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February 04, 2007

In Search of a Better Apology

By Ankush

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 it was also true of 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.

(Cross-posted)

February 4, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

In his defense, Edwards's 3/4ths apology is more than were getting from HRC, who seems totally unwilling to say the words "I was wrong", or even the more diffuse "we were wrong".

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Feb 4, 2007 4:12:20 PM

A post about Edwards that isn't entirely positive? Here? Rrrraaawwrrr!!

Er, anyway. I certainly would be happy to see Edwards issues connected to intelligence reform and decision-making processes in more detail. But it's hard for me to see how he (or anybody else, really) has been criticizably unwilling to do so. There's a thousand interesting, useful, and important points to be made about the Iraq situation, and I really can't hold it against anybody that they don't make a particularly narrow subset of them. Similar issues arise with the apology. If he's ever been presented point-blank with the particular questions you're trying to ask, and if he hasn't given a satisfactory answer, that'd be a different thing.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 4, 2007 4:20:21 PM

I don't know if it is realistic to expect a politician to not only apologize but also point out his own cynacism about the democratic process. I've long argued that all the Democrats who voted for this, and continue to support the war, were complicit for political expediency, and yet. And yet, the choice is not between perfect candidate, and imperfect candidate, its between imperfect candidate and imperfect candidate. Below, on your blog you talk about how progressives need to give more when it comes to the professionalization of progressivism because it's a good thing that will help us in the long run. I would argue not expecting candidates to be perfect would be another. If you are going to find any politician today running without some blood on their hands from something- well- good luck with that one. The best I hope for is that they recognize their screw ups, and come to better decisions now and going forward.

Posted by: a | Feb 4, 2007 4:21:34 PM

Nicholas: I think I agree. But saying you were wrong is easy. It's explaining what you were arong about that matters. In its particulars, I'm not sure I see a meaningful difference between Edwards's apology and what Senator Clinton says. Also, while I'm perfectly happy to accept that some politician does a better job at this than another, it doesn't mean anyone has done a sufficient job.

Neil: Did you watch the interview? It's pretty obvious that Russert was asking the right questions. Edwards was evading -- and quite obviously so, I thought. He keeps blaming the intelligence, but he has to know that he's being disingenuous. Even if Russert didn't ask the right questions (again, I think he did), what kind of defense is it to your disingenuousness that no one has been able to pin you down on it?

I should've pointed in my post to Edwards's comments to Ezra, which he wrote about in his anti-war/anti-this-war post. About the lessons of Iraq, he told Ezra, "You shouldn’t assume because there’s a consensus about something that it’s accurate. We need to be very skeptical about information that’s not direct about what’s happening."

Excuse me? What consensus? That's BS. There were dissenters on the intelligence.

Posted by: Ankush | Feb 4, 2007 4:28:16 PM

I haven't watched the interview, but I will.

There was a consensus that Iraq had WMD, at least among Senators. Even Russ Feingold thought that Iraq had WMD in 2002.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 4, 2007 4:43:51 PM

If he's ever been presented point-blank with the particular questions you're trying to ask, and if he hasn't given a satisfactory answer, that'd be a different thing.

Ezra asked him if it would have been OK to invade Iraq if the WMD really had been there. He refused to answer. (I wonder if he's even thought it through.) It's a difficult question to answer for political reasons. If you say it would still have been wrong, then you're admitting that your mistake wasn't just a matter of being mistaken about the intelligence, which raises additional questions about your judgment. It would also be a hard sell for many voters. On the other hand, if you say it would have been right, then you're just a fool.

Ankush, could you say more about the dissenters on the intelligence you're referring to? There were many who said the threat wasn't so great, but there were few who said there were no WMD.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 4, 2007 4:56:51 PM

Sanpete: You should check out what Jackie Shire and Jeffrey Lewis said on this point. Those two are understandably annoyed that, by implication, politicians and pundits are saying they were wrong. Also, you could do a lot worse than (re)reading Michael Massing's essay for the NYRB, "Now They Tell Us."

Posted by: Ankush | Feb 4, 2007 5:29:39 PM

Personally, rather than rehashing Iraq directly, I think we should be asking about Iran. For example:

What extra scepticism, given the Iraq experience, have you brought to the Iran question?

Posted by: Meh | Feb 4, 2007 5:34:18 PM

Also, I have to bang the drum for pinning Edwards down on his attitudes to Russia. Can't solve Iran diplomatically without Russian co-operation, won't get that without at least giving up some of the CFR bromides about Putin that Edwards has signed up to in the past.

