The Apology Tour

Mitt Romney drew scorn from Obama supporters, and warm approval from the rest of us, when he referred to Barack Obama’s “apology tour” during Monday’s debate. Obama apologizing for America? Never happened, says the Left. (Indeed, they even said it here.)

Pah! Mere pettifogging and hairsplitting. Blogger Jeryl Bier explains, deftly and succinctly, here.

13 Comments

  1. Dr. Strangelove says

    So am I right to say that you believe it is wrong for presidents to acknowledge previous errors?

    I would guess then that you believe that Bill Clinton shouldn’t have apologized to native Americans by signing the Apology Resolution. Or that it would be wrong for a president to admit that the Japanese interment was unlawful imprisonment of American citizens. Being blind to our previous wrongs not only allows us to repeat our mistakes but also damages our credibility & standing as a nation.

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    That’s a fair question. I’d say that it depends on:

    A) who we had “wronged”, and why, and under what contemporary historical context, as well as how objectively “wrong” whatever we’re apologizing for really is;

    B) what practical effect any particular expression national self-abasement will have in the current context.

    Regarding A), we should keep in mind that civilizations and ethical conventions have changed a great deal over the course of history, and that many things that were unobjectionable under their contemporary historical context now seem distasteful. It may feel morally noble to judge the past according to our current ethical fashions, and gratifyingly exculpatory, but it loads, in its hindsight, an unfair burden of guilt upon the past. For example, the West often bends over backwards to apologize for slavery, but in a broader historical context the salient feature is that the modern West is the place on Earth where slavery finally ended.

    As for B): if apologizing accomplishes nothing other than to make ourselves feel good about ourselves, but meanwhile serves only to imbue our enemies with contempt for our weakness and to embolden them, it becomes little more, in any practical sense, than a kind of unilateral disarmament. Before making any such gesture, we should answer the question: what is our aim?

    Look, for example, at the Muslim world — at its brutal Sharia law, its treatment of women and infidels, its oppression of liberty, its totalitarianism, its aggressive expansionism, its embrace of terrorism, its exterminationist policy toward Israel, its despotism, its persistent poverty, its intellectual backwardness, and so on. Should we really be apologizing to them?

    Has our behavior, as measured by 21st-century liberal Western standards, been unimpeachable throughout our history? Of course not. But has any nation’s? Of course not.

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    There is a distinction between apologizing – in which one asks for forgiveness – and stating unpleasant facts.

    Not that there is anything wrong with apologies. The right wing hate machine was silent when George Bush apologized to the Muslim world for Abu Ghraib and when American soldiers burned the Koran, or when he apologized to the Chinese for the Hainan Island incident. Or when Condi Rice told a Cairo audience that “for 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither.”

    Imagine what would happen if Obama apologized to Muslims – we would never hear the end of it. (As is his custom, Romney mangled the facts in the last debate – the purportedly apologetic remarks were not made in the Middle East, but in Paris and Latin America.)

    Apologizing is what responsible adults do. It is an admission of error, a request for forgiveness, and a promise to do better in the future. Needless to say, Obama is held to a different standard than his predecessors, and remarks which are reasonable and thoughtful are condemned by those who will condemn Obama for anything he does, regardless of what it happens to be.

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Listen to you: “the right-wing hate machine”. Nice way to get a friendly discussion going.

    The fact is that Bush did draw plenty of criticism from conservatives throughout his tenure in office, including dissatisfaction with his obsequiousness regarding Islam. It’s easy to see, though, how this might have been inaudible to most observers under the incessant, deafening roar of the left-wing “hate machine” during his two terms.

    Meanwhile, what are you saying here, in response to Mr. Bier’s acute post? That Mr. Obama did apologize, and that’s OK because it’s what “responsible adults do”, or that he didn’t (and so, presumably, isn’t behaving like a “responsible adult”)?

    The point is that Mr. Obama (along with his wife) seems, looking back over his adult life and his presidential term, to be very comfortable indeed with the idea that until the great Redemption (i.e., His arrival upon the scene), the U.S. was in many ways a morally indefensible nation.

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  5. “Apologizing is what responsible adults do.”

    A revealing self-assessment.

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    There is a distinction between apologizing – in which one asks for forgiveness – and stating unpleasant facts.

    More hairsplitting. Why state them at all, if not as a gesture of contrition?

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    If apologizing for Abu Ghraib or burning the Koran is tantamount to obsequiousness, then I am all for obsequiousness. Bush did absolutely the right thing. Your suggestion is that he should just have ignored them and moved on?

    An apology includes an admission of error as well as a request for forgiveness. Obama did the former but not the latter. The reason this distinction is important is that he has been portrayed by his opponents as a weak leader who lacks patriotism, hates America, and kowtows to foreign leaders. Hence a handful of reasonable statements which acknowledged past errors was taken as prima facie evidence of his disdain for America. It’s nonsense which has gotten repeated play, including last week’s debate.

    As for the assertion that Barack or Michelle Obama view America as “morally indefensible:” equally nonsensical.

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    So, then, I guess the example given by Mr. Bier doesn’t qualify as an “apology”, and I guess the general form “I’ve done terrible things to you, and from now on I’m going to make sure I never do them again” isn’t an “apology” either. As you’re fond of saying, I think that’s a distinction without a difference. And as you’re also fond of saying: res ipsa loquitur.

    As for the assertion that Barack or Michelle Obama view America as “morally indefensible:” equally nonsensical.

