“Man’s real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up stone by stone through thousands of years,” writes the great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1941 book, Toward a Philosophy of History. Though we flatter ourselves by always “wanting to begin again,” civilization requires that we never break our continuity with the past, for it is the very memory of what has gone grievously wrong that is the signal requirement for progress.
Not to fail, not to be wrong, is inhuman. And there are no more callow, uninteresting personalities than those who claim or feel themselves to have always been right and who have never known humiliation. Failure and being wrong are things that we should hold dear, as prized possessions, and learn from constantly; they are more valuable than money in the bank or degrees from elite schools. The young are seen to be unwise and shallow not because they are made that way, but because they haven’t accumulated enough years yet to make the kind of humiliating mistakes and to suffer the hardships that are a precondition for the true enrichment of character.
Without the career mistakes made by Thucydides and Machiavelli, we might never have had The Peloponnesian War and The Prince, arguably the two greatest, seminal works of international relations.
Thucydides was an Athenian general whose army in 424 B.C. failed to return from Thasos in time to save the city of Amphipolis from Spartan forces. The Peloponnesian War was written by Thucydides in the full knowledge of his own disgrace. The book’s searing objectivity and realism, which give it almost a modern sensibility, is no doubt integrally connected to the author’s own appreciation of limits and constraints based, in turn, on his own shame and misfortune.
At the beginning of the 16th century Machiavelli was one of Florence’s leading diplomats. But in 1512 his career ended abruptly when the Medici family, returning from exile, dismissed him from his post and accused him of taking part in an anti-regime conspiracy. After imprisonment, Machiavelli retreated to his farm and in 1513 wrote The Prince — a classic that drew on the full body of his political experience: his numerous successes along with his public humiliation.
Failure and errors of judgment do not automatically make one wise, but they can lead to wisdom if the person is willing to use such setbacks to grow emotionally. Richard Nixon managed the transition from a disgraced US president to a respected elder statesman. Though that transition contained a fair measure of calculation on Nixon’s part, it also drew on his personal growth. Bill Clinton famously observed that few meetings he had had during all his years as US president were as instructive as his meeting with Nixon, whose wisdom at that point in time had to be inextricable from his own abject failure.
Even great statesmen have a record of failure. Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, misjudged the resolve of the North Vietnamese in 1969. They thought they could bomb them into submission; they couldn’t. Former US Secretary of State James Baker thought that the war in Yugoslavia did not matter to the United States in 1991-92, when it did. As a member of parliament, Winston Churchill vastly underestimated the danger of fascist Japan in the early 1930s, even as a decade later, when Churchill was British prime minister, the Japanese would go on to conquer Singapore — arguably Great Britain’s most prized Asian possession. Failure and faulty analysis are part of a normal career. They should not be excused, but they can be internalized so as to improve a leader’s performance later on. The story of success is often the story of coming back from some sort of failure and adversity. Success comes from frequently asking, What did I get wrong, and how can I make sure not to commit a similar mistake again?
This all comes to mind because of the recent implosion of Iraq. The most prominent supporters of the Iraq War, such as former US Vice President Dick Cheney and former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, were not too long ago in the media blaming US President Barack Obama for the bad turn of events. They may have a point in blaming Obama. They may also have a point in defending America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. But what has angered people, I believe, is less their positions per se than the absence of any subtlety, emanating from personal remorse, in their arguments. Whatever their private opinions, their public utterances do not in themselves indicate that they have learned anything from what simply had to have been the most heart-wrenching policy issue of their professional lives.
This is a shame because given their resumes, men like Cheney and Wolfowitz should have much wisdom to impart. After all, Cheney before being vice president was one of America’s most impressive defense secretaries of the modern era, under President George H.W. Bush. Cheney was President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of staff in the 1970s. This is, by any measure, a storied career in government. Yet, his utterances do not betray the depth of insight that should go along with such a career. In a word, he seems not to have used his failure in Iraq to any useful advantage.
The same with Wolfowitz, a very able former undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush before becoming the deputy secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. Wolfowitz was also a former ambassador to Indonesia (a superb one at that), a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and a former head of the State Department’s policy planning bureau — another storied career from which much insight should normally emerge. And indeed, Wolfowitz is wise on a number of subjects, especially East Asia. But again, like Cheney, he has not publicly expressed himself in a manner that emanates wisdom from what he did regarding Iraq. There seems to have been little personal growth, even though given the extent of the opprobrium heaped on him because of Iraq, there must have been. Failure should lead to more interesting, profound people than this.
I, too, supported the Iraq War, something that I regret and that I never fail to mention when writing about Iraq or a related subject. I have written at length elsewhere about what I have learned from the experience. I can only hope that it has made me a better person and a better analyst, but that is for others to judge.
In any case, failure should lead to more than just blaming someone else for a turn of events the way prominent Iraq War supporters have blamed Obama. And it should lead to more than just offering up counterfactuals, as interesting and useful as counterfactuals often are. If only this had been done, or that… Failure truly offers riches to be plumbed. As Ortega y Gasset observes, it is from failure that human and personal progress are made.
Or to quote Irish writer Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
© 2014 STRATFOR
Publishing by The Manila Times of this Global Affairs essay by Robert D. Kaplan is with the express permission of STRATFOR.