John Edwards: "I was wrong" about Iraq

A mea culpa that's something less than all that.

Published November 14, 2005 1:52PM (EST)

You can say this about John Edwards: He knows how to get an Op-Ed piece published.

The former senator and vice presidential candidate scored space in Sunday's Washington Post for an essay arguing that the United States should reduce its presence in Iraq, work to get more Iraqi security forces trained and funded, and encourage the international community to do more to help. It's nothing we haven't heard before. So why did the Post run it?

The answer lies in Edwards' opening paragraph: "I was wrong," he says.

John Kerry and John Edwards spent much of the 2004 presidential campaign trying to distinguish themselves from George W. Bush on Iraq, but they were hampered at every turn by the inconvenient fact that they both voted in 2002 to give the president the authorization to go to war. The Bush-Cheney campaign's charge of flip-flopping notwithstanding, neither Kerry nor Edwards would concede during the campaign that his vote had been wrong. Indeed, Kerry insisted over and over again that his vote had been the right one.

Now Edwards says that he was wrong. It's a good way for an out-of-work senator with presidential aspirations to get himself back in the picture, but it's not quite the mea culpa that it seems. Edwards says that his 2002 vote was a "mistake," and that he takes responsibility for it. But what, exactly, did Edwards do wrong? Should he have delved deeper into the intelligence? Should he have asked more questions before voting? Should he have listened to antiwar voices like Howard Dean's?

Edwards doesn't say, and, in not saying, he fails to take the responsibility he's claiming to take. To the contrary, he puts that responsibility pretty squarely on the shoulders of the president of the United States. "The argument for going to war with Iraq was based on intelligence that we now know was inaccurate," Edwards writes. "The information the American people were hearing from the president -- and that I was being given by our intelligence community -- wasn't the whole story. Had I known this at the time, I never would have voted for this war."

There's nothing wrong with that, exactly. It's entirely appropriate to hold Bush accountable for the war in Iraq and for the twisted version of intelligence that led to it. But as he positions himself for 2008, Edwards is making the larger argument that "telling the truth" is a "foundation for moral leadership." To pull that one off, the former senator -- like the president he wants to replace -- has got to do more than say that he accepts responsibility in some abstract way. He has to come to terms with what that really means.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Iraq Iraq War John Edwards Middle East War Room