    Well, this conversation looks to be about as productive as our “pathway to the sea” chat in a recent thread, so I’ll just let readers decide for themselves.

    (I’d ask them, though, to keep in mind: Mr. Obama’s decades in Rev. Wright’s church; his long and close association with vicious anti-American types like Bill Ayers; his sitting patiently through a virulent anti-American diatribe by Daniel Ortega, after which he rose not to defend his country, but simply to say that he wasn’t responsible for things that happened before he was born; his eagerness to “fundamentally transform” a nation he describes as “mean-spirited”; his oikophobic “bitter clinger” disdain for American traditions; Michelle’s “for the first time I’m proud of my country” and “all this for a damn flag”; and much, much more. One always gets the sense from Mr. Obama that a deeply flawed America is incredibly fortunate to have him as president, rather than the other way round.)

    Posted October 25, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  9. Dr. Strangelove says

    As always, thanks Malcolm for such a thoughtful response to my question. I especially agree with you on the idea that we make a mistake when we judge the past with the ethical standards of today.

    On the other hand when you reference the example of America’s relationship with the Muslim world (which by the way is a far too monolithic term for a community that is extraordinarily varied) and say “Should we really be apologizing to them?” I completely disagree. It should not matter the ethical qualities of one’s interlocutor. No matter how horrible a person is if you truly wrong them then one ought to apologize. Holding ourselves to a higher ethical standard was a hallmark of America’s greatest generation. When the Nazis and Japanese were mistreating our POWs we didn’t stoop to such levels. Moreover, and more importantly for this conversation, when abuses did come to light we were quick try to alleviate the situation.

    Our funding of both sides of the Iraq-Iran conflict was wrong by the standards of time in which it was done & that is just one example of the many actions within the Middle East when America allowed our self interest trump moral considerations even though we knew better. To apologize for that even though the actors in that conflict were hardly blameless (if anything Saddam & iran’s ayatollah deserve almost all of the blame) makes a lot of sense. While apologizing for our previous mistakes might signal “weakness” to the leaders of certain Muslim countries, it also signals that we are willing to hold ourselves to the standards that purport. Our credibility around the world had taken a large hit after the debacle that was called the Bush administration and President Obama’s wish to show how different his administration would be made sense in order to restore our nation’s standing. Whether it was effective is another question.

    In the end I don’t see why this is seen as such an effective attack by Romney against Obama. It only works because Americans have a distorted view of our own nation. We see ourselves as an exceptional nation (which in some ways we are), the indispensable nation (which is a nasty implication for our view of other nations) and as such it offends our sensibilities when someone suggests we might have done something that requires an apology.

    Posted October 26, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Strangelove,

    Working backward through your comment:

    It only works because Americans have a distorted view of our own nation. We see ourselves as an exceptional nation (which in some ways we are), the indispensable nation (which is a nasty implication for our view of other nations)…

    Whether this is a “distorted” view of America depends on the lens you view America through, and how it refracts American history. I’m sure that if your eyepiece is fitted with, say, the Howard Zinn lens, you’re going to see America in rather a dim light.

    Your position appears to be that no matter how exceptional a force for good America has been in the world, an abstract formulation of moral virtue requires that in addition we must we seek forgiveness for all our sins, even from those whose contribution to the utilitarian sum of human well-being pales before our own, and even from those who despise us and seek our destruction.

    Our funding of both sides of the Iraq-Iran conflict was wrong by the standards of time in which it was done & that is just one example of the many actions within the Middle East when America allowed our self interest trump moral considerations even though we knew better.

    In this case we had two despicable regimes — one a totalitarian Islamic theocracy, the other a Nazi-modeled dictatorship — both of which were self-declared mortal enemies of America and western civilization generally, and both committed to the destruction of Israel, our closest ally (save perhaps the UK), and to the subjugation or extermination of the Jews. Both posed a tremendous threat to the stability of the region, and were well-armed, ruthless, and vicious. In any realistic, utilitarian sense, what better strategic option could we possibly hope for than to get them to fight and weaken each other for a decade? What was our other option? Simultaneous, unilateral wars of liberation in both Iraq and Iran?

    While apologizing for our previous mistakes might signal “weakness” to the leaders of certain Muslim countries, it also signals that we are willing to hold ourselves to the standards that purport.

    For what purpose? To make them “like” us? That will never happen, and to imagine that it would is to project our own cultural sensitivities onto utterly alien cultures that don’t share them at all. We achieve nothing by doing this other than to gratify our own racial and cultural guilt, and to embolden our foes.

    History is a messy business, and nations and peoples stand, in relation to one another, in a Hobbesean “state of nature”. In such a situation — which entails mortal competition with implacable foes — it is reasonable, in the interest of self-preservation, to weigh a pious insistence on publicly confessing our every sin against the effect of such self-abasement in the real world, a world teeming with far greater sinners than we.

    I do appreciate the moral position you are staking out here. It is admirably well-intentioned. But it is also, I think, too simplistic.

    Posted October 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  11. If I had more energy to spare, Malcolm, I might have attempted a similar response. I very much appreciate your doing the heavy lifting, however.

    Posted October 26, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Another point worth mentioning: if a nation or people are too easily willing to dissociate themselves from their past, and to go before the world to disparage and second-guess the decisions of prior generations, it casts doubt on the consistency of their resolve in the future.

    Posted October 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    This is an inherent problem of democracies, by the way: democracy, in contrast to small-franchise systems and hereditary monarchy, naturally disfavors historical consistency and “future time preference”. But that’s a topic for another (long) post.

    Posted October 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

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