The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Criteria for Forgiveness of Public Policy Mistakes

So, a while back, the noted NeoConservative, Max Boot (what a name), wrote the following:

What does it take to atone for a mistake in public policy?

Let me suggest the following:

  1. Admit the mistake?
  2. Reassess the reasoning and argument that led to your support, so that you won’t make the same mistake again?

There are major public intellectuals who are wrong about, well, everything. (Thomas Friedman, take a bow.)

One of the largest mistakes of the past twenty years was supporting the Iraq War. It accomplished none of what it was supposed to, killed a pile of people, and weakened the United States. (I’m OK with it weakening the US, but American pundits who believe in a strong US probably shouldn’t be.)

It was, also, yes, a massive war crime–exactly the same war crime for which most Nazis were hung at Nuremburg (no, they mostly weren’t hung for the Holocaust).

So if you were foolish enough, or evil enough, or stupid enough to advocate for the war, and you want to be taken seriously in the future, you need to show that you now know you were wrong AND that you wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

This, by the way, is why I was unwilling to endorse Hilary Clinton in 2016: Because Libya showed that, even though she said she knew the Iraq war was a mistake, she hadn’t actually learned. She went and did it again, though fortunately at a somewhat lesser scale (not that that’s any comfort to those Libyans whose lives were destroyed, or the people being sold in Libyan slave markets today).

But let’s leave aside Iraq, Clinton, and the wonderfully-named Mr. Max Boot.

This rule works for all mistakes. It isn’t enough to admit you made a mistake, you have to understand why you made the mistake and be determined not to make that same mistake.

Merely apologizing, or knowing you made a mistake is worthless if you would do the same thing again.

This is true in our small personal lives, as well as in the big, public mistakes important people make.

None of this should be controversial: This is kindergarten-level ethics. This is the sort of thing children are taught: To understand why they made a mistake and to change their thinking so they won’t make it again.

Iraq was more than a mistake, of course, and the best way to make sure it wouldn’t happen again would be to try the war criminals who made the decisions (including voting for it) and either putting them in prison or hanging them from the neck. Because I generally oppose the death penalty, I’ll settle for sending them to maximum-security prison to do hard time, as is appropriate for people as dangerous as mass murderers.

But because, instead, the people behind the Iraq War and other horrible decisions (like all the decisions leading up to catastrophic climate change) have been rewarded, they, of course, have kept committing crimes and “mistakes.”

Not sending everyone involved in Watergate to prison was a mistake, with the pardoning of Nixon being the original sin here. The same people involved in Watergate (minus Nixon, of course) were involved in Iran/Contra, and then they were the people involved in Iraq.

Hilary Clinton and George W. Bush (whom, I notice, Democrats have rehabilitated) are monstrous war criminals who should be in prison. Max Boot is an enabler of war crimes.

At the very least such people need to show that they understand what they did was wrong, and that they have changed and won’t do it again.

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  1. V

    Yes, Nuremburg was largely a cruel joke (except for those actually executed) and the citizenry of the U.S. is so divided, dysfunctional, and largely insane; there can be no hope anything meaningful will come from that morass of cognitive dissonance…

  2. Tom

    “Not sending everyone involved in Watergate to crime, pardoning Nixon was the original sin here.”

    I think you meant, “Not sending everyone involved in Watergate to prison was a mistake, with the pardoning of Nixon being the original sin here.”

    Which I agree with. Nixon should have stood trial. He likely would have pled guilty and take all the blame too. He was for all his faults, a man who owned up to his mistakes, and tried to do the right thing for the country.

    Not trying him set a bad example and Bush Sr, pardoning all the Iran/Contra people also set a bad example.

  3. Tom W Harris

    If you have a strong enuf stomach, check out this YouTube vid entitled

    Michelle Obama: George W. Bush is ‘my partner in crime’ and ‘I love him to death’

    I threw up in my mouth a little.

