The Politics of Sorry

Six stations on the road to forgiveness -- and why there's no harm in President Obama apologizing to Afghanistan.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

In its admirable fertility, the English language provides an ample choice of alternatives for the commonplace expression "I’m sorry." The offending party can "apologize," "express regrets," or "voice remorse." The culprit can confess "error," "fault," or "guilt," while vowing to "repent," "atone," and/or "compensate." Especially in election years, "sorry," in all its gradations, is often dissected to suggest that a public figure is groveling. Thus Barack Obama’s opponents accuse the U.S. president of needlessly saying "sorry" overseas on what presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called Obama’s "American apology tour." The attacks reached a fever pitch when Obama sent a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai apologizing for the careless burning of Qurans by U.S. personnel at Bagram Airfield. Candidate Newt Gingrich called the apology an "outrage" because six Americans were killed in the riots provoked by the burning and as many as 30 Afghan lives were lost. The White House was still scrambling to respond to continuing protests of the Quran burning when a seemingly berserk soldier reportedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province on March 10. Rarely have the politics of sorry seemed so sensitive.

The first question worth examining is whether Obama is in fact guilty as charged, but the more interesting second question is whether saying "sorry" really matters in foreign affairs. In respect to the first question, fact-checkers at the Washington Post failed to find a single full-throated apology in any of the president’s overseas speeches; instead, he repeatedly extolled America and its ideals. Like his predecessors, Obama has become practiced in conceding error without saying sorry, as exemplified early in his presidency when he held that a Boston police sergeant had "acted stupidly" in arresting an African-American scholar, Harvard University’s Henry Louis "Skip" Gates. Having caused an outcry, the president then recalibrated his words, holding that both policeman and professor had "overreacted," and invited both to share a beer at the White House.

In respect to the broader question, in my view, saying sorry truly does matter, and it was wise and just for Obama to do so following the tragic blunder at Bagram Airfield. Few wounds fester longer than a failure to acknowledge gross abuses, even in times long past. Japan to this day remains tongue-tied regarding treatment of Korean "comfort women" during World War II and is still faulted in Asia for its tardy and awkward apologies for its wartime transgressions. Turkey steadfastly resists to even acknowledge its indiscriminate slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman troops during World War I, prompting the French National Assembly to pass a law criminalizing denial of what is widely regarded as a genocide. Turkey, for its part, accuses France of ignoring its own crimes perpetrated during an Algerian war that claimed more than a million lives (Algeria’s count) or at least 300,000 lives (in France’s reckoning) — a discrepancy ironically symmetrical with contested counts of Armenian fatalities in Turkey.

Concerning France’s undeclared war in Algeria, President Nicolas Sarkozy all but shrugged prior to his sole visit to Algeria in 2007. True, he told an interviewer that many suffered in the conflict, but "I’m for a recognition of the facts, but not for repentance, which is a religious notion that has no place in relations between states." To date, there has been no official apology for France’s violent repression and use of torture in the war, so Algerians have repeatedly complained. Even as national leaders are held to heightened standards of moral responsibility, they tend to duck for cover in traditional formulas for avoiding or narrowing blame. I have developed a score card of sorts describing the six degrees of contrition, ranging from virtual dismissal to full embrace.

1. Mistakes Were Made

This is the minimal passive acknowledgment of carefully glossed-over sins, as in U.S. President George W. Bush’s May 5, 2004, comment when asked on Arab television about the abhorrent practices at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, which were exposed that week. A bad business, yes, he acknowledged, but "It’s also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made."

In clerical accents, this is very like the defense offered by the Vatican to continuing revelations about priestly pedophilia in Ireland, the United States, Italy, and elsewhere. If challenged, defensive officials are likely to climb to a second rung.

2. Spread the Blame

Guilt yearns for company, and an egregious example of diluting responsibility occurred in March 1998, when former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited bloodied Rwanda and saw for himself what machetes had wrought. He ruefully recalled that all over the world "were people like me sitting in offices, day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." Leaders everywhere, he said, failed immediately to "call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide."

Well, yes, but it was the righteous United States that blocked even a Security Council debate on Rwanda when it most mattered, fearing that Washington might be pressured to do more than wring hands. Indeed, as Samantha Power documents in her history of the age of genocide, the term itself was deemed "a problem from hell," and officials were instructed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1996 to avoid using the lethal word in discussing ethnic violence in Bosnia.

3. Let the Truth Be Told

A better response by the truly penitent is to urge the opening of the books — to establish just what offenses actually occurred. In his interview regarding Abu Ghraib, Bush with some justice contrasted America’s willingness to address prison abuses with the secrecy that cloaked the same prison under Saddam Hussein — though it was the media that pulled the veil away, not any internal review process.

