Saturday, May 08, 2004

Too little...too late

"If Bush were of presidential caliber he would have sacked them by now -- and taken full personal responsibility for their incompetence. But wherever the buck stops these days, it surely is not on the president's desk. Yet nothing short of such an old-fashioned assumption of duty can now retrieve America's standing in the community of nations."

Actually, it's too late for that too....

Only "regime change" will retrieve America's standing in the community of nations.

Wash Post - Sunday, May 9, 2004

A Sorry State - The Artlessness Of the Apology By Tony Judt

We live in the age of the public apology. When a crisis occurs or a scandal is exposed, the first instinct of many public figures today is to erupt in a torrent of remorse. From Bill Clinton's 1992 apology to his wife for his sexual infidelities to the notorious 1998 Oprah Winfrey show where guests apologized to people they had "hurt," saying sorry has become all the rage. On the Oprah show experts even offered tips on how to apologize. "Don't be afraid to apologize," the incomparable Ms. Winfrey advised on her Web site. "Apologizing to your child doesn't mean you lose."

President Bush could have used a few such tips this month. Faced with the evidence of serial abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, Bush condemned, decried and regretted; but he didn't apologize for a week. In a world where victims -- real or presumptive -- demand not merely justice but penitence, the president's reluctance became a political issue in its own right.

For the second time this spring the Bush administration was caught up in the media's passion for public contrition. In late March the public commission investigating security lapses before 9/11 was transformed into a daytime soap opera. Would Condoleezza Rice follow Richard Clarke's cue and offer a telegenic "sorry" for letting it all happen? How would she "look" if she did offer an all-points apology? And -- of even greater media interest -- how would she look if she didn't?

Rice is a mediocre national security adviser but a good tactician. By refusing to express remorse ("I don't think that there is anyone who is not sorry for the terrible loss that these families endured," she told Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes," but she added, "the best thing that we can do for the future of this country is to focus on those who did this to us."), she paid a small price in the congeniality stakes while keeping journalists' attention firmly diverted from anything that mattered. It was Rice's present sentiments, rather than her past actions, that held center stage. We used to pay attention to what public figures did and what they thought. Now all we really want to know is how they feel. And everyone, even the president, enthusiastically obliges.

Public apologies used to be a very serious matter -- that's why they were so uncommon. In the past, when faced with bad news, politicians would do anything rather than confess. Typically, they dissimulated. Rather than tell you how they felt about something unpleasant for which they might be held accountable, they just issued denials: "It never happened." Later, when denial was no longer possible, they downplayed the matter: "All right, it happened, but it wasn't as bad as you say." And then, later still, when the scale of the crime or scandal was clear to all, they would concede that, "Well, yes, it happened and it was every bit as bad as you say. But it's all so long ago -- why dredge up the past?"

That is still the response in cultures where the public confession of failure or misbehavior carries heavy social penalties. In Japan, the wartime mistreatment of Chinese and Koreans is still mired in semi-denial and official mis-memory. Turkish authorities -- and many Turks -- shift uncomfortably between exculpatory re-description and outright denial when confronted with the massacre of the Armenians. Australia's leaders no longer deny the near-genocide of the Aborigines, but it is such old news that they refuse to dwell on it.

Even where international pressure has made official "regrets" and restitution unavoidable, as in the case of the Holocaust, heartfelt official remorse is rare -- the recent apology by President Alexander Kwasniewski for his countrymen's part in the destruction of their Jewish neighbors was all the more effective for being unprecedented in Poland.

The public apology, in short, is not a universal political response to bad news. But in the United States, where virtually everyone (except the 43rd president) apologizes at the first opportunity, it has a very different resonance. This does seem to be a distinctively American development. True, Tony Blair also indulges in it, but then in his well-advertised religiosity and his propensity to wax moralistic, Blair is the most "American" prime minister in modern British history. He is also of an age with Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush and other baby boomers molded by the pedagogical revolution of the '60s and the narcissistic preoccupations of the era.

For this generation of political leaders -- and followers -- it has always been important to have the right sort of feelings and to display them copiously. Thus (according to his spokesman) President Bush -- hitherto seemingly immune to the sensibilities of his generation -- feels sorry for the "pain caused" by the publication of pictures and reports of American soldiers torturing Iraqis. In Bush's own words he feels "bad" about what happened, "sorry for the humiliation" of Iraqi prisoners. He might not say that he exactly "feels their pain" -- that is a more distinctively Clintonian sentiment -- but it is the same general idea: Saying "sorry" makes it better. The victim feels better and so does the perpetrator -- indeed, you score a triple: You are good, you do good and you feel good.

