The most obvious way for a politician (or non-politician) to explain his ostensible waffling on support for President Bush’s war on Iraq beginning in 2003 is to say that it was a reasonable idea at the time, but, given the history, he wishes that we hadn’t begun it. This result was not inevitable from the outset, but rather came about because of our insane rules of engagement—in which President Bush tied one had behind our proverbial backs and then President Obama tied the second hand too. Moreover, Obama made the fatal mistake of promising to withdraw and then doing so before the job was finished, erasing gains that we had made after the surge toward the end of Bush’s term.
This seems like a simple and valid reading of history (and is our position). Yet the media never ask the right question. At Wednesday’s “commander-in-chief” forum for the presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton duly said, “I think the decision to go to war in Iraq, and I have said that my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake.”
Perhaps it’s implicit, but she didn’t explain why. Nor do the media ever drill down on this point. The hard left would say that many members of Congress who voted for the war were simply duped by the Administration’s false intelligence. But very few people in either party offer the view that the decision to go to war was a mistake only in light of how it turned out due to conscious decisions once we were at war, and why that is the case—simply circumstance or bad luck, the realization that America simply doesn’t have the will to do what it takes to win a war, or President Obama’s fecklessness? Even putting aside the issue of blame, is our polity not mature enough to understand that it is possible that an action might have been warranted at the time but simply didn’t work out as we had hoped—and that doesn’t mean it was a mistake?
There are different types of mistakes: (1) decisions that were inherently erroneous to begin with, (2) those that were simply calculated risks but didn’t turn out well, and (3) those that might have been right but in which execution failed (and perhaps should have been predicted to fail).
“Mistake” is an odd word; it has acquired an imprecise definition in common usage, though the dictionary definition seems to mirror (1) above. Is buying a lottery ticket a mistake if you don’t win? We would say no. Getting married to your ex-wife? Probably yes. Launching “New Coke”? Hard to say.