A Canary in the Mine

by Victor Davis Hanson

One rare apology might in theory make things safer for Americans; lots of them in fact make things more dangerous for our troops. In general, if you apologize gratuitously when there is no need, remorse loses its currency in the rare cases when it might be necessary. All this saying “we are sorry” has also energized our enemies as much as it has depressed the public at home. Here’s why.

The rioting and killing over the burned Korans are not just over issues of religious desecration. Of course, ostensibly in sensitive hearts-and-minds counter-insurgency operations in a Muslim nation, soldiers must be more careful. In addition to protecting themselves, killing the enemy, and rebuilding communities, they must worry about issues that not only have not arisen in most other theaters (e.g., Korea, Vietnam, Haiti, Panama, Grenada, etc.), but have not arisen at other eras in which Americans worked with Muslims (I doubt that George Patton’s Seventh Army in Tunisia worried too much about the contents of their burn dumps; liberated Kuwaitis in 1991 would not have been inspecting U.S. Army trash piles and would not have dared to say anything had they found anything deemed objectionable, in the fashion that Iraqis in May 2003 were not worried how we deposed our trash but might have been by 2005. The Taliban or their sympathizers were not staging such demonstrations in January 2003).

So the Korans are a symptom, not a cause, a tell-tale warning about a deeper crisis in Afghanistan involving perceptions of weakness and loss of deterrence. The rioters and killers accept a number of unspoken truths — that Muslims in war sometimes themselves desecrate Korans when they blow up mosques or when they write messages on the pages, and that the serial apologies from a variety of American officials, after a while, even to the rioters, send the message of accident and mishap rather than an official policy. But all that does not matter that much.

Instead the violence stems from a perception that it works and that it is a smart thing to do, that the United States seems — after going through four senior ground commanders in three years, after loud announcements of scheduled withdrawals and final departures, after wide publicity that there is no longer, after ten years, public support for staying and no real Obama administration commitment to winning (i.e., establishing a secure consensual Afghan government that can survive Taliban pushback), and after apparent hesitancy elsewhere in the world — tired and exhausted in “lead from behind” fashion. In that context, Taliban-inspired rioting seems advantageous to the enemy, and the acceptance of it tolerable to the casual bystander, given the probable conditions in Afghanistan after a couple of years of lots of Taliban and very few Americans. Likewise, Pakistan is now a veritable enemy, without which the Taliban would probably lose.

We should have given one single apology from one official one time — and left it at that — combined with stepped-up military operations, showing that we were genuinely remorseful on the one hand, but on the other even more determined to defeat an enemy who would recreate the nightmare of Afghanistan that proved so conducive to al-Qaeda. Somehow counter-insurgency ideology has become antithetical rather than integral to defeating the enemy itself, in the sense that we should have been worried both about winning over the populations and creating such fear in the hearts of the enemy that no one would dare kill an American soldier given our power to take out the enemy.

A final note. It is unfair to criticize Obama for apologizing; Bush did it on an occasion or two, given the worry over attacks on American lives in a world of instant communications. But it is very fair to remind him that the wages of bowing to the Saudis, apologizing abroad for various supposed long-ago American sins, and, in this case, having officials compete for the honor of “we’re sorry” finally do come due. The war in Afghanistan is not just predicated on winning hearts and minds there, but winning them here too; obsequiousness abroad might in theory win a brief respite, but it will most certainly ensure that most Americans at home are so exasperated as to sigh, “I’ve got enough problems without trying to help people who prefer living in the 7th century.”