Friday, February 25, 2011

Tisdel's Debunker: Obama's Apologies

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines apology in the following manner:
1a : a formal justification : defense b : excuse 2a 
2: an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret <a public apology>
3: a poor substitute : makeshift
Later, the dictionary expounds on the definition.
"apology usually applies to an expression of regret for a mistake or wrong with implied admission of guilt or fault and with or without reference to mitigating or extenuating circumstances <said by way of apology that he would have met them if he could>. apologia implies not admission of guilt or regret but a desire to make clear the grounds for some course, belief, or position <his speech was an apologia for his foreign policy>".

The key phrase here seems to be "an expression of regret... with implied admission of guilt". So to make an apology, I first have to acknowledge that I did something wrong. Then I have to say that I regret it, which carries the "implied admission of guilt or fault".

Keeping all that in mind, let's spin up the TARDIS and go back to June 2, 2009, for this list of "The President's Top Ten Apologies: How Barack Obama has Humiliated a Superpower"!!!

The distinguished foreign policy scholar Nile Gardiner (and his assistant, Morgan Roach) charges that President Obama has consistently pushed the idea that "the United States must atone for its past policies". Apparently, he thinks "that the U.S. is a flawed nation that must seek redemption by apologizing for its past 'sins'". Clearly, Obama has "a relentless penchant for apology-making (bolding mine)", that has "weaken[ed] American power on the world stage".

Gardiner then cites the ten most egregious examples of this dangerous trend as proof of Obama's wishy-washiness. Let's take a look, shall we? I'll put an evaluation of whether the statement is an apology or not under each one, and then tally up at the end.

Mind you, I'm playing by Gardiner's rules here. It's entirely possible that the context of the speeches exculpate Obama from the charge of being apologetic on their own. He's chosen to use relatively brief excerpts, which I am shortening even further for convenience's sake. In other words, out of context, these will likely appear even more apologetic than they did in the original article. All italics are mine.

Let Us Boldly Go Forth!

 1. "Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." Obama makes an acknowledgment here, the first half of an apology. But the second half is missing. There's no regret in Gardiner's excerpt. Therefore, this is Not An Apology.

2. "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect." Acknowledgment of imperfection and mistakes; no regret. Not An Apology.

3. "While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms."Acknowledgment of mistakes; no regret. Not An Apology.

4. "I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we've made, that you're starting to see some restoration of America's standing in the world." Backhanded acknowledgment that America's standing was at one time low; no regret. Not An Apology.

5. "But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us--Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens--fell silent. In other words, we went off course." This string of acknowledgments is probably closest to a true apology, as a sense of regret comes through from the litany of mistakes. But there's still no regret actually voiced. You have to interpret from the text, which Gardiner is happy to do. I'm not convinced that that should count, since it becomes subjective. Not An Apology.

6. "I don't believe that there is a contradiction between our security and our values. And when you start sacrificing your values, when you lose yourself, then over the long term that will make you less secure." He's talking about Guantanamo here, but this is barely even an acknowledgment; it's really more of a philosophical argument. Once again, there's no regret. Not An Apology.

7. "The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history... Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans." Acknowledgment. Implied regret; no voiced regret. Not An Apology.

8. "Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities, and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas." Acknowledgment. No regret. Let me remind the reader, he doesn't even have to say "I'm sorry" for it to count; any language about 'lost opportunity' or 'consequences', anything of the kind would suffice. None is present. Not An Apology.

9. "Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn. But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be President of the United States". This isn't even an acknowledgment. It's a half-assed acknowledgment that there could be mistakes. No regret is anywhere in the vicinity. Not An Apology.

10. "So the record is clear: Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies." Acknowledgment; controversial statement. No regret. Not An Apology. 

 Total: NO Apologies. 0 for 10. 

Gardiner might counterattack by pointing out that in several of the 'apologies', there appears to be an implied tone of regret. I'm not convinced by this. Yes, you could argue that an implication constitutes an "expression of regret", especially since we're not sure what an "expression" is; is it an accompanying phrase, a grimace, or one's tone of voice? The extended definition has 'apology' as an "expression of regret for a mistake or wrong". This leads me to believe that the "expression" should be a phrase or sentence that stands on its own merit. That interpretation fits with my understanding of the word 'apology', as well. If I tell my friend "I slept with your girlfriend", he probably wouldn't take that as an apology by itself, no matter what my face or tone told him. For it to be a true apology, I would have to say "I slept with your girlfriend"--acknowledgment--"and I'm sorry"--regret. This is really pedantic (hell, the whole note is pedantic) but it's the best way to address potential qualms. 

Gardiner might then respond "To hell with the dictionary definition, the President of the United States isn't going to literally say "I'm sorry" to a crowd! You have to look at his statements in a diplomatic context, in which an acknowledgment is as good as a straight admission of culpability!"

Sorry, but no. First of all, Gardiner makes the mistaken claim early on that the 'apologies' are for the United States in general. They aren't. Almost every statement above refers to some policy of President Bush's that Obama corrected. Second of all, I reject the idea that the President of the United States shouldn't say "We screwed up" when we screwed up.

If Gardiner had used "President Obama's Top Ten Apologia" as his title... which would imply that he was clearing away Bush's failed policies, not apologizing for them... he could've been a hell of a lot closer to correct. As it is, he's about as deep into 'fail' as that cat with cheese on its head. 

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