Why don't policymakers ever admit they were wrong?

A couple of weeks ago, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer made the news by writing a short but sincere apology to the gay community for his earlier support of "reparative therapy" intended to "cure" homosexuality. He now regards the 2003 experiments that seemed to show success for this "treatment" were irredeemably flawed, and he regrets any role he might have played in reinforcing anti-gay stereotypes. Good for him.

Spitzer's recantation got me thinking: Why do we so rarely see foreign policy mavens offer similar apologies for obvious screw-ups? None of us is infallible, but powerful people sometimes make colossal blunders that lead to enormous human suffering. When that happens, it really does merit a mea culpa from those responsible. Yet with a few exceptions, I can't think of very many politicians, pundits, or government officials who have openly acknowledged their errors and apologized for them. Here in the United States, this only seems to happen when sexual indiscretion is involved, or when former officials are at the end of their careers and seeking some sort of absolution.

At this point, don't you think that William Kristol owes his fellow citizens an apology for his repeated war-mongering about Iraq, a war that cost the United States over a trillion dollars, killed thousands of people, and created millions of refugees? Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear George W. Bush and Dick Cheney admit their numerous mistakes and express some regret for them, instead of trying to stonewall the judgment of history? Couldn't a few of the ambitious "visionaries" who created the Euro say they're sorry they didn't listen to the skeptics who warned that Europe lacked the institutional mechanisms needed to make a common currency work? Shouldn't Elliot Abrams show some contrition about his role in fomenting the disastrous Fatah-coup attempt against Hamas, which left the latter in charge in Gaza? And so on. Heck, we're still waiting to hear regrets from the folks who brought us the financial crisis of 2007-2008, although Bernie Madoff did offer up something of an apology for his massive swindle.

Admitting you were wrong really isn't that hard. I've been in this business for nearly three decades, and I've been blogging for three and half years. In that time, I think I've gotten a number of things right, both in my scholarly work and my public commentary. I think I was mostly right about the core causes of alliance formation, right about the general direction NATO was headed after the Cold War, certainly right about the folly of invading Iraq, and right about the harmful impact of the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy. (Does anyone seriously believe that lobby isn't a very powerful force anymore?) And I think my skepticism about Obama's abortive peace efforts in the Middle East and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan have been borne out as well.

But I've been dead wrong on several occasions too. I was overly critical of post-modern IR theory back in the early 1990s, and overly optimistic about the Oslo peace process. I may have recognized the centrifugal tendencies that buffeted NATO following the Soviet breakup, but I also underestimated its staying power. And as I've noted before, I clearly missed the potential for contagion in the Arab spring. I regret every one of those errors, although I don't think very many people suffered as a result.

Of course, academia isn't quite like the policy world. Scholarship advances through vigorous criticism, and no matter how careful we try to be, every academic can look back and see how our earlier work could be improved. No scholar expects to be 100 percent right and all of us (should) understand that our prior work will eventually be overtaken and revised in light of new research. By contrast, people in the policy world or the commentariat can't readily admit mistakes, because their admissions will be seized upon by rivals and used to marginalize them. So instead of honest admissions of error, you mostly get silence, obfuscation, or denial. That's mildly offensive and morally dubious, but the real danger is that it allows serial blunderers to keep influencing policy or public discourse, no matter how many failures they've been associated with in the past.


Stephen M. Walt

NATO's not very lofty summit

What's the most useless waste of time, money, and fuel that you can think of? A NASCAR race? A Star Trek convention? The Burning Man festival?

Well, right up there with those obvious granfalloons is the recent NATO summit in Chicago. I've now read the official statements and White House press releases, and it's tempting to see the whole thing as a subtle insult to our collective intelligence. To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many world leaders flown so far to accomplish so little.

Along with the usual boilerplate, there were three big items on the summit agenda.
First, the assembled leaders announced that NATO will end the war in Afghanistan by the summer of 2013, and gradually turn security over to the Afghans themselves. This decision sounds like a significant milestone, but it's really just acknowledging a foregone conclusion. Popular support for the war has been plummeting, and the Obama administration has been lowering U.S. objectives for some time. In fact, the war in Afghanistan was lost a long time ago (mostly because the Bush administration invaded Iraq and let the Taliban come back), and Obama's big mistake was failing to recognize this from the start. The 2009 "surge" provided a fig leaf to enable the U.S. and NATO to get out, but the cost has been billions more dollars squandered, more dead NATO soldiers and dead Afghans, and a deteriorating relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan. It's nice that NATO is acknowledging these realities, but it didn't take a summit to figure this out. Perhaps the only benefit of this announcement is that it might make it harder for Mitt Romney to reverse course in the event he gets elected, though I'm not at all sure that Romney would want to do so anyway.

Second, NATO has piously declared -- for the zillionth time -- that its members will enhance their military capabilities by improved intra-alliance cooperation. This step is justified in part by highlighting the alliance's supposed recent achievements, to wit:

"The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security."

NATO is "unmatched" because the United States maintains a global military presence, but the self-congratulation here seems misplaced. Libya hardly looks like a success story right now, success in Afghanistan has been downgraded not to what we originally wanted but to whatever we think we can achieve, and the Balkan operation now appears open-ended.

More importantly, how many times have we seen this movie? Ever since the 1952 Lisbon force goals, NATO's European members have promised to improve their capabilities and then failed to meet their agreed-upon goals. This pattern has continued for five-plus decades, and it makes you wonder why anyone takes such pledges seriously anymore. If EU countries can't find the money to backstop a proper firewall for the fragile Greek, Italian, and Spanish economies, it is hard to believe NATO's European members are going to make significant new investments in defense. I'm not saying they should, by the way, given that Europe faces no significant conventional military threats. Last time I checked, the U.S. was spending about 4 percent of its GDP on defense and the rest of NATO was averaging about 1.7 percent. Both halves of the transatlantic partnership will be trimming budgets in the years ahead, no matter what they said in Chicago. So I wouldn't put much stock in item #2.

Third, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to the missile defense boondoggle. Never mind that the Defense Science Board recently concluded that existing defense technologies are still easily spooked by inexpensive countermeasures. Please overlook the tens of billions of dollars we've spent chasing the Holy Grail of missile defense since the 1980s, without ever getting there. Ignore the poisonous effect this program has on relations with Russia, which has to assume the worst and take our efforts seriously. And pay no attention to the fact that if missile defense ever did work really, really well, it would just encourage potential adversaries to work on alternative delivery mechanisms (like smuggling) that would make it more difficult to trace an attack back to its source.

The summit did give Obama the opportunity to show off his home town to his European friends. As a former Chicagoan, I'm glad they had the chance to look around a great American city, and I hope everyone had a good time. But both the attendees and the various groups protesting the summit seem to have missed the most important fact about the gathering: It just wasn't a very important event.