Of course, I must concede that all this might be a bit pointless. There doesn't appear to be a plausible Dem Presidential Candidate who is going to step beyond the CFR line on foreign policy. It's just not a vote winner. Given that, it might be wisest to concentrate on other issues.

Posted by: Meh | Feb 4, 2007 5:39:59 PM

Ankush, I have dial-up, so I won't be watching the video. Did they say (A) there were no WMD or (B) if there were any WMD they probably weren't that much of a threat? Massing's piece doesn't focus on that distinction. I've always thought there was more than enough information made available by the mainstream press to conclude that the evidence of an imminent threat was very weak. But I don't blame people for believing the B rather than A, or for generalizing that "everyone" (pretty much) thought there might be some WMD there.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 4, 2007 6:12:07 PM

At least Edwards hasn't claimed that he's a 'straight talker' (yet).

I don't much care if pols triangulate policies to get majority approval, if they are reasonable open about the need for compromise.

I do care if they triangulate their words and positions to hide their inner thinking, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace.

Praticing lawyers are real good with words usually, and extra-special good in obscuring what they are for and against - until they get to the trial and lay out their case to the jury.

For me, Edwards wants it both ways. To be anti-bad-intelligence as a way of being NOT anti-war. I'm not fooled.

Increasingly, I'm thinking I will make my primary election vote depend wholly on the war/peace stance of the candidates (if Oregon has an influence left by that time). Between Hillary, Edwards and Obama, my current gut feel is Obama is likely telling us what he really believes than Edwards, and far more than Hillary.

Why this emphasis? The executive has more control of foreign policy/war issues than any other issue of major interest. Secrecy, 'support for the trooops', etc. get dragged into the equation once things are underway, so getting someone who I can trust is my top priority.

Given my gut feel, Al Gore or Wes Clark come closest to my ideal for a foreign policy maker that won't get us into stupid situations (and maybe Richardson or Feingold).

I thought Edwards was heading in the correct direction weeks ago, but recent actions of his make it clear that I didn't really understand his position, and he'd not made a real attempt to make it clear either. So, no Edwards for me.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 4, 2007 6:18:51 PM

Sanpete: They say "A."

Posted by: Ankush | Feb 4, 2007 6:36:38 PM

Interesting, Ankush. I had heard rumors, but I don't think I've ever actually seen published accounts of experts who were saying flat out before the invasion that there were no WMD in Iraq. There were lots of experts questioning the evidence, and some very well informed who said there was no strong evidence but rather good reason to doubt it (because of inspections), but that's not quite the same as outright denying there were any WMD.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 4, 2007 7:18:15 PM

"Even Russ Feingold thought that Iraq had WMD in 2002.}

Russ Feingold said he thought so, because he could not prove otherwise, and would be calling the President a liar w/o proof. I do not read minds, or always believe every statement.

I analyze the Iraq Authorization very differently than most people, and in a way more relevant to Iran. In October 2002, how many brigades were in theater or on their way?

1) Bush was going to invade Iraq. Period. With a unanimous vote against him Bush would have invaded Iraq. I said so at the time, that Cheney would love the Separation Test, and a test of who the Pentagon answers to.

2) Colin Powell at the UN was the best shot, and most considered his presentation weak at best. Nobody really bought the justifications, but it was very difficult to say so, because:

2) Bush was going to invade Iraq. Now as one nasty partisan mofo, I would have relished a brutal even possibly violent domestic fight at the same time American soldiers and Iraqis were dying in battle, but I can understand Senators and the media making a more measured judgement.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 4, 2007 7:31:04 PM

I'm not an Edwards supporter. I feel there is something not real or true about him. He talks a good game but, is lacking somehow.
I don't dislike the man. I think he means well. I just think he isn't very thoughtful.
I think he reacted like most politicians. He was afraid to be seen as a wimp and did not look too close. Most politicians did this.
I cannot buy the bad information as my senator, Durbin, said he read the reports and they did not add up. They did not make a case for war and he thought the report shown that Saddam was not an immediate threat. This is what most who voted no say.
I think Edwards caved into to pressure and image. He was planning to run for president so, he thought it wouldn't be good for this to vote no.
I'm not putting him down. I'm just going by the way most pols act. Many voted yes for election purposes and fear of looking weak.
I think he was good to say it was wrong. Hillary will not admit to a mistake still. She dances around this.
Edwards owns up to it. That takes more courage than following the crowd and good for him.