  4. Billikin

    Public repentance is rare among politicians and other influential people. A prime example is Governor Wallace’s repentance of his racism. Doing so almost always results in a loss of power and influence. Supporters who have not themselves repented feel betrayed or lose faith, and opponents do not grant their trust. One loses support on the one hand and does not gain it on the other.

    Also, talk is cheap. Even if one apologizes and revises one’s statements, more is required. One must undertake remedial or contrary action. Among politicians, such action is usually enough. One’s opponents can support the action without having to praise the actor, and one supporters can rationalize it, even if they do not support it. Later, when repeated actions indicate a change of course, many of one’s supporters will go along.

  5. I go to great length to avoid behavior that warrant apology. I don’t accept them.

    Don’t tell me you’re ‘sorry’, prove it to me.

  6. Chiron

    There is only one question that animates US intellectuals and policy makers: “its good for the Jews?”

  7. V

    Ten Bears
    October 27, 2018

    Right on!
    Sorry is an excuse to repeat the behavior.
    Yours is the first time I’ve seen this sorry crap.
    Happy trails…

  8. Ian Welsh

    Thanks for the edit Tom.

  9. Willy

    In my previous corporate life we used to do “post-mortems” after all project completions. As others may know, it’s a comprehensive lessons learned where everybody involved is expected to objectively contribute. And then theoretically, the next project should go that much better.

    The only time I ever experienced a project as disastrous as the Iraq War (scaled down of course), the management was corrupt, there was no post mortem, and that entire business unit failed (died, was killed off…). But management was able to successfully scapegoat others for their obvious role in the failure and then move on thanks to personal connections, leaving the rest of us to deal with the ruins.

    Figuring out whether those ‘leaders’ were using mental defenses to the point of moral insanity, or were simply born morally insane seems irrelevant. More important was why the rest of us couldn’t just band together to oust those fools from the business altogether.

  10. editor_u


    “There is only one question that animates US intellectuals and policy makers: ‘its good for the Jews?'”

    Do you perhaps mean, “good for Israel”? Not at all the same thing.

  11. Billikin

    I think he means that Americans are racist in regard to the Jews, either pro or con.

  12. Bill Hicks

    Sociopathic monsters like Boot never “change,” they simply do whatever is required to worm their way back into acceptance. Boot isn’t a never-Trumper because of any newly found ethics or principle, he and many of the other most notorious neocons were worried that Trump was serious about ending America’s foreign interventions, and if such a course of action proved politically popular they’d be permanently discredited. It’s the same dynamic that caused tens of thousands of war contractors in Northern Virginia to vote Hillary, and as a result the Old Dominion was the only former Confederate state that she won. As far as I’m concerned, nothing too horrible can happen to Boot and his fellow travelers.

  13. Billikin

    Sociopaths to the right of them,
    Sociopaths to the left of them,
    Sociopaths over them
    Blustered and thundered.

    (With apologies to Tennyson.)

  14. bruce wilder

    C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute. (It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.) Joseph Fouché, Minister of Police variously under the Directory, Napoleon’s Consulate, (after an interval) Napoleon’s Empire, and very briefly, the restored Bourbon monarchy.

    With regard to George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, it seems to me that many people who in good faith supported his policy because they believed, say, reports and allegations regarding Iraqi WMD or the Administration’s intention to invest substantial resources in Iraqi Reconstruction were making a mistake, while what George W. Bush, Cheney and other leaders were doing was a crime.

    I understand that there are people who would argue for an absolute moral prohibition on war, and the distinction I make here will make no impression on them. For the rest of us, there can be justification (sic) for war, for invading another country. And, the Bush Administration asserted various such justifications, including formally, as in the Secretary of State’s presentation before the U.N. Security Council.

    Our propaganda-soaked Media are willing to broadcast synthesized “good intentions” as a cover story for any policy. This is Tom Friedman’s job. If he’s wrong about everything, he’s just doing his job. The people who are making mistakes are his loyal readers, who take his affable rationalizations seriously, as he manufactures their consent of the governed for them.

