The Year in Bad News

By David Ignatius
Friday, December 30, 2005

At year-end, I usually like to offer readers a lighthearted collection of imaginary headlines, but 2005 somehow didn't seem very funny. This past year was in many ways an annus horribilis for America and the world. Political and natural disasters seemed to proliferate, beyond the power of governments or leaders to manage them effectively.

The United States was a prime example of this global failure of governance. If we had a parliamentary system, George Bush's government might well have fallen in 2005. The administration struggled to cope with rising dissent on Iraq, on its response to Hurricane Katrina, even on its signature issue of the war on terrorism. Republicans in Congress, sensing Bush's unpopularity, began running for cover.

Bush seemed to be groping toward the center by autumn, avoiding extremes in his Iraq policy and his nominations for the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve. But some of his choices alienated the right without building any base of trust among moderates. What kept Bush afloat was his basic affability -- that shoulder-shrugging, "Look folks, I'm trying," kind of ordinariness that leads people either to like him or loathe him.

A measure of the Democrats' disarray in 2005 was that if the Bush government had fallen in our hypothetical parliamentary system, it would almost certainly have been replaced by another GOP government, headed by a moderate conservative such as Sen. John McCain. The lack of a coherent Democratic alternative was part of what gave 2005 its grim, no-exit feeling. Not only is the current administration failing to solve problems, it's hard to imagine the other team doing much better.

In Europe, there was a similar sense of political paralysis. A grandiose but empty European constitution was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands and eventually scrapped. The episode symbolized the failure of political leaders to explain coherently what sort of entity the European Union will be, beyond such slogans as "ever deeper, ever wider." As in America, Europe conveyed an image of political leaders failing to cope -- caught between inexorable forces of change and voters who want life to stay the same.

Coping with globalization was a no-brainer for leaders in Russia and China. They opted for authoritarian rule -- leavened with goodies from the international marketplace. It was hard to know what was more depressing: the contempt of Russian and Chinese leaders for democracy, or the willingness of their publics (and the rest of the world's leaders) to play along.

The most frightening symbol of dysfunctional government this year was Iraq. Despite a stirring election in January, the new Iraqi government -- burdened with a hated American occupation and vicious sectarian tension -- failed to thrive. Indeed, over the past year, Iraq seemed to be becoming more of a mafia state, with each party, sect and tribe fighting for its share of what's left of the ruined economy.

At year-end, there was hope that Iraq's feuding politicians had become so exhausted that -- despite another polarizing election in December -- they might cobble together a government of national unity, blessed by Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Sunni Muslim clerics. In practice, this grand coalition might emulate the warlords' council approach in Afghanistan. That would be progress. But for years to come, Iraq is likely to remain a source of instability and terror.

It was a bad year, finally, for the people who are paid to make sense of things -- the unhumble and increasingly unloved scribes in my business. Newspaper circulation was plummeting, network television lost its anchors, literally and figuratively, and new media seemed to be feeding on popular anger at the Mainstream Media and its claims of impartiality.

At the center of some of the year's biggest stories stood the media themselves -- trying to balance codes of professional ethics against demands of citizenship. The New York Times lionized Judith Miller for going to jail to protect her sources from a grand jury investigation, but when her key source turned out to be Vice President Cheney's top aide, the cheering stopped and Miller lost her job. Top editors of the Times and The Post tried to act responsibly by discussing explosive intelligence stories with the White House before publication, and then they were vilified by the left for publishing too little and by the right for publishing anything at all.

Maybe the lesson of 2005 was the same for the media as for the politicians: Hang on tight to your values, and don't be afraid to let that passion animate your work; be careful about making promises you can't or shouldn't keep; and don't try to please everyone, or you may end up pleasing nobody at all.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company