Politics & Policy

Making Amends

The Iraqis are owed a presidential apology.

President Bush should apologize to the Iraqi people.

No, he shouldn’t apologize for any of the things the antiwar crowd thinks he should apologize for. He shouldn’t apologize for the bombs or any of that. In fact, he shouldn’t apologize for anything he’s done at all. He’s pretty much done everything right. No, he should apologize for what his two predecessors did — or rather, for what they didn’t do.

But before we get into that, let me clear the air about something else first. One of the most absurdly exaggerated journalistic clichés of the last three years has been the extent to which George W. Bush’s actions have been dictated by the example of his father. I searched Lexis-Nexis for examples of journalists using the phrase “mistakes of his father” in stories about Bush and there was a flood of them, too deep to wade through. But there’s no point because we’ve all heard it a million times by now. Indeed, as John Podesta says in USA Today this morning, “If there’s one thing we know about him, it’s that he has studied the mistakes that his father made and he is loath to repeat them.”

Get that? “If there’s one thing we know about him . . .” We are surer of this than we are that he is a Republican or even a carbon-based life form.

Now, I don’t mean to be pedantic. The conventional wisdom is certainly right that Bush has studied the mistakes of his father — I’ve heard more than a few White House staffers say so themselves. I’m sure the current president is even particularly concerned about this because he was there when his father’s ship went down and that was his only other significant Washington experience before he became president.

But, you know what? Bush is also the president of the United States. And pretty much all presidents study the mistakes of their predecessors, especially the ones from their own parties — and even more especially when their immediate predecessor was couldn’t get reelected. President Clinton came into office determined not to make the mistakes of Jimmy Carter. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote a column in December of 1992, “Bill Clinton’s Sure No Jimmy Carter.” It begins: “President-elect Bill Clinton and his managers seem spooked by the idea they might repeat the mistakes that were made by Jimmy Carter, the most recent Democrat in the White House. To avoid it, they have been consulting with some of those who managed the transition 16 years ago.”

Anyway, I bring this up because, well, journalistic clichés annoy me. But it’s also a very relevant point for today. One of the dumber arguments made by the antiwar crowd is that Bush has gone to war because he wants to avenge his father and finish the job his dad couldn’t finish. The reason this is a dumb argument is pretty simple. The first President Bush and his defenders have spent much of the last decade lashing out at anyone who would even suggest that the first Gulf War was mishandled. The original Bushies — Scowcroft, Baker, even Powell — have repeatedly ridiculed the notion that marching into Baghdad would not have been wise or legal. What the current President Bush is doing now severely undermines the accomplishment of the first Gulf War in terms of how history will judge what his father did.

Coming back twelve years later to finish the job only proves how Poppa Bush didn’t get the job done. If George W. is interested in burnishing his dad’s reputation, this is not the way to do it. Which is why, many surmise, so many people from Bush I were so reluctant to endorse this war. Another reason, of course, is that the first Bush administration was Kissingerian in its foreign policy and this administration is Reaganite. But disentangling policy from ego is never an easy thing.

Regardless, if the past is to be judged through the prism of the present, then America messed up in 1991. It may have seemed like the right idea at the time, but in retrospect America should have toppled Saddam in 1991. We would have had all the international support we needed. The tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly Shia, who rose up to topple Saddam, would still be alive and grateful to the United States of America and we wouldn’t have had the last twelve years of sanctions and the rest of this stress. Indeed, we might even have had peace in the Middle East and no September 11. After all, Osama bin Laden saw our reluctance to topple Saddam as a sign of weakness and he saw the presence of our troops in Saudi Arabia as an insult to Muslim honor. If we’d toppled Saddam, there would have been no need to keep our troops in Saudi Arabia and we certainly wouldn’t have looked weak if we’d gone all the way to Baghdad.

Obviously, it’s impossible to know for sure, but I certainly think that the world would have been better off if we’d spent the last twelve years trying to tweak and improve Iraq’s fledgling democracy than we have been playing footsie with Saddam and the United Nations.

Regardless, we can’t deny the real consequences of playing the game the way we did. A little more than a week ago, when the Shiites of Basra failed to rise up against their Baathist overlords, there was a lot of talk in the United States about how this made sense considering how we’d encouraged the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam and then refused to support them when they did. We even saw the old clip of the first President Bush encouraging the Iraqis to topple Saddam. No one knows how many people Saddam slaughtered putting down the Iraqi intifada, but it’s safe to assume that a lot fewer would be dead if we hadn’t persuaded them to do it in the first place.

Over the subsequent dozen years, the Iraqi government beat the Iraqi people down. Al Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, the French, the Iranians, the international Left, and of course Saddam Hussein’s own massive propaganda machine all told Iraqis that their misery was the result of the deliberate cruelty of U.S. sanctions (a more Castroite argument you could not find). Obviously the Iraqis didn’t buy this tripe completely, because they are now in the streets hugging U.S. troops. But it’s also clear that the trust may not be very deep. These next few weeks are vital for earning the confidence of the Iraqi people and the wider Arab world.

I think a great first step in this regard would be a simple apology. President Bush should say to the Iraqi people that he is sorry it took us so long to come back. President Clinton went on an outrageous Global Apology Tour when he was in office (See Apologia Clintonia) which only served to make America seem weak. Worse, Clinton mostly apologized for policies he disagreed with. I’m sure Clinton thought he has a Profiles in Courage Award coming for being a lifelong Cold War dove and then apologizing for what the hawks did to bring down the Berlin Wall, but that’s another story.

But an apology from Bush would have huge a huge impact. The quickest way to prove your sincerity is to make it clear that you are acting out of contrition for something you did wrong in the past. Obviously, we aren’t in Iraq merely to atone for a past wrong, but there’s nothing wrong with telling this to the Iraqi people, since it is in effect one reason why we are there. Moreover, a properly phrased apology could make this war less of a blow to the pride of the Iraqis. The stunning humiliation of the Iraqi army is already a major — if not the major — issue for Arabs outside of Iraq. There’s every reason to think it will be a major sore point for the Iraqis themselves in the weeks to come, when things calm down under an apparent occupation by U.S. forces and various groups jostle for influence and vent imported Arab rhetoric at U.S. forces.

We’ve proven our strength; we now need to prove our humility, as we brilliantly did when our troops took a knee outside the tomb of Ali in Najaf last week. An apology from Bush would demonstrate far better that we are not conquerors. And, it would contribute to a much needed, and not necessarily inaccurate, national myth or narrative for Iraq. Just as the French needed to convince themselves that they were a major factor in liberating France, the Iraqis need to think of themselves as a proud people fighting for their own freedom. The best way to do this is to frame this war as a continuation of the last. In this formulation, the U.S. troops in Iraq today are the cavalry coming to the aid of the brave men and women of the first Iraqi intifada, an Arab Alamo fighting for a free Iraq. The cavalry arrived too late, and that’s why we should apologize. This would, I think, help to preserve the pride of the Iraqis and at the same time demonstrate the sincerity of our stated intentions. Such an apology could be quite convincing from President Bush because it would no doubt be sincere, and because it would implicitly admit that his own father had made a mistake.

There’s no need for Clintonian lip-biting and blubbering or beating ourselves up. But rebuilding Iraq is a form of making amends already. It will be easier to do it, if we say it first.


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