September 23, 2008

The Politics of Never Saying Sorry

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I was surprised to learn this week from a radio interview that Senator McCain is ambivalent on whether or not he would meet with the Prime Minister of Spain (, who only promised to meet with leaders who share our “same principles and philosophy,” qualifying that with his statement that he has a “clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us.”

Now there are several reasons that McCain may have acted as though Spain is not in the Western Hemisphere, is not a key NATO ally with a strong democratic system and is not an important troop contributor in Afghanistan. One is that he had no idea who Jose Zapatero is, or was confused by the question. The other more terrifying possibility is he doesn’t know the location of Spain or its style of government. Now considering McCain’s long career in the Senate I hope it is the former rather than the later, or that he really slept through those policy briefings. For the purposes of this post then, let us assume that the explanation lies in the former, that he didn’t understand the interviewer’s accented English or doesn’t know who Zapatero is.

For Senator McCain, who never ceases to remind the American electorate of his extensive foreign policy and defense experience, such a mistake as not knowing the name of major ally would certainly be embarrassing. Not understanding the interviewer’s questions would also be embarrassing, even if unrelated to his resume for the presidency. But in either case, the McCain campaign has relied (here and at other times) on a strategy that the Bush administration often embraced over the past seven years–never saying you’re sorry.

In my humble opinion, not admitting or apologizing for mistakes is not only a sign of a lack of leadership, but also a recipe for disaster. I don’t know about you, but some of the most important lessons I’ve learned came from making embarrassing of awkward mistakes. Mistakes provide opportunities for reflection and improvement and are not inherently a sign of weakness. What weakness is, and stupidity is as well, is the captain calling out that the fundamentals of the hull are strong as the Titanic is sinking or claiming “mission accomplished” before stability was even established in Iraq–essentially, refusing to admit the obvious.

Reflection and strength can come out of setbacks. It took the Bush administration until 2006, when Democrats regained the House, to realize that the Iraq policy was as it stood a failure. Only after this significant electoral defeat did the administration take the body count and the situation on the ground seriously, firing Rumsfeld and putting Robert Gates in charge of the Defense Department. Under Gates, the situation in Iraq has turned for the better, with the surge providing a measure of stability in much of the country, though the ultimate goal of a stable democracy remains definitively illusive.

But even after all this time, and all these errors, Bush and the administration are hard-pressed to admit any mistakes or any lapses in judgment. With the state of the world today, it’s hard to imagine there is no self-reflection from our “decider.” In fact it is absolutely terrifying. With McCain and his campaign’s unwillingness to admit to a small foreign policy gaffe, one can only imagine how he would react to a bigger mistake, or what the consequences could be. This election should be a time for reflecting over the past, the last eight and more years, so that we can build a better future both at home and abroad. Now that we’ve had eight years of no apologies and no accountability, we really can’t afford four more.