    The trouble comes after the policy is initiated and the results of the policy are made manifest. Since the policy was sold on the basis of lies, we do not know what the policy is supposed to be accomplishing. And, “we” may well include the policymakers themselves. Does Tony Blair know why he and Britain backed Bush’s invasion in 2003? I think it is quite possible that he did not really have a clear idea then and may not have a clear recollection now.

    Accepting lies as rationalization in pretext, leaves us without any clear idea of what public policy is trying to accomplish, and consequently, the failure of public policy after its implementation is likely to be so murky as to preclude efforts to change course in a sensible and productive manner.

    The U.S. could not simply abandon the destructive policy it had adopted under false pretenses. An honest policy could be judged a mistake, and reformed. A dishonest policy was just a murky mess, and child’s play for the advocates of “surge” and waiting six more months for the turning point to press onward.

    I can “forgive” a public policy mistake where the public policy in question was advocated honestly to begin with and designed and implemented with integrity and diligence. In American politics, such public policy is an increasing rarity.

    With regard to Bush’s Invasion of Iraq, it is certainly true that there was a reckless impulse toward cruelty in that policy that ought to be questioned. I called that Big Ethics, and it is important.

    But, I think we would do better for the future if we focused more on recalling and questioning the Little Ethics. Were they telling the truth about WMD? Were they diligent in planning and managing the Occupation? How was the money for Reconstruction spent?

    I suppose these questions can be regarded as Big Ethics questions. Deliberately lying about WMD, recklessly failing to plan adequately, and letting Bechtel and Halliburton and numerous other contractors siphon off funds without accomplishing any assigned task was just embezzlement and theft.

    But, I am thinking of them primarily as Little Ethics questions, that is questions of procedure and process. Screwing with the intelligence agencies, the international inspections regime and journalism at major newspapers so that facts could not be established in contradiction to the Administration’s favored narratives fall into my category of Little Ethics, the imperatives of professional routine. So, too, the embezzlement of funds for Iraqi Reconstruction and the bungling of important projects. There’s just a lack of integrity in evidence that belies the expression of intent.

    Politically, the failure to pursue the Little Ethics violations by either the Media or the opposition political Party or, ultimately, the American People leaves the country rotting and stinking like a day-old mackerel.

    Ian gives the example of Hillary Clinton as someone who demonstrated with regard to Libya that she had not learned the lessons of Iraq. I would agree, but I would also like to draw attention Clinton’s conspicuous lack of attention to integrity of process in a great many matters that go well beyond the particulars of Libya.

    Integrity of procedure and process matters a great deal in modern life because so much of modern life is organized by bureaucracies and similar institutions, more or less painstakingly choosing not our Big Picture goals so much as small picture standards and making sure those standards are met.

    If a few key bureaucrats can be roughed up, and the right tests are not performed, a hundred thousand people get lead in their water supply, or Iraq is invaded on pretext of WMD, or a financial crisis crashes the world economy.

  15. Hugh

    I know when I apologize to someone, it is important to be sincere. So I like to set the tone by calling them doctrinaire and then try to calm the waters by noting their intolerance and self-righteousness.

    There are many Establishment conservatives who are anti-Trump. Their views remain toxic to most liberals and all progressives. Just guessing but I would not be surprised if the doctrinaire left for Max Boot is anyone to the left of Hillary Clinton.

  16. nihil obstet

    To be forgiven for public policy mistakes, the perpetrator must acknowledge the error, explain accurately how she came to make the error (no hoocoudanode), apologize, and then make restitution for the negative outcomes. Full restitution is rarely possible, especially where the “mistake” is actually a “crime”. This whole, “Hell, yeah, we hanged German and Japanese leaders after WWII for starting a war of aggression, but we really wanted our war of aggression” is what demands prison. But every one of those Iraq war supporters are morally obligated to do the following:
    – campaign against ongoing and future American militarism;
    – accept refugees created by their little mistake;
    – rebuild Iraq. They should not only campaign for the government to do this, but contribute personal time and money to the reconstruction of the society they destroyed.

