In golf, a mulligan is a “do-over” or second chance. An errant shot flies into a hazard or dribbles off the tee. The opponent graciously says “take a mulligan.” However, as far as golf etiquette is concerned, a mulligan must be played no matter where it lies.

The provenance dates back centuries. One member of a four ball regularly drove his mates to the links in his horse-drawn carriage. On chilly mornings, because his hands cramped holding the reins, he was offered, if needed, a second shot on the first tee. His name was Mulligan.

Suppose Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and presidential aspirants John Kerry and John McCain were offered mulligans. Might they have been used? For Obama, the now-famous Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy issued last March surely could have been reworked. Disrupting and defeating al-Qaida was emotionally and politically important. But that strategy paper neglected the Taliban as the main enemy and underplayed the vital strategic significance of Pakistan. Perhaps then, the Obama administration would not have had to beat a retreat when commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal produced his assessment six months later calling for a major “surge” in NATO and U.S. forces.

A second mulligan surely was needed for the economic stimulus and the financial rescue package. The stimulus should have emphasized job creation. It did not. And while rescuing the banking system was far from trivial, the some $50 plus billion in bonuses being awarded by Wall Street in the aftermath of the financial crisis — a record — somehow does not sit well with us lesser mortals.

George W. Bush might have taken a mulligan over Tora Bora in December 2001 in hunting down Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden of course escaped. And there were no guarantees that better planning could have captured or killed him. But unfortunately, interservice rivalry and petty relationships between commanders enabled bin Laden to flee.

The first major U.S. ground forces to be deployed into Afghanistan late that fall were the U.S. Marine Expeditionary units that flew hundreds of miles inland landing at Kandahar. The Marines made no secret about their presence, infuriating Central Command Commander Army Gen. Tommy Franks. The Marines meanwhile had produced a plan to find bin Laden based on how the U.S. Army had captured Geronimo nearly 130 years earlier.

Franks instead chose to deploy the 10th Mountain Division. Unfortunately, Franks probably did not know that the Marine Corps was one of the finest high-altitude fighting forces in the world. During the decades of the Cold War, the Marines routinely trained at high altitude in preparation for securing the rugged northern flank of Norway in the event of war with the Soviets. That training and preparation persists today. According to British SAS forces present at the time, the 10th Mountain was not prepared or acclimated for the terrain.

Who knows if the Marines would have captured or killed bin Laden. But surely a mulligan would have been a good thing.

Whether Bush would have used a mulligan in invading Iraq had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction is unanswerable. Given his conviction that Saddam Hussein was evil and that imposing democracy in Iraq would transform the geostrategic landscape of the region, it is unlikely Bush would have changed course. And in a similar light, had Saddam been offered a mulligan over his non-existent or hyped weapons of mass destruction programs and come clean, given the dictator’s belief the United States would not attack and the need to maintain the lie to assure his rule, he might not have taken one either.

Regarding presidential aspirants, John Kerry was criticized for not countering the calumnies of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sooner. And John McCain was taken to task for selecting the now seemingly ubiquitous Sarah Palin for the bottom of his ticket. Yet, there is a simpler truth that has remained invisible. Since Ike, the U.S. electorate does not choose real war heroes for president.

George McGovern flew more than two dozen missions in Europe as a bomber pilot during World War II. George H.W. Bush’s Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart did not enable him to beat Bill Clinton. And the multiple decorations for courage won in battle by Kerry and McCain did not elevate them from the Senate. (John Kennedy did well but only after he allowed his PT boat to be cut in half in the middle of the night by a Japanese destroyer. And LBJ’s own Silver Star was a bit of a stretch).

Mulligans only apply to golf. And golf today is mesmerized by the Tiger Woods story. Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 major titles may never be eclipsed by Woods now, put it best. Tiger’s personal life is “nobody’s business.” Yet, for a Mulligan …

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council’ and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This essay was syndicated byUPI as “Presidential and other mulligans.”