Humility is a strength on many occasions. President Bush showed a willingness to grasp the concept this week when he talked directly to the Middle East over an Arab television network about the appalling abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some American forces last year.
Such "abhorrent" acts, he said, reflect "badly on my country." Mr. Bush let his press spokesman actually say the word "sorry" while his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the Baghdad prison's new commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, gave full apologies. By allowing the level of "the buck stops here" to creep higher into the White House, the Bush presidency was candid as never before.
Both Arabs and Americans need to hear these mea culpas, even in times of chest-thumping war. After so many fumbles in Iraq, such as not finding weapons of mass destruction and not letting the UN assist sooner in forming an Iraqi government, the Bush administration runs the risk of losing public trust in this venture by not showing in public that it can learn from its mistakes. Humility helps open up a capacity to learn from slip-ups.
American troops will be in Iraq for a long time, with either a Bush or a Kerry in the White House. The US must demonstrate to the world that it will correct itself quickly - and openly - in Iraq as well as in the war on terrorism.
Rather than wounding Bush in his reelection chances, such admissions of responsibility can only reinforce a confidence that mistakes will be fewer.
Since the abuses came to light months ago within the military, the Pentagon appears to have made many changes to prevent such incidents. More still needs to be done, of course, but the armed services from Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on down showed serious hubris rather than humility in hiding the abuses from Congress and the public. Such abuses need to be aired to prevent their recurrence.
The big lesson for the administration: It cannot let the moral goal of creating a free Iraq or capturing terrorists be used as an excuse for a kind of moral certainty that it can do no wrong or that it can bypass accepted international codes, such as the Geneva Conventions.
That's a dangerous confusion of ends and means in a time of war.