing the fruits of the first failure play out 24/7 before our very eyes: the stunningly rapid fall of Afghanistan despite twenty years of sacrifice and investment. The second, the failure to understand and counter the growing threat posed by China, is set soon to prove itself just as disastrous as the first. In responding to each of these two challenges, our leadership has demonstrated a profound lack of insight and skill: a true failure of intelligence.
The debacle in Afghanistan is a stark and frightening example of a massive intelligence failure of our country's entire governing elite. Over the course of four administrations, two Republican and two Democrat, America's leaders -- in both the executive branch and Congress -- failed to apply their knowledge and skills and develop and implement an Afghan strategy that would keep America safe. They insisted that the jihadist threat would quickly be eliminated, and they refused to see and act upon the growing evidence that our policy in Afghanistan was not working. Now, after more than a trillion dollars of investment and the loss of 7,500 American and allied lives, the Afghan government has collapsed without any meaningful resistance. The Taliban has retaken control of the country. The security threat to the West may prove just as dire, if not even more so, than the danger we faced immediately after 9/11.
Afghanistan, however, is not the only policy challenge that most of America's political elite has long refused to recognize. For twenty years, we have been acting as if engagement with China would eventually solve our China problem. In September 2000, the U.S. Senate approved, by a large bipartisan majority, a bill granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to China. It was signed by President Clinton in October of that year, roughly twelve months before the first of America's armed forces would be entering Afghanistan. Just as the most optimistic among our leaders believed that Afghanistan had the potential to become a fledgling democracy, our leadership insisted that PNTR for China would usher in a new and prosperous era of global trade and that China would embrace the rules-based international trading order. China would become a "stakeholder in the international order" and a trusted trading partner. Increased political freedom would follow economic growth, and a huge new marketplace would be opened to the West.
But now, just as the failure of our wishful thinking has become brutally clear in Afghanistan, it is more and more apparent that our China strategy has failed the test of time. China has not come close to complying with any "rules-based economic order." It has never opened its markets to products or investments from the West, without imposing onerous conditions and unilateral restrictions on anyone who wants to do business there. The ongoing Uyghur genocide, the hostile takeover of Hong Kong, the persecution of Tibetans, Christians, Falun Gong and other religious minorities reveal that China's totalitarian dictatorship has only become more ruthless. China continues to steal intellectual property wherever and whenever it can. It continues to infiltrate our colleges and universities with spies disguised as students and professors, and thereby to gain access to invaluable academic and scientific research. The warning signs have been flashing for years. It has taken willful blindness not to see them.
Now, though, China's role in the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has revealed undeniably just how hostile China is to the West, and how dismissive it is even of its supposed allies in the developing world. Because of inadequate safeguards, a deadly virus leaked from the lab in Wuhan. Instead of notifying the rest of the world about that and working urgently with the international community to contain the virus and perhaps prevent the pandemic, China covered up what had happened and attempted to leverage the pandemic to discredit, destabilize and weaken the West. Apparently, more than four million lives worldwide were a small price to pay for increasing China's power at the expense of the U.S. and its allies. When will our leaders open their eyes to that fact and act decisively to counter China's ever more obvious attempts to achieve dominance over the West?
In the coming days there will be countless debates about our intelligence failure in Afghanistan. There will also be much debate about whether there is an intelligence gap in regard to China. For years, it has been evident for anyone to see that our Afghanistan and China policies were not only ineffective, but that we were courting disaster by our lack of effective response. Our leaders have refused to acknowledge the increasing, and increasingly compelling, signs that our policies toward Afghanistan and China were failing. That is the true intelligence failure. And now we have the results in Afghanistan. Let us hope and pray -- and demand -- that our leaders respond more effectively against the emerging China fiasco. The horrific scenes of the last few days will pale in comparison to what the world will experience if we stand aside and watch while China succeeds in its goal of becoming the world's preeminent superpower.
One major intelligence failure by our leaders every twenty years is already one too many.
Pete Hoekstra is a former Representative in Congress from Michigan. He served as the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. More recently he was U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.