ORANGEBURG, S.C. - Of all the words spilled during the recent Democratic presidential debate, the most interesting were 27 of Hillary Clinton's in response to a question about the candidates' biggest mistakes.
Clinton began self-effacingly, saying that her mistakes were too numerous to list, but offered a couple: that whole health care thing. "And, you know, believing the president when he said he would go to the United Nations and put inspectors into Iraq to determine whether they had WMD."
Say what? While we're pulling deflections out of the memory hole, what about believing the international community that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons?
Or, to bring it closer to home, what about believing her husband, who told Larry King on July 22, 2003, that "it is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons"?
What Hillary Clinton was trying to say, it seems, was anything to avoid suggesting that she had made a mistake in voting for the 2002 joint resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
Admitting error regarding Iraq has become the litmus test for Democratic candidates. Among the top tier, John Edwards has repeatedly declared his vote a mistake. Barack Obama, though not yet in Congress at the time of the vote, was always opposed to the war and says he predicted what has come to pass. Clinton had admirably resisted joining the mea culpa chorus, but finally succumbed. If she had known then what she knows now, she began saying relatively recently, she wouldn't have voted the way she did.
Quick show of hands: How many would have supported invading Iraq had they known there were no WMD? Doubtless, not many, even though overthrowing Saddam Hussein had been a standing U.S. policy since the late 1990s.
Even Saddam believed he had a biological, chemical and, possibly, nuclear program in place. As David Kay told The New York Times following his post-invasion survey of suspected arms caches, Iraq was still researching and developing ricin production and weaponization up to the end. Otherwise, according to Kay, Saddam's scientists lied to the Iraqi leader about weapons programs in order to get government funds.
Among those who argued compellingly in favor of the war resolution was the now-contrite Edwards. On Sept. 12, 2002, he told the Senate that the time had come for decisive action against Saddam - to do "whatever is necessary to guard against the threat posed by an Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction, and under the thumb of Saddam Hussein."
Edwards might feel that the war has gone badly - who doesn't? - but his vote was consistent with thinking at the time that prevention was necessary to survival. The invasion was clearly aimed at guarding against the unthinkable in the context of fresh and horrific wounds.
Saying that one's vote - exercised in good conscience based on convincing information - was a mistake is meaningless rhetoric in the service of politics. Clinton seemed to understand that and her resistance to the cheap grace of public confession was refreshing while it lasted.
Her biggest mistake, alas, was not in believing that Bush would place U.N. inspectors in Iraq, which was never part of the war resolution. Bush did say, perhaps disingenuously, that he hoped force wouldn't be necessary - and many wished that inspectors, who were in Iraq, had had more time.
But Saddam was persistently in violation of U.N. resolutions. Believing Bush seemed a better bet than believing Saddam.
The clear intent of the resolution, meanwhile, was to authorize war, if necessary. That's what Clinton voted for. Her mistake is trying to pretend it was something else, and hoping no one will notice.
Kathleen Parker, a columnist for The Washington Post, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.