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.
In fact, there is no empirical evidence that apologizing — as distinct from learning from one’s mistakes and trying to avoid them in the future — makes a state “stronger.” Given the tragic nature of humankind — go back to Thucydides’ explorations of the topic — states, like people, are just as likely to interpret apology as weakness, all the more so when the atonement refers to an event before their own times, and raises the question to the proposed recipient: “Hmmm, why now and for what reason?”
THEM, NOT ME
Second, Obama, even more than Clinton, seeks to distance himself from the main currents of America’s past, by picking and choosing what he might and might not have done in retrospect. The president stakes out a higher moral ground by telling the world that he was not responsible for, and indeed, in his singular wisdom, would never have committed, such sins. Most notoriously, Obama replied to a near-hour-long anti-American tirade by Daniel Ortega not by questioning Ortega’s own anti-democratic and often bloody record, but by meekly offering, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.” Apparently, the concern was not that a thug had unfairly trashed his country, but that Ortega might have included among his targets the innocent toddler Obama as well.
But such distancing is tricky. It opens a Pandora’s box of flawed assumptions. Is any nation free of sin? Apologizing for both ancient American sins and George W. Bush’s more recent ones while in Turkey — perpetrator of mass killings of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds — is surreal. The Arab world, to which Obama offered contrition, since World War II has systematically ethnically cleansed Jews and Christians from the Middle East. When an American apologizes for something in the 19th century to those who commit horrific acts in the 20th and 21st centuries, the message is not necessarily strength and confidence, but either uncertainty about one’s own history, or an insecure need to win affection from the far more culpable.
And if Obama sees the story of America as largely one of slavery, segregation, racism, and class and gender exploitation — rather than the amelioration of such universal human sins — coupled with commercial greed abroad, can he so easily separate himself from the dividends of those sins? Does his ability to enjoy Martha’s Vineyard, to jet into tony resorts, or, for that matter, before he was president to buy a Chicago mansion and find lucrative employment, have nothing to do with the singular nature of the American commercial system?
An apology for other Americans’ sins is easy and cheap, while changing one’s lifestyle to reflect a presumed penance for unfairly acquired benefits is much harder. Yet without the latter, we are reduced to carnival — something like multimillion-dollar celebrities or rich students at exclusive schools screaming about Wall Street greed and the unfair distribution of wealth, or a Noam Chomsky, from his comfortable Cambridge digs, tenured and salaried by the defense-contract-receiving MIT, blasting American military and economic transgressions.
Third, historical ignorance — a symptom in part of the college therapeutic curriculum — prompts many of the Obama apologies. Almost everything in his infamous Cairo speech was historically inaccurate, from the bogus Muslim tolerance in Córdoba during the Inquisition (there were virtually no Muslims present at that time in the city) to the idea of Islamic catalysts for the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment. His assertion that democratic governments cannot be imposed by force implies that Japan, Germany, and Italy willingly evolved into states with liberal constitutions.
Clearly, Obama knows nothing of the bad/worse historical choices in the decision to drop the bomb. Was America to lose hundreds of thousands of men in an invasion of Japan, to settle for a negotiated armistice that left the Tokyo militarists in power, to continue the far more deadly fire raids (enhanced by closer Okinawa runways and, soon, the transference of American heavy bombers from postwar Europe), rather than drop the atomic bomb?
Did Obama grasp that Turkey is the inheritor of 500 years of Ottoman colonialism — far longer and more brutal than the European brand? Is it so easy in the present to cast aspersions on the Cold War against a nuclear Soviet Union — a country that had previously destroyed 20 million of its own, and gobbled up Eastern Europe — when America was understandably sometimes less than perfect in the selection of its anti-Communist allies? Only an unschooled mind offers such ahistorical apologies — an all too common phenomenon in today’s academic world, where abstraction rules and cold realities do not intrude on tenured lifestyles.
PENANCE FOR THEE, BUT NOT FOR ME
Apologizing for the sins of long-dead others, in psychological fashion, obviates the need for present contrition for one’s own personal shortcomings. For example, Obama blasts past racism, but to this day has never apologized for subsidizing, by attendance and tithes, the abject racist and anti-Semite Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It is easier for Obama to apologize for America’s action in World War II than to apologize because as an irresponsible youth (“teenage boys are frequently confused”), he used cocaine (“maybe a little blow”) — a felonious practice that has long subsidized the murderous Latin American drug cartels. To cast stones at the dead, one must first be free of sin while alive.
In short, anytime an American president offers apologies for supposed transgressions in his nation’s long distant past, it tells us more about the apologizer than it does about the purported sin.