The Big Idea

The Four Unspeakable Truths

What politicians won’t admit about Iraq.

Sen. Hillary Clinton

When it comes to Iraq, there are two kinds of presidential candidates. The disciplined ones, like Hillary Clinton, carefully avoid acknowledging reality. The more candid, like John McCain and Barack Obama, sometimes blurt out the truth, but quickly apologize.

For many presidential aspirants, the first unspeakable truth is simply that the war was a mistake. This issue came to a head recently with Hillary Clinton’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge that voting to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq was the wrong thing to do. Though fellow Democrats John Edwards and Christopher Dodd have managed to say they erred in voting for the 2002 war resolution, Clinton is joined by Joe Biden and a full roster of Republicans in her inability to disgorge the M-word. Perhaps most absurdly, Chuck Hagel has called Bush’s 21,500-troop “surge” the biggest blunder since Vietnam without ever saying that the war itself was the big blunder and that he favored it.

Reasons for refusing to admit that the war itself was a mistake are surprisingly similar across party lines. It is seldom easy to admit you were wrong—so let me repeat what I first acknowledged in Slatein January 2004, that I am sorry to have given even qualified support to the war. But what is awkward for columnists is nearly impossible for self-justifying politicians, who resist acknowledging error at a glandular level. Specific political calculations help to explain their individual decisions. Hillary, for instance, worries that confessing her failure will make it easier for hawks to savage her if she gets the nomination. But at bottom, the impulse is always the same. Politicians are stubborn, afraid of looking weak, and fearful that any admission of error will be cast as flip-flopping and inconsistency.

A second truth universally unacknowledged is that American soldiers being killed, grotesquely maimed, and then treated like whining freeloaders at Walter Reed Hospital are victims as much as “heroes.” John Kerry was the first to violate this taboo when he was still a potential candidate last year. Kerry appeared to tell a group of California college students that it sucks to go and fight in Iraq. A variety of conservative goons instantly denounced Kerry for disrespecting the troops. An advanced sufferer of Senatorial Infallibility Syndrome, Kerry resisted retracting his comment for a while, but eventually regretted what he called a “botched joke” about President Bush. 

Lost in the debate about whether Kerry meant what came out of his mouth was the fact that what he said was largely true. Americans who attend college and have good employment options after graduation are unlikely to sign up for free tours of the Sunni Triangle. People join the military for a variety of reasons, of course, but since the Iraq war turned ugly, the all-volunteer Army has been lowering educational standards, raising enlistment bonuses, and looking past criminal records. The lack of better choices is a larger and larger factor in the choice of military service. Our troops in Iraq may not see themselves as cannon fodder or victims of presidential misjudgments, but that doesn’t mean they’re not.

Reality No. 3, closely related to No. 2 and following directly from No. 1, is that the American lives lost in Iraq have been lives wasted. Barack Obama crossed this boundary on his first trip to Iowa as an announced candidate when he declared at a rally, “We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged and to which we have now spent $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted.”With lightning speed, Obama said he had misspoken and apologized to military families.

John McCain used the same proscribed term when he announced his candidacy on The Late Show With David Letterman last week. * “We’ve wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives.” This was a strange admission, given McCain’s advocacy of a surge bigger than Bush’s. In any case, McCain followed Obama by promptly regretting his choice of words. (The patriotically correct term for losing parts of your body in a pointless war in Mesopotamia is, of course, “sacrifice.”) These episodes all followed Kinsley’s law of gaffes. The mistake Kerry, Obama, and McCain made was telling the truth before retreating to the approved banality and euphemism

A fourth and final near-certainty, which is in some ways the hardest for politicians to admit, is that America is losing or has already lost the Iraq war. The United States is the strongest nation in the history of the world and does not think of itself as coming in second in two-way contests. When it does so, it is slow to accept that it has been beaten. American political and military leaders were reluctant to acknowledge or utter that they had miscalculated and wasted tens of thousands of lives in Vietnam, many of them after failure and withdrawal were assured. Even today, American politicians tend not to describe Vietnam as a straightforward defeat. Something similar is happening in Iraq, where the most that leaders typically say is that we “risk” losing and must not do so.

Democrats avoid the truth about the tragedy in Iraq for fear of being labeled unpatriotic or unsupportive of the troops. Republicans avoid it for fear of being blamed for the disaster or losing defense and patriotism as cards to play against Democrats. Politicians on both sides believe that acknowledging the unpleasant truth will weaken them and undermine those still attempting to persevere on our behalf. But nations and individuals do not grow weaker by confronting the truth. They grow weaker by avoiding it and coming to believe their own evasions.

Correction, March 8, 2007: Due to a copyediting error, David Letterman’s show was originally misidentified as Late Night With David Letterman. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)