The Trouble With Apologies

  • Share
  • Read Later
The Presidential press conference had the feel of a therapy session but without the subtlety. "Would you not feel so much better," George W. Bush was repeatedly asked in so many words, "admitting to us the sheer folly of your disastrous policies?" Of course, in demanding a confession, the press corps was seeking catharsis not for the President/patient but for itself, hungry for the satisfaction of puncturing the stubborn certainty of this utterly determined war President.

No dice. Bush essentially told them to take a hike.

Should he have acquiesced? Some things have obviously gone wrong in the past 3 1/2 years, most notably Sept. 11 and most recently the insurgency in Iraq. Should Bush apologize?

Well, what happened in the past when bad things happened to good Presidents? Did F.D.R. apologize for Pearl Harbor — a military attack on a military base by a military force already at war? No. He placed blame entirely on the empire of Japan, then promised to reduce it to rubble. Which he did.

Take Oklahoma City, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil before Sept. 11. Did President Bill Clinton take responsibility — let alone apologize for Oklahoma City? No. In fact, he laid the dead at the feet of "loud and angry voices in America today," joining a chorus of liberals in blaming the bombing on the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich for allegedly encouraging militias.

O.K., so there's a double standard. Not every President is asked to apologize for disasters that occur on his watch. Still, did not Bush misjudge Iraq?

In some ways, of course, he did. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is candid in saying that no one expected fighting like this a full year after the fall of Baghdad. But any judgment about the President's judgments requires context. First, the context of the war on terrorism, which means examining the entire post-Sept. 11 ledger. That includes more than just the past two weeks of bloodletting in Iraq. It includes overthrowing the Taliban, liberating Afghanistan, scattering and decimating al-Qaeda, deposing Saddam Hussein, disarming Libya and turning Pakistan from supporter of the Taliban (and by extension al-Qaeda) into perhaps our most significant ally in the war on terror. And though no one dares say this, it includes 2 1/2 years without a terrorist attack on American soil, something that in the days and weeks after Sept. 11 no one expected. Call that luck. Call that design. But it is a fact.

Second, the context of war in general. What level of errorlessness — and admission of errorhave we demanded of our wartime leaders? In World War II, F.D.R. and Winston Churchill made scores of tactical errors that cost thousands of Allied lives. Did they apologize? Did they say they were sorry for the disastrous Operation Market Garden ("a bridge too far") or for the terrible losses in the Battle of the Bulge? It takes but a modicum of humility and humanity to recognize that in the pressure of war, tactical errors are inevitable.

The Afghan campaign was one of the most brilliant and economical in military history. Nonetheless, one battle, Tora Bora, was a failure, probably allowing Osama bin Laden to slip away. Is this the stuff of apologies? Did Lincoln apologize for his army's letting Lee get away at Antietam?

Iraq was a country utterly ruined by Saddam Hussein. Paul Bremer has had to rebuild it from the ground up. He has been making dozens of decisions every day, the vast majority of them successful: the economy is reviving, tens of thousands of Iraqis have returned from exile, oil production is near prewar capacity, the country is rebuilding. Did we make any mistakes? Of course we did. The most egregious being not giving enough protection to the pro-Western Ayatullah Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, who was murdered, most likely by followers of the now notorious Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sure, it would have been nice if Bush had said, "Yes, we erred. Perhaps we should not have disbanded the Iraqi army." Would saying that have won him praise for his candor? Not in the poisoned climate of Washington today. Last July, Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, returned from Iraq with a balanced and honest assessment of what the allies had done right and wrong in the immediate postwar period. What was the next morning's Washington Post headline? WOLFOWITZ GIVES NUANCED ASSESSMENT OF IRAQ SITUATION? No. WOLFOWITZ CONCEDES IRAQ ERRORS, followed by a brief for the Administration's critics.

In August 1945, Harry Truman made the weightiest presidential decision of the 20th century. He later said he never lost a night's sleep over dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima. For that, some critics to this day condemn him for lack of reflectiveness — and worse. I'd call it decisiveness. And in wartime, decisiveness counts for more.