    Short of this, “Whoopsie, my bad, why can’t the rest of you get over it” is just wanting an opioid for the pain of losing intellectual status.

  17. StewartM

    nihil obstet:

    But every one of those Iraq war supporters are morally obligated to do the following:
    – campaign against ongoing and future American militarism;
    – accept refugees created by their little mistake;
    – rebuild Iraq. They should not only campaign for the government to do this, but contribute personal time and money to the reconstruction of the society they destroyed.

    Iraq? We couldn’t even do that for *Vietnam*. A genuine slam-dunk no-questions war criminal who ordered the killing of over 500 civilian noncombatants willfully and with malice (plus allowed many rapes of the women before they were killed) served only 3.5 years of house arrest, everyone else associated with the crime got-off scot free, and the real heroes who flew in and put an end to massacre (Hugh Thompson Jr. and his helicopter crew, who rescued dozens of Vietnamese children) got the hate mail. And My Lai was only the tip of the iceberg–the Pentagon itself concluded that US servicemen killing Vietnamese civilians was “pervasive and systematic” and that there was an unreported My Lai every month.

    We’re just as much in denial about this and others as the Japanese are about their WWII crimes. Solzhenitsyn was right–the best way for a nation to deal with this and to heal is to put its own on trial, showing them and the world the stark evidence of what they did and its repercussions, until–and this actually did happened in some of the deNazification trials–even the defendants bury their heads in their hands because they just can’t bear to watch it anymore.

  18. Tom W Harris


    Robert Bowers, is that you?

  19. Herman

    In my personal life I am usually pretty forgiving unless I suffered a very severe wrong. People are weak and I am no different. I would want someone to accept my apology if I did something wrong and not continue to hold a grudge.

    I agree that public figures should be held to a higher standard because their decisions are more serious than those of ordinary people. If they sincerely apologize I have no problem making them allies if they want to fight on my side. Heck, sometimes it might be good to be allies even without an apology.

    If you are like the Resistance people and think that Trump is this unprecedented evil then it makes sense to make tactical alliances with neocons and other unsavory figures if you think it will defeat the greater evil of Trump. This was a lesson from the rise of fascism.

    “Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in no small part because the fascist-conservative alliances on the right faced division and disarray on the left. The Catholic parties (Popolari in Italy, Zentrum in Germany), liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy.”

    Now, I think that George W. Bush was worse than Trump. His policies were more damaging than what Trump has done so far. Maybe Trump will end up being worse but we don’t know for sure yet. But the Resistance people think Trump is worse so I understand why they want to be allies with neocons and other anti-Trump conservatives.

  20. mcarson

    Anyone can be replaced. Anyone. There isn’t only one best person for any job, from dog catcher to President. Hundreds of intelligent, qualified people can write editorials, head the State Department or supervise the military.
    When somebody screws up this significantly, they should be out of the game – forever.
    There will always be someone in the organization that saw the trouble coming, counseled against it and was over-ruled. That’s the person who should be in power, the one who saw the disaster coming and worked to mitigate it, to persuade the idiots in power to change course.
    The evil of meritocracy is the belief that some individuals have abilities quite beyond anyone else. They don’t. There isn’t the LeBron James of politics. We need the people who were willing to say the Emperor had no clothes on, not the reformed and newly enlightened Emperor.

  21. V

    October 28, 2018

    Agree with you on almost everything.
    The problem is that the game is rigged against YOU/US; therefore your quite reasonable and logical assessment just will not function in today’s atmospherics; it will not be allowed.
    The corruption is through and through; top to bottom.
    As Franklin said; “You have a republic, if you can keep it.”
    Well we didn’t keep it! It’s gone; likely forever…

  22. V


    I have replied to your comment but am hung up in moderation, WTF????

  23. Mistakes? Mistakes? Please. Iraq, Libya and such were not a mistakes. They were a deliberate choices based on evil policy. It is not enough to admit the “mistake” for the simple reason that it was not a mistake. It is necessary to convince that the mindset has changed, and people do not change their mindset to such degree.

