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."

But there are other reasons that government officials, businesspeople and the like might want to avoid the we-didn't-anticipate construction: It's a buck-passing maneuver and a tacit admission of failure, says Grant Barrett, the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang.

"It really means that you didn't have foresight, that you didn't plan well, that you were ignorant before and that you're confessing that you're not ignorant now," Barrett says. "You're basically providing your opponents with the wedge in which they'll place their hammer and chisel to chip away at your credibility. You might as well draw up your letter of resignation."

Often, Barrett says, we-didn't-anticipate can give the perception that you just ignored someone else's anticipation.

Many people, for example, had long anticipated the failure of the New Orleans levees despite President Bush's assertion to the contrary in an ABC interview in September 2005.

Some economists, such as William Nordhaus of Yale and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, predicted that rebuilding Iraq would be far more costly than Washington experts anticipated, including former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Others, including financial reporters and columnists, warned about the housing bubble long before Washington policymakers owned up to it.

And despite Vice President Cheney's assertion in June 2006 that no one "anticipated the level of violence that we've encountered" in Iraq, the record says otherwise. A number of defense and Middle East experts say administration officials ignored their warnings during the run-up to the war.

So the next time a twist of fate or failure goes unforeseen, you can bet that an official somewhere will trot out this catch-all phrase to evade blame or minimize damage. That we can anticipate.

Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this article.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company