In any case, disclosure has become an essential test of contrition. Washington helped lead the way with the Watergate hearings. Latin America followed suit with its purgative truth commissions, in Argentina and Chile following the collapse of military rule in both countries. It was before such a commission in South Africa that former President F.W. de Klerk apologized for apartheid and erstwhile torturers confessed their crimes in return for amnesty. Whatever the moral ambiguities of granting amnesty, these forums began to establish what really happened. Simultaneously, in the United States, declassified documents confirmed that African-Americans had been treated as guinea pigs for nearly 40 years as part of the infamous Tuskegee Institute syphilis study, justly evoking a formal apology from Clinton.

Yet tardy revelations can backfire, as in the case of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who ended a long silence in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he acknowledged that while still in office he doubted the military and political rationales for the war. Then why didn’t he resign and go public when it might have truly mattered? McNamara could only apologize for not having a satisfactory answer.

4. Conscience Money

Once truth is established, reparations can be a salve, but not a solvent. And timing is critical. It took Switzerland decades to address the claims of both Jews and non-Jews who naively placed their assets in Swiss banks to avoid Nazi confiscation during World War II. Eventually, an American team led by Stuart Eizenstat secured settlements totaling $8 billion for survivors and their offspring, but the famously opaque Swiss resisted disclosure to the end.

By contrast, in 1947, West Germany began paying generous compensation for Nazi crimes to Israel, Jewish organizations, and formerly occupied countries. Similarly, under President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, the United States awarded $1.6 billion in restitution to families of 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned on the West Coast in 1942. Will similar restitution one day be paid for the civilian fatalities caused by aerial drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq?

5. Find a Scapegoat

A time-tested means of limiting blame is to request or force the resignation of a high-profile official. When U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld initially faced angry questions over Abu Ghraib, he was greeted by a startling cover line in the mainstream British weekly the Economist: "Resign, Rumsfeld." By so doing, the magazine said, he could demonstrate "one of the true American values: that senior people take responsibility." But losing Rumsfeld would have reflected badly on a president who had recently called him America’s greatest defense secretary.

So the implicit sacrificial goat became George Tenet, the long-serving CIA director, who resigned on June 3, 2004, avowedly for "personal reasons" — thus draining his departure of political meaning. It was generally assumed that the unstated reason for his departure was that he provided bad intelligence on Saddam’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program, but all this remained speculation, which is why his departure was drained of political meaning. In Britain, by contrast, cabinet resignations are an accepted form of penance for a failed policy, a classic case being the 1982 resignation of the British foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, whose diplomacy failed to prevent the Falklands War with Argentina. In this respect, the advantage is Britain’s. "Falling on the sword" is an honorable way of taking responsibility for a botched policy, with the added merit of giving the outgoing minister a day in the House of Commons to give his or her defense. The only American example that comes to mind is the resignation of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in April 1980 because he opposed President Jimmy Carter’s high-risk "Desert One" operation, a failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran.

6. The Bareheaded Bow

This is the maximum degree of contrition and the least common. On rare occasion, the lords of power bow their heads — a posture of humility and repentance so unusual it is often remembered for centuries. Such was the case when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV quarreled with Pope Gregory VII over lay investiture — appointing religious officials without permission from the Holy See — and was duly excommunicated. Alone and barefoot, Henry turned up on a snowy day in the year 1077 before the pope’s castle in Canossa (in today’s Italy), an image of penitence immortalized in art and folk memory.

The emperor’s gesture found its modern parallel in 1970 when another German leader fell on his knees at the site of the Warsaw ghetto to apologize for what the Nazis had done. The gesture was the more striking because Chancellor Willy Brandt, as a Social Democrat, had opposed Hitler from the start. His wordless atonement counted more than 1,000 speeches. In 2011, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin followed suit by holding a service of atonement for abuse victims and, in an act of humility, washed their feet. He had already gone through step three, providing thousands of pages of evidence to authorities investigating priests accused of pedophilia and defying the Vatican hierarchy.

So how does it add up? By any fair measure, whatever the games and evasions just described, the fact that governments today feel obligated to face a global jury represents a positive milestone in human history. In the past, absolute rulers had little to fear except the barbed comments of philosophers like Voltaire or polemicists like Thomas Paine. Today, even the Vatican is being pressed to acknowledge sins committed by its priests. How brave — and how unlikely — if a U.S. president flew to Afghanistan to attend memorial services for all the fallen, Afghan and American. And what if this were followed by a truth commission to establish authoritatively who was responsible for all the midnight-hour tragedies in America’s longest war? Doubtless some Republicans would cry "ridiculous," but I suspect the verdict would be kinder abroad, and even more so in years to come.

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