America's penchant for instant gratification
PITTSBURGH — Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best 150 years ago when he excoriated "this shallow Americanism, with its passion for sudden success." And Americans' appetite for immediate gratification has only accelerated since then, to the point where today they gorge on fast food, sound bites, and one-liners. They breathe, move, think, and take in everything amid a culture of fast and faster.
Which brings us to the morass the US faces in Iraq. Many Americans are asking how an apparently decisive, quick military victory over Iraq could have turned just as rapidly into such violence and chaos. Those sound bites they crave told them back in March this wouldn't happen.
Frontline troops in the invasion were led to believe they'd come home as soon as Baghdad was liberated, and the Department of Defense predicted that US troop strength in Iraq would decline to 30,000 by the end of summer. Vice President Dick Cheney painted a rosy picture of Iraqi oil production financing reconstruction by year's end. Defense department officials believed that stability and democracy would be achieved in fairly short order.
How could the Bush administration have been so wrong?
Because it got caught up in the same culture that celebrates the speedy victories and simplistic happy endings of Hollywood action movies. Poor planning and hubris are clearly among the reasons, too, as is the administration's refusal to accept contrary advice. The CIA's warning that a quick military victory would be followed by guerrilla war was ignored. The State Department's Future of Iraq Project, which predicted much of the postwar chaos, was bypassed. Top Army officials' estimate that hundreds of thousands of US troops would be needed to occupy Iraq was discounted.
But obviously Emerson's mid-19th-century insight tapped deeply into the American culture and character that contributed to this mess. Yes, Americans like quick victories, immediate results. They measure success and failure by short-term consequences. Their leaders and public expect instant solutions to problems. They ignore the long-term consequences of their actions and decisions.
This administration's passion for sudden success runs deeper than the war against Iraq. The UN inspectors' painstaking and, hence, time-consuming effort at containing and dismantling Iraqi weaponry was belittled. Tax cuts promise instant cash and lasting deficits. The administration relies on the military option because it holds out the illusion of fast in-and-out results. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US achieved rapid military victories, only to get bogged down in the long-term effort of creating a stable, democratic society.
The domestic response to Sept. 11 also focused on immediate, albeit illusory, results. Thousands of aliens were rounded up and thrown into harsh detention, yet virtually none were ultimately determined to be terrorists. The Patriot Act was rushed through Congress with little thought about far-reaching effects on civil liberties.
Now that the lightning-quick military victory of spring has turned into a quagmire, the administration has called on Americans to dig in for the long haul, and emphasizes patience and perseverance. But the time for considering the long-term consequences ought to be before a decision to go to war is made. Lasting success requires recognizing mistakes, not blindly persisting in them.
A long-term approach to terrorism and dictatorship would emphasize multilateral action and diplomacy, the very tools the administration disparaged in Iraq. That approach has worked in the past where quick military action hasn't. The Reagan administration'sbombing of Libya in 1986 may have madeAmericans feel good, but it may have been the reason Libya planted a bomb on a Pan Am jet that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1989. After that, the US took a different, nonmilitary approach, getting the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Libya. It took more than a decade, but Libya eventually turned the two agents believed responsible for the bombing over for trial, and agreed to pay compensation.
Americans must move beyond immediate gratification and the search for instant victory or defeat. The US military victory over Iraq will not be a success if, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak predicted, "it spawns a hundred more bin Ladens." The US might do well to heed the advice a Viennese newspaper gave more than 125 years ago to the Prussians, who'd just as easily triumphed over France: "Victory is a poor adviser, and nations tend to slip on the blood they have shed."
• Jules Lobel is a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of the just-published book, 'Success Without Victory.'