Growth of national pessimism


For two centuries we Americans have believed we could solve just about any problem. With our belief in our values, our natural resources and our sheer energy and determination to succeed, we have felt unstoppable.

That remarkable can-do spirit is under grave assault.

The dreary war in Iraq is just one obstacle that is undermining our national optimism. The $18 billion we have spent to try to rebuild Iraq as we promised, has disappeared into a sinkhole. Much of the money was spent on security, even as the country is increasingly more convulsed in chaos. Large sums disappeared into corrupt hands. We cannot provide adequate sewage, water or electricity, so we are sending more soldiers at a cost of billions more dollars. Dire predictions that Iraq could cost U.S. taxpayers $1 trillion dollars no longer seem outlandish.

The disastrous Hurricane Katrina shocked everyone around the world not just because it sank a beautiful old city and impoverished thousands of Americans, but also because the nation fumbled its response so badly. Now we have new reports saying that money has been misspent, victims are still housed in trailers, and the lesson the Federal Emergency Management Administration has learned is that next time (and there will be a next time) it will give families $500 instead of $2,000 to make a clean start.

The nation’s most expensive public works project _ Boston’s Big Dig _ has become a deadly embarrassment. In a nation renowned for building the Panama Canal, a tunnel collapse in a major city has focused attention on whether the bolts designed to hold up giant concrete slabs were adequate.

When the tsunami hit Indonesia in December 2004, killing 170,000 people and making thousands more homeless, the people of the world opened up their hearts and wallets and gave billions of dollars. Now there is yet another report saying the international aid effort, prodded by United States, has largely failed. Only $1.5 billion has been spent of the $8.5 billion that has been pledged, and much of the housing that has been built has been shoddy. Some has even been torn down.

As the world’s only current superpower, the United States was expected to lead the efforts to stop the killing in the Middle East. The rest of the world is shocked that the Bush administration is not calling for a ceasefire, saying it would be meaningless without totally disarming Hezbollah. The United States is supplying its ally Israel with weapons while denouncing Iran and Syria for supplying Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying unsuccessfully to be an objective arbiter.

New polling indicates only 30 percent of Americans say they think the leaders of other countries respect President Bush. Ten percent say the war in Iraq has made diplomatic efforts in the rest of the Middle East easier, while only 27 percent believe that staying in Iraq will make this country safer from terrorism. Americans have long supported Israel, but now the country is split; 39 percent want the government to continue its public support for Israel, but 40 percent want the U.S. government to say or do nothing to help Israel. And 61 percent of Americans surveyed said they believe the current crisis in Lebanon will lead to a larger war in the Middle East.

Bush answers that his goal is democracy for everyone, and that it is wrong to say that people in the Middle East are not ready for it or do not want it. Everyone wants to be free, he argues.

But nobody is free where bombs are exploding, missiles are flying, schools and businesses are shuttered, people are dying and fear is palpable. That’s the situation in Baghdad and Beirut and Haifa and too many other cities and villages.

No wonder Americans are again becoming isolationist. No wonder they fear this president has proven himself adept at worsening old hatreds while he tried to spread democracy through preemptive use of force, ridiculing international coalitions and relying on unilateral U.S. military action.

The only way the current war in the Middle East will end with a viable stability is with an international force to stop the fighting that involves soldiers from many countries, including Russia, China, Europe, other Arab nations, Great Britain and the United States. Hezbollah, which has embedded itself in parasitical fashion in Lebanon in an effort to annihilate Israel, and Israel, which attacks with malicious venom whenever it feels threatened, cannot be left to resolve this war themselves.

Badly weakened at home and abroad, bouncing helplessly from one crisis to another, Bush may not be able to muster the American can-do spirit and coalition-building the world needs right now. But he should stop mouthing platitudes and try. National pessimism is a dangerous toxin.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)