Un-an-tici-pat-ed: adj. Lacking Foresight in Hindsight

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

We admit it: We did not anticipate that not anticipating stuff would become such a great rhetorical device and all-purpose explanation for Why Stuff Went Wrong.

Yesterday, for example, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told a Senate panel that conditions in Iraq were improving, except where they weren't. "Developments which are on the whole positive can still have unanticipated . . . consequences," Crocker said.

Crocker, in other words, seemed to be anticipating more difficulty in Iraq, which seems prudent in light of things the Bush administration didn't anticipate about the war. The shortlist includes its cost and duration, the rise of the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias, the displacement of millions of Iraqis, the ethnic strife and the inability of the Iraqi government to reconcile sectarian differences.

But it's not just the war. "We didn't anticipate . . ." has become a surefire, one-size-fits-all formulation for anyone stuck with trying to make bad news seem better. It's the go-to phrase for politicians, generals, economists, business executives, doctors, coaches and others stuck in jams ranging from the mortgage market meltdown to an early (i.e., unanticipated) exit from the NCAA basketball tournament.

"Nobody expected . . . the [municipal bond] market would go into a tailspin," said D.C. Treasurer Lasana K. Mack the other day, explaining why the city is paying steep increases on its debts in the wake of the credit market crunch.

After a Final Four loss last week, UCLA guard Darren Collison said his team hadn't anticipated that opponent Memphis would make so many shots, as if it were a surprise that a team with a 38-1 record at the time could shoot so well.

Sen. Barack Obama clearly failed to anticipate that fiery sermons by his preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., would become a campaign issue. Similarly, Sen. Hillary Clinton didn't foresee that her embellished tale of landing under sniper fire in Tuzla, Bosnia, in 1996 would become controversial.

Could have, would have, should have.

Given the law of unintended consequences and the nature of hindsight, it's often unfair to expect anyone to anticipate all the contingencies. As such, the phrase "I didn't anticipate" "strikes me as a fairly straightforward way of admitting one's lack of omniscience," says linguist Wayne Glowka.

"One's supporters would find the phrase honest and open -- perhaps too honest and open," he says. "One's detractors would perhaps be horrified because they expect to hear rank and frank admissions of guilt, utter stupidity, evil intentions and whatnot: 'mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.' "

While he was press secretary for President Bush, Tony Snow was constantly fending off media questions that implied that officials should have anticipated the unforeseen, he says. "Everyone plays that game," Snow says. "It's always taken as a sign of your incompetence, cupidity or callousness if you didn't anticipate a million different reactions."

Snow says he tried to avoid we-didn't-anticipate responses to questions about the administration's policies because "it probably sounds defensive." Instead, he says, he tried to explain the context in which decisions were made -- what the facts, goals and priorities were at the time -- and let others engage in "retroactive perfectionism."

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