2) The questions reporters and citizens should ask instead. There are two of them.
a) Based on “what we knew then,” how did you assess the evidence, possible benefits, and possible risks of invading Iraq? What were your views as of early 2003? This is a straightforward-rather-than-tricky, for-the-record query. It’s a prelude to the much more important question:
b) Regardless of whether you feel you were right or wrong, prescient or misled, how exactly will the experience of Iraq—yours in weighing evidence, the country’s in going to war—shape your decisions on the future, unforeseeable choices about committing American force?
Question 2(b) is the essential question, on this topic, for candidates aspiring to become president. In assessing answers to this question:
—Minus points to any candidate who tries to bluff through with the tired “I don’t do hypotheticals” cliché. That might apply if you’re a military commander declining to say exactly when and where you’ll attack. But if you want to be president you need to explain the mindset with which you’ll approach still-undefined (that is, hypothetical) challenges.
—Plus points to any candidate who wrestles honestly with the question of what he (or she) has learned from being wrong (or right) about Iraq.
For 26 years, this event has brought together a tiny subset of Western historians who call themselves Mullanites, some of whom attend in period costume. They assert that construction of the roadway is one of the most significant events in the history of the Northwest — an achievement that has been overshadowed by the adventures of two other American explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Two years earlier, the Clinton administration’s instinct toward quarantine had lead to Washington’s tragic and deeply shameful efforts to prevent any designation of the outbreak of bloodshed in Rwanda in 1994 as a genocide in order to avoid having to commit the United States in any way there. Details of this story have emerged slowly ever since, with the picture growing steadily uglier. Newly declassified documents show how Clinton officials urged Belgium to withdraw its modest United Nations peacekeeping contingent from Rwanda at the outset of the genocide so that the United States would not be drawn into the violence. This all but guaranteed the crisis in Rwanda would spin out of control.
Less well known, however, is the story of how this stance of not-so benign neglect gradually gave way to another, far more proactive policy. The new approach — pushed by Christopher’s successor Madeline Albright — amounted to anointing and strongly promoting a group of authoritarian leaders who could, it was thought, best preempt conflict and preserve American interests in the region.