Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A self-fulfilling prophecy-as defined by Robert K. Merton, 20th Century sociologist who coined the phrase-is that a prediction, in being made, actually causes itself to become true. There are a couple of vivid examples in the works right now.

In the nearly five years since 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City, up to the alleged recently thwarted plot to destroy twelve commerical airliners in mid-flight between Great Britain and the United States, President Bush has been working furiously to bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy with his war on terror.

“War on Terror.” The phrase is meaningless. What is terror? An emotion. You can’t go to war against an emotion. But it’s being used and promoted by the administration for its fear-producing effect and by the mainstream media as a rating or readership enhancer.

When the al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks took place, instead of coordinating a massive international police action to apprehend Osama bin Laden, the brains of the operation, the United States decided to wipe out an independent country, Afghanistan. The justification was that Bin Laden had been given sanctuary there and was using the place for a terrorist training ground. Bush made it perfectly clear. He wanted Bin Laden “dead or alive” like a good Western lawman should. After some shock and awe bombing, the US Army’s Special Forces hit the ground running, but flubbed an attempt to capture Bin Laden in his mountain stronghold at Tora Bora.

The Taliban, once courted by American oil companies and US government officials for concessions in the building of an oil pipeline across their country, was now demonized and driven out of power. The US has been carrying on a military operation against the Taliban’s guerrilla force ever since and Afghanistan continues to be a terrorist producing machine.

The failures in Afghanistan did not deter George Bush’s war on terror. He simply moved on to Iraq where he and his neo-con toadies, hiding under a rock in the Pentagon, always wanted to be. The self-fulfilling prophecy was picking up steam. Regime change was achieved in short order. Saddam Hussein was history within the first few weeks after the US Air Force’s shock and awe bombing of Bagdad. But three and a half years later, the US military is still spinning its wheels in Iraq, bogged down in a quagmire, an occupation, an insurgency and a civil war all brewing at the same time. With more than 2,600 American servicemen dead, 20,000 wounded and $307 billion dollars (and counting) of American taxpayer treasure down the drain, Iraq is now a bigger and better terrorist producing operation than Afghanistan ever was. Isn’t that punishing yourself? Isn’t the war on terror creating Bush’s very own self-fullfilling prophecy?

Two down, another to go. Lebanon. Bush wanted Hezbollah destroyed as much as Israel did. It was simple. Delay a cease fire in the UN and let Israel do the job. First stage in our thrust against Iran. So was Bush using Israel, or was Israel, the tail, wagging the dog? Israel and the United States have a “special relationship”, an oft repeated truism. But do they always have the same national interests?

Yes, Iran has been sending rockets and missiles to Hezbollah for its war against Israel. It’s been deplored around the block. The United States has been sending Black Hawk helicopters and bunker-busting bombs to Israel for its war against Hezbollah. I haven’t heard a word whispered about it. Is there a double standard here?

Israel’s great fear-it will be pushed into the sea. It’s a great fear, and it’s understandable. It’s been there since 1948, since the Israeli-Palestinian question has failed to be resolved.

I’m old enough to remember the great upsurge of feeling when the United Nations established the State of Israel in 1948. A people torn from the Holocaust, returning to an ancestral land. It was inspiring. It might have been a good idea once, a Zionist movement led mostly by Ashkenazi Jews from Northern and Central Europe. They brought with them a great deal of knowledge and a great deal of know-how. They promised to, and they did, make the desert bloom, and Jews, everywhere, rejoiced at the bounty they would bring to the region. But then, what happened? Did they extend the hand of friendship to their Arab neighbors? Was it spurned? Could they create an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and trust between the two strains of Semitic peoples? Apparently not. The country was born in violence, with the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians, and the Israelis have had to defend themselves ever since. They’ve built a mighty military force (which we’ve just seen in action). Could they eleminate the Hezbollah with this enormous power? Apparently not.

Are people in such denial that they learn nothing from history, or even from events of the recent past. Look at Iraq. Look at Vietnam. Look at Algeria. Look at Tito of Yugoslavia or France under Nazi occupation during World War II. As the Vietcong used to say, “we live among the people like fish in water.”

So is Israel, too, working mightily to achieve the thing it dreads the most, a “self-fulfilling prophecy?”

STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, television writer-director-producer, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC, starting in 1953. In 1959, he participated in the formation of the renowned Murrow-Friendly “CBS Reports” series. In 1983, Fleischman won the prestigious Columbia University-Dupont Television Journalism Award. In 2004, he wrote his memoir. See:, E-mail:



STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See, e-mail