`Victory disease' blinds Americans to possibility of trouble

September 14, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Americans have always been an optimistic people, with a confidence in our ability to meet any challenge and a sense that we enjoy God's special favor.

That's been a great asset in creating a nation, settling a wild continent, building a boundlessly productive economy and becoming the most powerful country on Earth. It has made possible achievements greater than anything our ancestors could have dreamed a couple of centuries ago.

But it can also be a drawback, as we have learned from the occupation of Iraq and the destruction of New Orleans. Throughout our history, Americans have been brave, resourceful and ingenious, but we have also been lucky. Consequently, we tend to take good fortune as the norm and trust that we will always have it.

We anticipate success, which sometimes blinds us to the possibility of failure. We prefer optimism, which may cause us to discount pessimism, no matter how well-founded it may be.

These tendencies help to explain how we ended up effectively taking over a radically alien country that we knew little about and were not prepared to occupy, much less govern. The Bush administration expected a brief, victorious war and a speedy departure: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the conflict in Iraq "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." The vice president promised that we would "be greeted as liberators."

Those expectations proved to be grossly mistaken. But it wasn't just the administration that failed to foresee what was coming; outside analysts and the American people also failed to heed the warning signs. How could so many have been so wrong?

"We had the `victory disease,'" says John Mearsheimer, a foreign-policy scholar at the University of Chicago. In 1990, the nation approached the first war in Iraq with great trepidation, because the most recent major U.S. war, in Vietnam, had ended in humiliation and failure. But this time, we were riding high on a series of triumphs - over Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war, the Soviet Union in the Cold War, Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The last three victories were especially seductive because they came so quickly and at such a low cost in casualties. Not only that, but we enjoyed unchallenged global military supremacy, giving us the idea we could accomplish anything we chose to do.

As Mr. Mearsheimer puts it, Americans began "to think we have the Midas touch." The Bush administration didn't plan for a lengthy and difficult counter-insurgency campaign because it couldn't envision anything but a happy outcome.

That same impulse to see the desirable as the inevitable brought us to grief in New Orleans. It was no secret to anyone who was paying attention that the city was terrifyingly vulnerable to the powerful hurricanes that rise up every summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

It sat below sea level, it had lost many of the barrier islands and coastal marshes that once served as a shield, and its levees were too short to protect against the worst storms. It was like a pickup truck stalled on a railroad track, and the only question was when a speeding train would come along to smash it.

Still, people never behaved as though a full-scale natural disaster was certain to come sooner or later. Why not? Because New Orleans had dodged so many bullets that it seemed it would always find a way to escape. At least a dozen major storms have come within 85 miles of the city over the last 120 years, and yet it survived.

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy caused serious flooding and killed 58 people in Louisiana. Four years later, Camille, a Category 5 storm, hit less than 70 miles east of the city. In 1998, some 60 percent of its residents evacuated as Hurricane Georges approached, but it too veered into Mississippi.

Luck, it has been said, is the residue of design. But too much good luck can sap the motivation for good design. It was easier, and much cheaper, to assume that New Orleans would go on living a charmed life than to take action to avert the worst scenarios.

In New Orleans, as in Iraq, it's clear we should have spent more time pondering the possibility that things could go wrong. Optimism is an asset, but sometimes, pessimism can be a better one.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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