At any time in the 2,500-year history of Western diplomacy, has a head of state been advised by his host not to apologize for a long-ago act? I cannot think offhand of any instance until, apparently, two years ago.
According to a controversial leak provided by WikiLeaks — and picked up in stories by news outlets from AP to NPR — Barack Obama’s administration was politely advised by the Japanese in September 2009 that there would be no need for the presidential entourage to go to Hiroshima, apparently to apologize for the dropping of the atomic bomb 64 years earlier.
If the story is true, Obama seemed intent on showing the world that his predecessors had long ago done wrong. The intended gesture was of a piece with his bowing to the Japanese emperor and his novel dispatching of a delegation to the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing the following year.
The Japanese, if we can believe the leaked cables, called the proposed apology “a nonstarter” and stated that they feared blowback, in the form of encouragement for anti-nuclear and anti-American domestic forces — especially at a time when Japan is sensitive about its geostrategic vulnerability in a neighborhood that includes China, Russia, and North Korea. (Perhaps the Japanese would have preferred from Obama instead a stronger reiteration that they still reside safely beneath the U.S. defense umbrella.)
We can assume as well that the last thing the Japanese wanted was a sort of tit-for-tat cycle of apologies — given things like Nanking, Pearl Harbor, Bataan, the 20 million Chinese dead, the Korean “comfort women” corps, and Unit 731.
A PATTERN HERE?
Unfortunately, Obama’s presidency has been characterized by a habit of apologizing for his country. Indeed, in his first year in office alone, he offered regrets to Europe for past U.S. “arrogance,” to the Muslim world for not being “perfect” in our prior relations, to Latin America for trying to “dictate our terms,” to Turkey for America’s slavery, segregation, and, apparently, genocide of the Native Americans, and, indirectly, to Iran for the Mossadegh coup (“the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” and thus, presto, there has been “a tumultuous history between us”).
Note the difference between such existential historical apologies and more direct and targeted presidential mea culpas over particular transgressions — things like Bill Clinton saying he was sorry for not doing anything to save Rwandans, or for hitting the Chinese embassy in 1999 during the bombing in the Balkans, or for the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (or, for that matter, his serial expression of “I’m so sorry” for the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio).
Instead, we are now dealing with the existential apology for America’s past sins. In this regard, Obama’s confessionals follow Bill Clinton’s own other examples of broad-brush atonement for his less than noble ancestors — slavery in Africa, anti-Communist politics in Central America, support for the 1967 Greek coup. What, then, drives President Obama to want to apologize for his country?
MORE CONFIDENT AND “STRONGER”?
Sometimes, the president thinks apologetics are in our strategic interest, as if America alone should apologize to set a moral example. Former press secretary Robert Gibbs defended Obama’s Central American lamentations on the ground that they “changed the image of America around the world” and made the U.S. “safer and stronger.”
In the Al-Arabiya interview, his first after taking office, Obama offered a paradigm of critiquing the Bush administration (“all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved”). He implied general regret (“we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest”) and emphasized his own particular identity (“I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries”). All of that would usher in a new era of relations with the Muslim world.
Of course, that did not happen. Iran responded with the continued killing of Americans from Afghanistan to Iraq, and most recently by attempting to do the same in Washington, D.C. — amid a long litany of threats to destroy the Jewish state. Most polls do not reveal a marked upsurge of pro-American feeling in the Middle East. North African protesters often blamed Obama; he is the least liked U.S. president in Israeli history; and he has enraged Pakistan.