The president’s “I’m sorry,” for U.S. military involvement in the burning of copies of the Koran, has resonated in Kabul and on the campaign trail, where Republicans have been using it to support their claim that he is more interested in apologizing for American mistakes than in defending American power.
But Obama’s decision to apologize sprang from a mix of principle and pragmatism, the hallmarks of presidential apologies over the years.
The mostly partisan outcry over Obama’s apology shows the challenge he faces as both a candidate for reelection and as a wartime commander in chief, roles whose motivations are sometimes at odds. In this case, his attempt to assuage angry Afghans with an apology he hoped would protect American troops allowed some conservatives to question the strength of his leadership.
Speaking loudest from the Republican field, former House speaker Newt Gingrich called the apology an “outrage,” noting that on the day it was announced, two U.S. soldiers were killed in eastern Afghanistan during rioting over the incident. He said that if Karzai did not apologize for those deaths, then “we should say goodbye and good luck.”
For much of the past year, Republican candidates have mauled Obama’s management of foreign policy, claiming that he has humiliated the country on the world stage. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has said that Obama “went around the world and apologized for America.” Romney even called his campaign-style book “No Apology” to draw the contrast.
Much of the criticism stems from the more humble tone Obama has sought to bring to American foreign policy after the swaggering approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush. He has banned the harsh techniques that the International Committee of the Red Cross called torture from U.S. interrogation policy and made clear that he believes living up to American values is an essential source of the nation’s power. Repairing U.S. relations with the Islamic world has been one of Obama’s foreign policy priorities.
Polls show that most of the country approves of his handling of foreign affairs, and White House press secretary Jay Carney called the criticism of the Karzai apology a “fallacious and ridiculous narrative” not supported by the facts.
“There’s the risk of opening yourself to political attack, but obviously for a president they have to make that calculation,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, who in defending the apology cited President James Monroe’s declaration that “national honor is the national property of the highest value.”
“When someone is in the presidency, they own that property,” Dallek said. “And it’s incumbent on them to address any national embarrassment. It’s not as if this country is flawless, without blame or sin.”