The preferred use of sorry, however, is in the formulation "I'm sorry that such and such happened," distancing the speaker from any connection to the events, thereby relieving the speaker of any need for self-examination.

But in any case, in its transition from private relations to public affairs, the apology encounters some intriguing paradoxes. In the first place, it is self-undermining. As anyone knows who has ever dealt with young children, saying "sorry" has a dual purpose: It concedes guilt and exculpates the perpetrator. "I said I'm sorry -- why are you still upset?" Thus President Bush undoubtedly hopes that by saying how sorry he feels that his army has disgraced itself he can speedily put the affair behind him. But in this he is surely mistaken.

In our age of instant remorse the currency of penitence has been hyperinflated and has lost almost all its value. Most of those who heard the president expressing his regrets, above all the Arab and Muslim audience to which they were primarily directed, will have echoed the celebrated response of Mandy Rice-Davies at the height of the Christine Keeler affair in Swinging London, when Lord Astor denied under oath that he had been involved with her: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"

Moreover, while the president's regrets are doubtless heartfelt, his skeptical international audience is likely to reflect that he is no less "sorry" that the news leaked out. He may also come to rue the carefully qualified apologies offered by his subordinates: Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Abu Ghraib prison, first offered his apologies and then spent some time explaining that what he was referring to were the "illegal or unauthorized acts" of "a small number of soldiers." Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. army spokesman in Iraq, similarly qualified his expression of regrets -- "a small number of soldiers doing the wrong thing." Such grudging, formulaic repentance (alleged sodomy "with a chemical light and perhaps a broomstick" is now "the wrong thing"?) merely calls attention to its own inadequacy -- and invites charges of bad faith.

So what is a democratic leader to do? If you apologize too soon it rings false -- particularly to foreign audiences unfamiliar with the American cult of contrition. But if you stay silent it suggests callous indifference or a coverup. The crimes in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere are not comparable to My Lai in Vietnam or other atrocities committed in the heat of battle by terrified GIs and inadequate officers. They were born of that arrant indifference to laws, regulations, rights and rules that has characterized this administration from the outset, and that was bound, sooner or later, to percolate down to the sergeants and mercenaries who do the dirty work. Thus Bush had no option but to acknowledge immediately that terrible things had been done in Iraq -- and he would be wise to make sure that he has been told and is telling the whole story. But a public expression of his pain and sorrow will no longer suffice.

What is missing in the modern American cult of "sorry" is any sense of responsibility. Whether it concerns the incompetence of the security apparatus before 9/11, a misguided and failed imperial adventure, the mismanagement and degradation of the army, or the criminal behavior of Americans in Iraq, everyone feels "bad" and everyone expresses "regret." But until Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testified on Friday, no one even hinted at feeling "responsible." According to Bush (interviewed on the U.S.-funded Al Hurra Arabic language television network), "We believe in transparency, because we're a free society. That's what free societies do. If there's a problem, they address those problems in a forthright, upfront manner." Except, of course, we don't.

For in the very next sentence, Bush assures his interlocutor that "I've got confidence in the secretary of defense, and I've got confidence in the commanders on the ground . . . because they and our troops are doing great work on behalf of the Iraqi people." So the commanders are off the hook.

Meanwhile the New York Times (on May 6) carries a touching little story about the confused and helpless GIs who actually did the torturing, claiming that they were following orders/ had no orders/ misunderstood those orders/ were themselves misunderstood/ suffered great stress at the time/ are suffering even greater stress now -- and so forth.

Everyone is sorry "it" happened. But unless its leaders can get beyond that sanctimonious and self-serving response, the United States is in deep trouble. If Rumsfeld (who on Friday offered his "deepest apology"), Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz or Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard B. Myers were honorable men they would resign in shame. But they are not.

If Bush were of presidential caliber he would have sacked them by now -- and taken full personal responsibility for their incompetence. But wherever the buck stops these days, it surely is not on the president's desk. Yet nothing short of such an old-fashioned assumption of duty can now retrieve America's standing in the community of nations.

To the rest of the world Bush's apologies are mere exercises in damage control. The same president who spoke of leading God's crusade against Evil and who basked in the self-congratulatory aura of his invincible warriors will have difficulty convincing the rest of humanity that he really cares about a few brutalized Arabs.

Given the president's simultaneous and reiterated insistence that neither he nor his staff have done anything wrong and that there is nothing to change in his policies or goals, who will take seriously such an apology, extracted in extremis? Like confessions obtained under torture, it is worthless. As recent events have shown, America under Bush can still debase and humiliate its enemies. But it has lost the respect of its friends -- and it is fast losing respect for itself. Now that is something to feel sorry about.

Tony Judt is the Remarque professor of European studies at New York University.


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