The Right Way to Right Wrongs

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Can a freely elected government ever admit that it has blundered? And would it do any good?

A majority of Americans has believed for months now that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Unless I miss my guess, a smaller, more vocal percentage believes it was much worse than a mistake — it was a huge strategic blunder that will take months if not years to unwind, that diverted the military's attention from finding Osama and stabilizing Afghanistan, that cost thousands of lives and eventually half a trillion dollars. Rather than creating an island of stability and freedom in the Middle East, the U.S. so far seems to have created islands of a different kind.

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But would it help to admit publicly that this has all been a mistake? Anthony Lake, President Clinton's first national security adviser, isn't sure. "To the degree a democracy is present, anything you say can, and will, be held against you by political opponents. If you admit a mistake now, it's like putting a cut finger in a shark tank." Therefore, says Lake, who now teaches at Georgetown University, "it is extremely important, whatever a government might say in public, that it can see the situation clearly in private."

Has that now happened in the Bush White House?

In public, President Bush repeats one mantra: the world is "better off" without Saddam in power. But if you read between the lines, it appears that at least some on the Bush team know their current approach in Iraq is not sustainable. Bush mentioned the word "flexible" or "flexibility" several times during Wednesday's press conference and he hinted that he would consider a change in strategy if his generals proposed one. Meanwhile, General George Casey spoke at a Pentagon press conference about the pros and cons of adding more troops to stabilize Baghdad — something the Bush team has resisted for months. And the President seemed to lean rhetorically on the coming recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, who are in their own hunt for a new strategy.

I don't think it's a coincidence that all this is happening with an election less than a month away. Nor is any of it an admission of error. But, depending on where it leads, it might be something more important — the beginning of wisdom.