First they raise, then they lower our expectations

March 31, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - A familiar exercise in this town, particularly among politicians, is the expectations game, usually played by candidates who believe it's beneficial to their chances of election to have the public underestimate them.

In the 2000 presidential election, for example, political strategists for Republican nominee George W. Bush were not overly concerned that their man was considered by many in the Democratic opposition as ill-informed on foreign affairs.

Such a perception had been fed during the Republican primaries when candidate Bush was asked by a Boston reporter to identify three rather obscure foreign leaders and flunked the test. Thus, when Mr. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore later engaged in a televised debate on foreign policy, many viewers anticipated that Mr. Gore would be an easy winner.

While Mr. Gore's responses in the debate were detailed and had an authoritative ring, and Mr. Bush's answers often brought audible sighs of condescension from Mr. Gore, polls later indicated that Mr. Bush had done well enough. With expectations low about his ability to stand up to the more experienced vice president in this field, Mr. Bush was widely credited with holding his own, or more so.

A very similar example of playing the low expectations game came in 1960, when youthful Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy debated another vice president experienced in foreign policy, Richard Nixon. Mr. Kennedy surprised viewers with his self-assurance and firm answers in contrast to a patronizing Mr. Nixon, too eager to project himself as agreeable. Polls showed that most who saw the debate on television rated Mr. Kennedy the winner.

What we've seen in the opening days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been the opposite - a high expectations game that has caused the Bush administration some obvious frustration, as witnessed by the efforts of President Bush on down to deny they were playing it.

In the run-up to the invasion, administration reports of a "shock and awe" bombing plan, optimistic suggestions that Saddam Hussein might flee Iraq, and open encouragement to his chief subordinates to defect and Iraqi soldiers to disarm created expectations among many Americans that the war would be short and sweet.

To be sure, the president on occasion tempered such high expectations with caution that the war would be difficult and its length could not be predicted. But the administration, in publicly urging the prospective enemy to bow to vastly superior American power, inevitably sent a public message to the American people that the war might well be a piece of cake.

The high expectations for a quick victory were reinforced by memories of the swiftness of success in the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago, which to many television viewers had seemed akin to a warfare video game. So did Mr. Rumsfeld's declarations that Mr. Hussein was already "history."

As a result, after barely a week of the opening "shock and awe" assault, the pesky press was raising suggestions that such optimistic expectations had been wrong. Mr. Rumsfeld and presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer were peppered with questions about whether the invasion plan was not going as planned.

The inquiries were fueled by a statement quoted in The Washington Post by Army Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the senior ground commander in Iraq, about whether the likelihood had increased of a much longer war than some plans had forecast. "It's beginning to look that way," he replied. General Wallace was also quoted as saying, "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against."

This frank observation suggested that U.S. planners may have been caught unprepared by unexpected toughness, flexibility and brutality of the Iraqi opposition, including paramilitary guerrillas, and unanticipated logistics and other problems. Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Fleischer were quick to downplay General Wallace's comments and, in effect, to claim the administration was being victimized by high expectations not of its own making.

The official word now is nobody ever promised us a rose garden, let alone that the war in Iraq would be a short day at the beach.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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