Sorry Excuse

Politics and policy.
April 4 1998 3:30 AM

Sorry Excuse

Rules for national apologies.

Bill Clinton has been roundly denounced for his "apology tour" of Africa. House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, implied the president's expressions of regret about slavery were almost treasonous. "Here's a flower child with gray hairs doing exactly what he did back in the '60s: He's apologizing for the actions of the United States. ... It just offends me that the president of the United States is, directly or indirectly, attacking his own country in a foreign land." Pat Buchanan wrote that Clinton had "groveled" in Africa. Robert Novak called the apology for slavery "ridiculous." Others have charged that the president's contrition regarding the U.S. failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was cheap and hypocritical, since it was a considered decision, not (as he implied) some kind of oversight, and there is no reason to suppose the United States will decide differently if it happens again.

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Fair points? Not really. Once again, loathing for Clinton is making it hard for people to see straight. These objections conflate complaints about this president's personal shortcomings with the question of how any president should represent the United States abroad. Ought Clinton have gone to Africa and simply not mentioned slavery? Should he have noted it but offered no view? Can any world leader travel to Rwanda in 1998 and not discuss genocide? To do so would be heartless and insulting. It's hard to believe that even a primitive such as DeLay thinks the president should play emperor, never explaining or apologizing for his country's actions. Then again, that was George Bush's position. "I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don't care what the facts are," he said during the 1988 campaign, after a U.S. cruiser had mistakenly shot down an Iranian plane, killing 290 civilians.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

It's not just Clinton's sympathetic promiscuity that accounts for the recent boom in the atonement. Apologies for national failings, both domestic and foreign, are in fashion not just in the United States but also in Britain, Japan, and elsewhere. One reason is that honesty has become less costly since the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union no longer has an enormous propaganda apparatus trained against us. Now the nations of the West can admit wrongdoing without the fear that they are giving ammunition to the enemies of freedom.

But when are national apologies sensible? Offered casually or indiscriminately, they can look like sops to constituencies rather than expressions of genuine regret. No nation should want to turn into David Brock. I don't think Clinton has reached the point where saying he's sorry is an empty gesture, but he may be flirting with it. Two of his apologies in Africa meet the test. A third one doesn't.

The best case for apology is a great and indisputable national misdeed. Ronald Reagan's apology to World War II-era Japanese internees falls into this category, as does the Vatican's apology to victims of the Holocaust. So also do Clinton's comments in Uganda about slavery. The objections--that Africans, too, dealt in slaves; that slaves came from West Africa, not Uganda; that American blacks, not Africans deserve the apology--are nit-picking. Here's what Clinton actually said: "Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that." To say that white Americans wrongly benefited from the slave trade doesn't imply that white Americans were exclusively responsible.

On the other hand, an apology can be justified without being required or even desirable. Clinton has decided, for a variety of reasons, that a domestic apology for slavery isn't a good idea. This does not require him to observe a taboo on the topic abroad.

Somewhat more troubling was Clinton's apology for not intervening to prevent the Rwandan genocide. Here's what he said:

The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope. ... We owe to all the people in the world our best efforts to organize ourselves so that we can maximize the chances of preventing these events. And where they cannot be prevented, we can move more quickly to minimize the horror.

This apology seems insincere, because Clinton did not offer any realistic sense of the obstacles to humanitarian military action involving the United States. At first Clinton may have wished, at some level, to intervene in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Haiti. But for practical and political reasons, he determined intervention was possible only in Haiti, then later in Bosnia. This was after the debacle in Somalia, remember, and at a time when his popularity was at low ebb. Clinton's judgment that he was in no position to send troops to Rwanda may not have been courageous. It may not even have been correct. But like a decision not to risk saving someone from a burning building, it is not morally culpable.

Illustration by Peter Kuper

So why apologize? I would defend Clinton's apology as a statement of aspiration. He delineates specific actions that he might plausibly have taken short of sending in the Marines. And there is reason to think that with more political capital, no re-election looming, and a heightened sense of horror, he would behave differently.

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