Why don’t officials admit mistakes?

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.

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. 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 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.

Walt is professor of international relations at Harvard University and a member of Foreign Policy magazine’s editorial board.