Is America capable of learning from its mistakes?
Whether or not former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, is confirmed as Secretary of Defense, is not that important. Whoever is confirmed will be working for President Barack Obama. For this reason, the Senate rarely blocks cabinet nominations. The personal views of particular nominees are not that important, because their job will be to implement the policies of the president.
The attacks on Hagel in Thursday’s hearings, however, were disturbing.
Like almost all Republicans in the Senate and most Democrats, Hagel initially supported the Iraq War. Early on, however, he concluded the war was a mistake. The decorated Vietnam veteran spoke out against a surge in troops because he realized U.S. goals in Iraq were undefined. He opposed sending more of our brave soldiers to die in a war that served no clear national interest.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was dead, probably a good thing, but America could not hope to quell the country’s internal strife.
Questioning the wisdom of a war is tough for those who started it. Hagel, along with former friend and current nemesis Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had authorized combat that led to the death of thousands of Americans. Like the rest of Congress and most Americans, they believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They expected a short war with few American casualties. When former President George W. Bush proclaimed “mission accomplished” in 2003, all Americans wanted to believe it.
When it became clear that Iraq was not a threat to the United States and that the mission could not be accomplished, Hagel had the courage to call for a return of U.S. troops.
Polls suggest Americans have figured out what McCain and other Hagel opponents have not. The Iraq War was a mistake. It may result in benefits for Iraqis, and possibly for Americans, but it did not merit the cost in lives and dollars expended by a nation more than 6,000 miles from Baghdad.
America is a powerful nation with a government designed less for efficiency than for public involvement. We will make mistakes, and those mistakes often will cost lives. As a nation, our goal should be to learn from our mistakes.
Hagel’s confirmation is not a big deal. What is critical, though, is whether our elected officials have the courage to acknowledge their mistakes. The Iraq War was a mistake, and the inquisition of Hagel suggests many of our leaders can’t admit their error.
We don’t expect our leaders to be right every time. We do expect them to learn from their mistakes.