Stone: Bush Needs to Admit Errors
"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." Note the passive voice. President Bush does not admit, "I made mistakes." Rather, others made mistakes, but he (graciously) takes responsibility. This is a far cry from Harry Truman's "The buck stops here." If Bush wants to win back the trust of the American people, he has to begin by being honest with them.
"I have made grievous mistakes, and those mistakes have resulted in a national disaster. I persuaded the Congress and the American people that the United States needed to invade Iraq in order to remove weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong. There were no weapons of mass destruction. I assured the Congress and the American people that the war in Iraq would be easy. I was wrong. More Americans have been killed in Iraq than were killed on 9/11, the war has already cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars, and there is no end in sight. I assured the American people that we had sufficient troop strength in Iraq to quell the insurgency and that the Iraqi government would take responsibility for the safety of the Iraqi people. I was wrong, again, on both counts."
As the polls shows, Americans know all this, but the president cannot bring himself to say it. There is no way he will regain the respect or trust of the American people unless and until he fully and honestly acknowledges his mistakes. The passive voice will not do. It is simply another way for him to evade taking personal responsibility for his errors of judgment.
But the challenge we face as a nation is much greater than our lack of confidence in the president. We must focus now on two critical questions. First, what happens if Iraq collapses completely? Clearly, that will be an unmitigated disaster for the Iraqi people. But what will it mean for the United States? Will it simply be an embarrassing "failure" for the Bush administration and our nation, or will it seriously threaten American security? Will it make the world a significantly more dangerous place? We need a thoughtful answer to that question, because without such an understanding we cannot know how much more we should do to try to stabilize Iraq.
Second, if the collapse of Iraq will, in fact, make the world a much more dangerous place for America, then we must consider what, if anything, we can do to avoid that consequence. Some argue that a gradual troop withdrawal will pressure the Iraqi government to address the crisis. Some argue that a moderate infusion of additional American troops (21,000) is necessary (and sufficient) to stabilize the situation. Some argue that a much larger infusion of additional American troops is necessary to avoid the worst-case scenario.
If the stakes for the United States are not very high, we should begin withdrawing our troops now and be done with it. Although the invasion of Iraq was a grievous mistake (at least as judged with the benefit of hindsight), we should cut our losses, if we can. As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted after the president's speech to the nation last week, we have eliminated a tyrant and given the Iraqi people a chance to create a democracy. It is important to remember that it took Americans seven years of warfare to win our independence from Britain and many more years and an awful Civil War in which 600,000 Americans died before we were able to create a truly stable nation of our own. Ultimately, the Iraqis must take responsibility for themselves.
But if the stakes for the United States are as high as the president and others have warned, and the collapse of Iraq would make the world a much more perilous place for Americans in the future, then we must be clear-eyed and determined about the more painful choices before us. But before we can get to that point, the president must clear the air once and for all and admit candidly that however well-intentioned he might have been, his mistakes--his misjudgments--created this national and international disaster. Only then can we hope to move forward as long as he is in the White House.
Geoffrey R. Stone is a law professor at the University of Chicago and the author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime.