He’s Not Sorry

So why is Barack Obama so worried about Mitt Romney and being called the Apologist-in-Chief?

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

There are political lies; and then there are charges that fall squarely in the realm of pants-on-fire untruths. The repeated assertion by conservative politicians, commentators, and pundits that President Barack Obama has consistently apologized for America during his global travels — the "American Apology Tour" as Mitt Romney calls it — falls squarely into the latter category.

It is a lie that has been reiterated so often that it has become conventional wisdom on the right. The fact that Obama has never directly apologized for America; that he has never expressed direct sorrow or regret for U.S. actions; that alleged charges of contrition have been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked appears not to matter much at all — particularly to those such as Romney, who in last month’s CNN national security debate repeated the charge again. It’s worth mentioning that Romney is so enamored with the topic of presidential apologizing that he titled his recent foreign policy book, you guessed it, No Apologies. And piling on was Rick Santorum, who on Wednesday, Dec. 7, called Obama’s policy toward Islamist radicals "nothing but appeasement."

The apology canard has been disproven practically as often as it has been made. Politifact assessed the claims and determined that "While Obama’s speeches contained some criticisms of past U.S. actions, those passages were typically leavened by praise for the United States and its ideals, and he frequently mentioned how other countries have erred as well. We found not a single, full-throated apology in the bunch." The Washington Post "Fact-checker" said of the charge, "The claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context." They gave it four Pinocchios.

All of this might sound like the inevitable back and forth of American politics. After all, politicians exaggerate the faults of their opponents all the time — and it’s hard to imagine that the Obama administration would take any of these obvious untruths seriously. But even the most mundane and misleading of political attacks can shape foreign policy decision-making. If, as Clausewitz suggested, "war is the expression of politics by other means," then foreign policy is often the expression of domestic politics by other means — with often unsettling consequences.

For starters, the apology charge — and general claims of a lack of exceptionalist fervor by Obama — actually appears to resonate with a surprising number of Americans. According to a December 2010 Gallup poll, only 58 percent of Americans agreed that Obama believes the United States has a "unique character" that "makes it the greatest country in the world." It’s not a bad number, but far less than Ronald Reagan (86 percent), Clinton (77 percent) and George W. Bush (74 percent). In all, a stunning 61 percent of Republicans believe that Obama doesn’t view America as an exceptional country. Nearly four in ten independent voters feel the same. So, it’s legitimate to ask how much this actually matters — and how many votes are actually swayed by the belief that Obama doesn’t love America with every fiber of his being. In fact, according to a recent Pew survey, only a bare majority of Americans believes that the "culture" of the United States "is superior to others" — an approximately 20 percent decline from just a decade ago.

Still, the White House appears disinclined to take any chances. Case in point, in the wake of a U.S. attack into Pakistani territory that killed 24 soldiers, the U.S. Department of State had been urging Obama to offer public condolences or some sign of remorse in order to salvage America’s increasingly precarious relationship with Pakistan. According to media reports, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter was pushing Obama for a video statement or even apology on the incident. But none will be forthcoming — and one of the reasons is instructive. Writes the New York Times, "some administration aides also worried that if Mr. Obama were to overrule the military and apologize to Pakistan, such a step could become fodder for his Republican opponents in the presidential campaign."

To put it another way, because of an oft-disproven charge that Obama is a serial apologist for America, the United States would risk further deterioration in its relations with Pakistan out of a fear that it will give ammunition to the president’s political opponents.

Now all of this should be taken with a grain of salt. Even without the president’s contrition dilemma it’s quite possible that Obama still would not have apologized for U.S. actions in Pakistan — and he did take the step of offering personal condolences to Pakistani President Zardari, although he stopped short of a direct apology. But the very fact that such considerations must be taken into account by the White House speaks volumes about the often under-appreciated "political" nature of foreign affairs.  It’s a reminder that for every White House, and especially a Democratic White House, foreign policy decisions are shaped, often subtly and implicitly, by what is said — or could be said — on the campaign trail.

For the Obama administration, Pakistan is hardly the only place where politics has occasionally put its thumb on the foreign policy scale. Considering the regular meme of Democratic weakness — and the nature of GOP political attacks — it’s possible to assess key elements of Obama’s first term foreign policy as an exercise in political distraction.  Take, for example, the surge in Afghanistan and the fear of a White House getting in a public food fight with the military over troop levels there. Or backtracking on the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the indefinite holding of terror suspects, and the use of military tribunals — all positions that contradicted Obama’s campaign promises. Going to war in Libya for fear of being blamed for watching while civilians were massacred; unwillingness to push Israeli leaders on settlement expansion at the price of getting into a tussle with a powerful domestic constituency. Even the decision to actively pursue and kill Osama bin Laden — and the ramping up of drone strikes against al Qaeda targets — can be seen in light of an administration intent on proving its mettle in fighting the military side of the war on terror. And just today, the president was more than happy to use the operation as a direct rebuttal to Republican charges that he is both an apologist and an appeaser. "Ask Osama bin Laden," said Obama, "and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field, whether I engage in appeasement."

In fairness, the administration has also frequently taken positions with a healthy share of political vulnerability — leaving Iraq, adhering to its 18-month timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, its nuclear policy and the New START treaty with a "reset" Russia, on its recent focus on LGBT issues, and its efforts at outreach to Iran in 2009. But when it comes to sticking its neck out politically on foreign policy the default position of the administration has been generally to adopt the Hippocratic Oath approach of "do no harm."

Suffice to say, fear of political attack on foreign policy hardly constrains Republicans in the same manner. If anything, one could make the case that commitment to the war in Iraq by President George W. Bush, long after any political benefit continued to accrue to his administration, was driven by the belief that to remain steadfast — even in support of the wrong policy — was essential to maintaining the GOP brand on national security.

In the end, all of this is an important reminder that as the campaign season heats up what might seem like even the most baseless foreign policy attack isn’t necessarily viewed so benignly. While foreign policy practitioners like to occasionally believe that their decisions are immune from the push and pull of the political scene, more often than not they are directly shaped by them. Like their domestic policy counterparts, we’re all hostage to the next election cycle.

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