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January 8, 2004

taking responsibility

In yesterday's Washington Post, Barton Gellman shows pretty effectively that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction after the early 1990s--but also that it was possible for American leaders to make an honest mistake about this. Saddam's history of using poison gas and his continued trickery made him look pretty guilty. I think, indeed, that he was deliberately bluffing.

So wouldn't it be refreshing and disarming (no pun intended) if the President said the following? "We have captured a wicked dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and waged war on his neighbors. We are now doing our level best to build a democratic state in the middle of an extremely important region. We told you that the reason for the war was fear of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Like President Clinton and many foreign leaders, we were genuinely convinced that Iraq had live chemical and biological weapons and an advanced nuclear program. We were wrong, and we take responsibility for our error. You may hold us accountable for this failure of analysis. But we made an understandable mistake which may lead to a tremendous amount of good."

George W. Bush is not the kind of guy who ever says things like this, and he would be a better leader if he did. However, it's also pretty obvious that the press, Democrats, and foreign leaders would jump all over him if he retracted his original reason for the war. We have a political culture that simply does not tolerate changes of mind, and that does not serve us well in times of deep uncertainty.

January 8, 2004 3:21 PM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


I dunno. An honest 'oops' would be refreshing...

January 8, 2004 9:33 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Taran

The evidence suggests less that there was an "honest error" about the reasons given for war ("WMDs" and links to terrorists/Al Quaeda) than that there was a willful decision made to refuse to let facts (or at least questions of factuality) get in the way of a predetermined preferred course of action. Key Bush officials have long lobbied to have Saddam removed by force and used the opportunity offered by their rise to power despite this detracting from the stated goal of fighting the "War on Terror."

At this point, were Bush to try to say "oops," the Democrats would no doubt go after him with all the outrage they could muster. And equally sure, their outcry would be timid in comparison to the deserved response.

I think there's a lot more to it than just a general political culture that does not tolerate changes of mind. Bush (among others) would certainly be a better leader were he able to admit his mistakes. Our political culture may not be good at allowing people to admit honest mistakes, but it certainly won't help us to allow them to admit away their dishonest ones.

January 14, 2004 5:24 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Frederick Emrich

You guys are right. I bent over a little too far backwards in treating the Bush administration with "civility"--meaning (in this case) a desire to take them at their word and not to attribute hidden motives. Thomas Powers' article, "The Vanishing Case for War" (New York Review, Dec. 4) supports Frederick Emrich's comment. Saddam's behavior was mysterious and troubling, but the Bush people showed a willful disregard for evidence in concluding that Iraq had wmd's.

January 15, 2004 12:26 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Peter Levine

Peter, you'd make a far, far better statesman than Bush ever will.

FYI, here's a link to a Guardian story about a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report that claims administration officials "systematically misrepresented" Iraqi possession of WMDs:


It's linked at Jack Balkin's post on the WP story:


January 15, 2004 3:32 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Frederick Emrich

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