    That’s why, no matter what Hillary Clinton, for instance, says or does, I will never believe that she will ever do anything in the future other than that which she has done in the past.

  24. StewartM


    When somebody screws up this significantly, they should be out of the game – forever.
    There will always be someone in the organization that saw the trouble coming, counseled against it and was over-ruled.

    I’m of two minds on this. In part, what you say I agree with. But I think you also must be wary of what is has been called “the vertical stroke” effect in organizations. When failure results in a significant purge of heads, then the result is not excellence, but either passivity and/or coverup–as Andrew Cockburn details in his book on the old peacetime Soviet military, which had a policy similar to what you advocate. People inside the organization either become afraid doing anything, they seek always to have a ‘cover their asses’ plan if something does go wrong, and if something big does go wrong they cover it up. If despite everything, the failure still leaks out, scapegoats are needed. Cockburn was talking about the peacetime Soviet military in his book, but you see this effect in other facets of Soviet life—the show trials of the “wreckers” in the 1930s could be interpreted as scapegoating on part of both Stalin and the various bureaucracies for the failure to obtain the goals of the Five-Year Plans.

    The evil of meritocracy is the belief that some individuals have abilities quite beyond anyone else. They don’t.

    Hmm, again I partly agree with this, but finding the best people or even competent people is not an easy task. Just from the US Civil War, look how long Lincoln had to look before he settled on US Grant, and Davis never did find another R. E. Lee for the Western theater, which is a big reason why the Confederacy lost. I doubt anyone could name another notable politician of the time who would have done as good a job as Lincoln for the Union. Just more recently, the difference of having FDR in the 1930s versus Obama in 2009 couldn’t be more stark, and made me realize how lucky the US was to have FDR in charge back then. Not that FDR was perfect, not that he didn’t make mistakes (he certainly did) but still he was head and shoulders above Obama in nearly every way.

    The problem is that we don’t have a meritocracy. Instead, our system is more like that of the UK, save we don’t openly acknowledge our ‘aristocracy’. Brett Kavanaugh is one such example: he is born into the lesser gentry, so to speak, he goes to a private high school with its own golf course, he parties his ass off in college (and probably did what he was accused of, my contacts hailing from so-called “elite” schools say there are dozens of young rich guys just like him there). After graduation, he then becomes a political hack (for Ken Starr, and staging the fake riot in 2000 to try to shut down the Florida voting recounts) for which he is rewarded in the Bush White House. From there, he is picked to be a Circuit Court judge–with nary an hour of courtroom experience as a judge at the city, county, or state level.

    And now he’s a SCOTUS judge–and based upon what merit, exactly? Did the Trump White house pore over page after page of possible candidates, looking at those with decades of judge experience, reviewing potential candidates among legal scholars who have published in peer-reviewed articles and who are widely regarded as experts in their field? Nope, no, nada. They went and picked the incompetent political hack whose memories of what he learned in law school involves more broads an booze than the law.

    This is NOT an isolated case. And it affects private industry far more than the government (so much for the supposed superiority of capitalism, eh?). As a coworker and I were talking, there have been dozens of times we could name of new hires, who were hired in at the same type of entry-level technical position as everyone else, but then after 2-3 years they get the magic ‘tap on the shoulder’ and get moved to be a staff assistant for some bigwig. Then follows a promotion to an entry-level supervisor position, then more, then after 10-15 years you find out they’re a vice president. And based upon what real accomplishments or talents, exactly??

    (Cavet: if they really really screw up along the way, vice presidency won’t happen, and even supervisory jobs will be yanked, but then they still often land a drone desk job where they often survive layoffs where actually useful people doing meaningful work get canned).

