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In Search of a Better Apology

I'd like to see a presidential candidate grapple with the questions that should be raised about why so many politicians were so wrong about the Iraq war when it was far from inevitable.
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I expect that a great many people reading this blog watched John Edwards's appearance on Meet the Press this morning with some interest. For the record, I like Edwards quite a bit, but I have to say that I continue to be seriously annoyed by the way he constructs his apologies for supporting the use of force resolution for Iraq.

As he did in his much-ballyhooed op-ed in the Post in November 2005, Edwards continues to blame flawed intelligence for his decision to back the Bush administration. When asked by Russert why he was wrong about the war, Edwards responded that "the intelligence information we got was wrong, tragically wrong." He also noted that he spoke with former Clinton officials, as if that exhausted the universe of knowledgeable foreign policy thinkers.

But since we're talking these days about lessons to learn from Iraq, it seems helpful to point out another one that Edwards apparently has yet to process -- that he, like most politicians during the run-up to the war, was very bad at assessing intelligence when the political winds were pushing him in a particular direction.

I won't bother attempting to rehash all the deficiencies in the case for war that were known at the time, but suffice it to say that Russert did a fairly good job of hitting on a couple of the major ones, and that you can also watch Jackie Shire and Jeffrey Lewis talk a bit more about the flatly erroneous suggestion that everyone was wrong about WMD in Iraq. The intelligence, to be sure, was flawed, but it wasn't so pervasively flawed as to prevent people from reaching the correct conclusions. This was certainly true of what we now know about the classified intelligence, but I also think it's true about the intelligence that was being discussed publicly.

Today, I'd like to see a presidential candidate grapple with the questions that should be raised about why so many politicians -- including, if you supported the war on the basis of WMDs, you -- were so wrong when it was far from inevitable. What do you plan to do about promoting and reconciling dissent within the intelligence agencies? How should a President seek out conflicting viewpoints and process the contradictions? What should be the default presumptions when, as is often the case, you have very little intelligence to work off of? Are you concerned that Washington is dominated by a fairly homogeneous, vaguely hawkish group of foreign policy types, many of whom aren't particularly good at what they do? In essence, why were you wrong in interpreting the evidence about Iraq and what do you plan to do in order not to be wrong the next time?

Edwards's claims that the intelligence was irretrievably tainted and that everyone was wrong about the wisdom of war -- claims which, to be fair, are frequently made by many, many other politicians and pundits -- are so demonstrably false as to be borderline offensive. I appreciate his sincerity about his regret over the tragic costs of this war, but, so far as evaluating one's participation in bringing this disaster about, expressing such regret is quite literally the least you can do.

It should be obvious why this matters. I thought Ezra made a very thoughtful contribution this week to the discussion about what lessons Democrats should learn about Iraq, but Kevin Drum is absolutely right when he notes, "Arguing that it's not possible to impose democracy on Middle Eastern countries is sort of like fighting the last war. It doesn't even matter whether it's true or not. It's damaged goods, and no one in the foreseeable future is going to use this as an excuse for military action."

By contrast, regardless of what assortment of conditions one thinks need to be met in order to wage a war, it will always matter whether you can competently assess whether those conditions have, in fact, been met. So yes, I certainly want to know when politicians think the country should go to war, but I also want to know why I should trust their judgment when they argue, even sincerely, that a legitimate cause for war actually exists. Edwards's apology is carefully (and annoyingly) constructed to avoid such questions.

For what it's worth, I have no idea who I want to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in '08. I also don't mean to suggest that Edwards is alone in failing to address these questions. That's hardly the case. But his half-apology -- for which he gets more credit than I think he deserves -- has gotten to be grating.

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