What is an apology worth?
It is a question that has recently taken on presidential implications. The Republican candidates have really enjoyed themselves painting President Obama as an “appeaser-in-chief” that regularly apologizes for America. Whether he is bowing to a Saudi, or blaming America for the banking crisis, Republican hopefuls have repeatedly made it clear that Obama’s brand of humility is unbecoming of the leader of the free world.
This issue recently erupted in a literal firestorm after Afghan workers at Bagram Air Force base found burnt copies of the Koran in a trash bin. The back story was that prisoners were using the texts to communicate with each other, and pass along inflammatory messages. They were confiscated from the prisons and were to be put in storage, and it is not entirely clear why they were placed with garbage and burned. It has not been US policy to burn Korans, and it was not the intent to burn the Korans, simply to remove them from the prisons.
The discovery by the Afghan workers led to outrage. People all over Afghanistan were up in arms over the disrespect shown to their holy book, that some of them took to violence. At least thirty people have been killed in the protests, including six American servicemen who were killed in direct retribution for the incident.
The White House’s official response to the matter has been one of contrition. President Obama directed a written apology to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, and the White House has since defended their decision to apologize. However unintentional, US forces still desecrated a document that most Afghans consider sacred and Obama decided that humility was the best course of action.
Not everyone agrees with the President’s sentiment. On Meet the Press this week, Newt Gingrich brought up this issue seemingly without reason. When David Gregory was asking Newt about the birth control controversy and Rush Limbaugh’s attack of, and then apology to Sandra Fluke, Newt avoided the question and went out on a limb stating that if Gregory wanted to talk about apologies, he would be “happy to discuss it” and asked Gregory “should the President apologize to the men and women in uniform that he abandoned?” His point that was by apologizing for the Koran burnings, Obama had abandoned the troops.
However tactless his approach is, it raises the question – should Obama have apologized for the Koran burnings, and did he abandon the men and women in uniform when he did? Other conservative leaders have stated that Karzai should be the one apologizing for the Afghanis who are killing our troops, and that Obama should never apologize for America.
I find the conservative argument here incredibly ethnocentric and close minded. Consider the entire context of our Afghan involvement. We went into Afghanistan because that is where we believed Osama bin Laden was hiding, and because al-Qaeda and the Taliban were harboring terrorists. We went in to win the hearts and minds of the people and do away with the extremist regimes and hope to implant a seed of democracy. The Afghan people at large were never our targets. We were not at war with a nation or an ethnic group, we were at war with an ideology.
We were there ostensibly, to help deliver a better life to those who were living under the brutality of the Taliban, we held ourselves to a higher code of conduct and tried to embed ourselves within the society to gain the trust of the tribal leaders in the fight against extremism. If that was in fact the goal – then the customs of the society must be respected. If we were going to gain allies in the Afghani people, we needed to treat them as such, and respecting their culture is part of that.
A huge part of that culture is the Islamic tradition, and the absolute sanctity of the Koran. If we are to maintain the goal of the Afghan mission, we must keep the civilians on our side by respecting their customs, and yes, issuing apologies if we screw it up.
The United States soldiers that unwittingly burnt the Korans were acting in under the direct authority of the President. They were government agents there to uphold the goals and strategies of the nation at large. It seems that conservative firebrands like Gingrich see the world in high contrast – that we are the good guys and Afghans are enemies. In reality, we are not at war with Afghanistan. We are not at war with the people of Afghanistan. We are fighting a war against extremism in Afghanistan, and in order to not alienate the people’s whose country we have invaded, some common courtesy would seem appropriate.
The Afghans who protested with violence were not agents of the state, they were simply enraged civilians. Hamid Karzai owes no apology to the United States any more than Obama owes an apology to the people of Italy for Amanda Knox. It is nonsensical to ask the head of state to answer for people who are not agents of the government.
Which approach do you think protects out troops more? The President who seeks to defuse a volatile situation through an understanding of the cultural minefield that is the occupation of Afghanistan – or the challenger who disrespects an entire people and their religion? If some Afghanis can respond with violence to the insult of burning Korans – how do you think they would respond to an obstinate President refusing to acknowledge their grievances?
Gingrich’s assertion that maintaining a respectful dialogue with the Afghan people is tantamount to the abandonment of our troops simply shows that he has absolutely no idea why we are fighting that war in the first place. If Mr. Gingrich loves this country as much as he says that he does, then he should take the time to acknowledge that his love isn’t perfect, and sometimes America makes mistakes, and sometimes apologies are worthwhile.