    So, MacCarson, I submit our biggest problem is that we’re ruled by incompetents. Bad and stupid decisions get made because Reaganism and Thatcherism did what it was intended to do, which is what conservatism is really all about (not “freedom” and certainly not “free markets”) but instead is rule by a ‘natural’ aristocracy. We have our new ‘nobles’, so to speak, and upward mobility in the US is now less than that of even the UK. The history of the British military, by analogy, can be summed up as ‘groups of common soldiers and sailors who were of uniformly excellent quality, but who were at times led to disaster because some Lord Dodohead was in charge, just because he was Lord Dodohead”. That’s what the US is becoming; in fact, we have a Lord Dodohead as POTUS now.

  25. Now who’s being a doctrinaire extremist? Do you seriously think we could have stood by to watch Saddam re-invade Kuwait after spending all that treasure in blood and money booting him out in the first Gulf war? Why do you think he deliberately set out to hoodwink the CIA and MI5 into thinking he had WMD when he hadn’t? You would have to be incredibly naive to think he had no purpose in doing that when it would have benefited his economy to let Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors in to give him a clean report. His purpose of course was to give him the cover of deterrence for his invasion.

    Of course mistakes were made in the second stage of the war which I hope we have all learned from, but this sort of post-event aggressive intellectual intolerance will just distort history. It is platforming of the worst kind. There is room for debate and we will only learn from that debate if we allow it.

  26. nihil obstet

    @John Poynton

    As one who dragged a seriously painful foot in a mile march against the invasion of Iraq (remember, I was just one in the largest worldwide public demonstrations in history), I distinctly remember “platforming of the worst kind” and it was not from those opposed to the war. Look back at the journalists who lost their careers for not being sufficiently gungho for blood, and at how the warmongers have prospered in the years since.

    Preventative force is just a euphemistic effort to whitewash aggression. I absolutely agree with you that “this sort of post-event aggressive intellectual intolerance will just distort history”, but of course the post-event aggressive intellectual intolerance that I see is the attempt to erase the governmental deceit that should not be tolerated in a democracy.

  27. Charlie

    Just goes to show that everything in the neoliberal age boils down to who you know, not what you know, or even what you do. Boot will more than likely be droning on until neoliberalism finally dies or he does. YYMV.

  28. Dan Lynch

    Re: today’s election in Brazil. Time for Ian to bump this essay back to the top:

    You may say you oppose fascism, but you are creating the conditions under which it flourishes. … To fight fascism, you must offer an explanation for why the economy keeps getting worse for ordinary people and offer a solution for it.
    There will be war. There will be revolution. There will fountains of blood in the streets. There will be refugee crises that make the current one look like a piss in the wind … That’s what you were voting for when you voted for neoliberals over and over again.

  29. Billikin

    Dan, thanks for the link. 🙂

    One thing I noticed in the comments to that essay was how people (correctly, IMO) blamed Clinton. However, they failed to blame Gingrich. It was the combination of Clinton Democrats and Gingrich Republicans that was particularly toxic.

  30. Heliopause

    Forgiveness and atonement are religious concepts. The point in our secular polity is to oppose violent, destructive policies, and since people like Boot are immune from any kind of abstractly just punishment this discussion of his atonement strikes me as largely irrelevant.

    Though I will say, the notion that simply being anti-Trump can act as atonement for crime is hilarious.

  31. nihil obstet

    “Forgiveness” and “atonement” are religious terminology, but social concepts about excluding and including. Someone who has committed a crime should be excluded from specific roles in a society until the society determines that the perpetrator has removed to the extent possible the negative outcomes of the crime and no longer poses a threat to the society.

  32. Billikin

    Was Bush II worse than Trump? In deed, perhaps that will be the case.

    However, unlike Bush, Trump is inimical to the idea of America. People complain how Trump is the enemy of our democracy. That way of putting it is fine with people who think that democracy means mob rule. But Trump is the enemy of our republic, as well. He is a wannabe dictator. Trevor Noah was one of the first to point that out during the campaign, showing a picture of Trump in the guise of an African dictator. Trump is in love with Kim and sucks up to Putin. His latest attempt to assert his dictatorial powers is to claim that he can overrule the Constitution.

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