The Strategic Necessity of Saying Sorry

Obama’s so-called “apology tour” is critical for U.S. foreign policy

President Barack Obama and President Bounnhang Vorachith of Laos toast in the Dok Boua Ban Room at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos, Sept. 6, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This month, President Obama became the first sitting President to visit Laos. While there, he also became the first President to publicly mention the 2,000,000 tons of bombs the United States dropped on the tiny country during the Vietnam War. Obama noted the tonnage was “more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history.”

Critics, including Bush Administration veterans Karl Rove and John Bolton, contend there is no reason for America to apologize and this was just the latest stop on Obama’s so-called apology tour. His conciliatory tone in stops like Japan and Cuba was meant to boost his own popularity at the sake of the country’s interests. “He puts his vanity before our national pride,” wrote Bolton. The end (ensuring national security) justifies any means, and apologies only serve to embolden our enemies and unsettle our allies. According to Rove, Obama “apologized for America and our adversaries rejoiced.”

But, what if we never apologized? Our allies might take refuge in the unrepentant consistency of our support. Our enemies perhaps would fear America’s unwavering resolve. Or, we might look like sociopaths.

If to err is human, recognizing these inherent imperfections in oneself is just as quintessential. Apologizing when these imperfections manifest themselves in mistakes is how errant humans maintain communal bonds. The same is true in geopolitics: acknowledging mistakes is important for repairing diplomatic ties and counteracting the recruiting messages of terrorists and despots.

Apologies differ from imposed punishments. Unless coerced, it takes some measure of self-reflection to look at past actions, see the error, and realize the harm. It takes courage to say, “I’m sorry, and I’ll make it up to you.”

This reflection is key. Apologies contain an acknowledgment of social norms and a willingness to abide by them. If I fail to hold a door open for someone and then awkwardly meet them in the elevator, I apologize — recognizing there is an unspoken rule to hold doors for people and that I, as a member of society, should have abided by it.

To never apologize is not just to be enamored by one’s perfection. It also a rejection of society’s rules. Yes, the United States has made mistakes in the fog of war. We have bombed things we shouldn’t have, like a hospital in Kunduz last year. We’ve committed atrocities in My Lai and Abu Ghraib. If we don’t apologize for these mistakes, it leaves others to wonder: do we deny the event happened, or do we think what happened was acceptable?

Bolton, Rove, and their ilk see apologies as a slippery slope. One will lead to more and then a once proud country will be reduced to a spineless milquetoast who apologize for everything, even when it’s not at fault. Apologizing before others do may seem to let them off the hook for their misdeeds, in what Bolton and Rove refer to as “moral equivalency.” Here they have a point.

I suspect it’s why Obama didn’t apologize explicitly in Laos or in an earlier visit to Hiroshima. Instead, his acknowledgment of a “shared responsibility” included Japan, who committed war crimes during World War II. The “suffering and sacrifices on all sides” Obama mentioned in Laos include that country’s role as a key VietCong supply route in the Vietnam War.

However, there were rules and norms that governed the proportionality of the punishment America meted out in response. Spirited debates continue over whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. Whether you need 2,000,000 tons of bombs to disrupt enemy supply lines is debated less often.

Surely, it is unacceptable to violate these rules and norms, but it’s understandable. After all, to err is human. But what distinguishes us — the shining city on a hill — is our commitment to the rules. Apologizing where appropriate helps assure allies and enemies alike that we are committed to playing by the rules — and holding accountable those who do not.

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