Posted by: vwcat | Feb 4, 2007 7:42:59 PM

As far as the more general question of intelligence and judgement goes, that is very hard to answer.

I would set a much lower bar on suspicions that the Taliban/al-Aqeda had a nuke than Saddam, and lower still for Iran, etc. Meaning, since that looks unclear, I would attack the Taliban on less reliable intelligence than I would attack Iran.

Each war looks pretty different to me, and major military come up so seldom, or should, that I am not sure about making "rules"

What level of intelligence and judgement were required for Grenada or Kosove? What level would suffice for the PRC? Clinton bombed an aspirin factory in Africa? I am still not sure.

We need to elect good Presidents, smart & wise. On rare occasions, we succeed. Most times, we survve the bad ones.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 4, 2007 7:51:32 PM

We need to elect good Presidents, smart & wise. On rare occasions, we succeed. Most times, we survve the bad ones.

This seems to be one of those tests of optimism/pessimism. I'd say the average president is ... about average. You know, for a president. And who else would you compare them too?

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 4, 2007 9:10:29 PM

I saw the Meet the Press interview on a rebroadcast. I wasn't impressed by his take on Iraq. Russert pointed out that Edwards was still defending his vote on Iraq in 2004, after it was known that there were no WMD. Edwards explained that he was very busy and only had time to reconsider his vote after the 2004 election. That may be true, but it doesn't inspire confidence. Edwards, like so many others, shifted his view only after the country as a whole had already come to the conclusion he was moving towards. He's been behind the curve all along on this. To be fair, his colleagues in the race aren't so much better, though Obama, who wasn't obligated to vote on Iraq, was far more skeptical than Edwards in 2003.

This is a more controversial point, but Edwards doesn't seem to be really clued in about reality in Iraq even now. He wants to immediately draw down 40 or 50 thousand troops. Russert read to him the part of the new NIE (a nonpolitical summary of our intelligence) on what would happen if troops were suddenly reduced, which is basically that everything would get worse. Edwards responded by explaining the logic of drawing the troops down, implicitly fundamentally contradicting the NIE without bothering to explain how on earth the intelligence community overlooked his view, pushed openly by Murtha and many others for a long time now.

He argues, as Obama does too, that withdrawing troops will force the factions in Iraq to get together and act responsibly. That pie-in-the-sky thinking is just unconnected to reality. The Shiite factions know they have the power to win by force; the reasons for them to be good actors depend as much in our continued occupation, by which we can pressure them, as it does on some sense of responsibility to make Iraq work that would supposedly be sparked by our withdrawal. The NIE is correct. Edwards is wrong.

Edwards says he would consult with the military commanders on the ground about the withdrawal, as though there were commanders in Iraq now who would support it. There aren't commanders in Iraq who think they have more troops than they need. If there were, those troops would be sent to Baghdad. I don't think Edwards has talked to commanders in Iraq about his plan; I don't think he has talked to the intelligence community about why the NIE says what it does; and I don't think he should be pushing his "plan" without having done either.

Again, Edwards may not be any worse than the others on Iraq. Biden does show that he's aware of the problems in a way the others show no evidence of, but what I've heard about his plan doesn't impress me either. I don't see any major candidate who impresses on this key issue.

Edwards does strike me as sincere and good, and I like his domestic policy proposals. And it isn't unusual that when someone actually becomes Commander in Chief he changes his views on military matters, as reality sets in.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 5, 2007 6:09:25 AM

I think people here are missing the point.

Members of Congress and their staffs were thrown into closed door sessions and given extra-special "classified" "intelligence." It sucked, but the atmospherics were apparently quite well done.

Did I, in arguing with the recipients of this intel, ever get the indirect sense it amounted to anything?

Not really, but you have senior military, Rice, Wolfowitz, etc... spinning like mad in a patriotic, bipartisan manner that was orchestrated brilliantly... and was not discernable to those with the benefit of having been in the blogosphere and not marks in Congress.

So, Edwards answer is probably really true -- he should have known, as a trial lawyer, he was being sold, but he didn't. But he was being sold much better than the broader public....

Posted by: Jeff Hauser | Feb 5, 2007 7:56:36 AM

But he was being sold much better than the broader public.

It was almost entirely the same evidence involved, just in more detail in some instances. And even if you accepted the evidence, it hardly followed we should invade. Part of the problem is that Edwards still hasn't acknowledged that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 5, 2007 12:45:25 PM

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Posted by: judy | Sep 26, 2007 11:04:17 PM

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