02/26/2007 02:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why "Mistake" Matters for '08

Hillary Clinton's resistance to admit her '02 vote authorizing the Iraq War was a mistake highlights the importance of this issue, not just for her, but for everyone offering themselves to be President. [My bet is that Hillary will, in the end, say that the war was a mistake, that she regrets her vote, but will stop short of saying that her vote was a mistake].

There is, however, an even more important matter that must be addressed, by everyone running: why do you conclude your vote a mistake? By this time everyone, (except those like Harriet Miers for whom Bush is the smartest person they ever met or Dick Cheney who believes Don Rumsfeld was the greatest Defense Secretary in [US? world? interplanetary?] history), recognizes the monumental incompetence with which the Iraq War has been prosecuted. That same performance with Katrina eventually convinced the the public to accept in '05 the tragic conclusion that this is the gang that could not shoot straight---conducting the war, speaking the truth about it or anything else, or even going hunting with a pal.

But, uttering the "M" word is not enough. Citizens need an explanation of why that vote was a mistake so we can assess candidates' judgment for the inevitable decisions they will have to make as President. Was Iraq a mistake just because Bush bungled it? Or, because there were no WMD? Or, because the US, against the advice of several generations of military leaders, should not be unilaterally bogged down in a land war in the Middle East? Or, because as bad as Saddam was, there was no strategy that would have resulted in a stable, democratic Iraq? Or, because enhancing the power of Iran was an inevitable consequence? Or, because we needed to finish off al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the overwhelming priority? And, so on.

We know where Bush stands. He has said repeatedly that he would have invaded even if he knew then what he knows now. That is strong proof that the WMD/al-Qaeda claims were shams to get the populace to support what he had already decided to do. For those who, like Bush, do not consider the Iraq War (and thus the vote to authorize it) a mistake, there is the additional question of whether the American people want another President who cannot say the "M" word.

More importantly, Bush's assessment about Iraq makes us all rightfully concerned that Bush will launch a war in Iran. That is what the answers to the why question will tell us about how the candidates will exercise their power should they become Commander-in-Chief. The American people, and first the caucus go-ers and early primary voters, need to know not just if the vote was a mistake, but why.

Our whole world, quite literally, depends on it.