If you’re an imperialist, that is.
Imagine you have a roommate who never says he’s sorry. I mean, never. He accidentally breaks your iPod—not a word. He uses up all the toilet paper—nothing. He sleeps with your girlfriend—still nothing.
Now imagine that one day, for reasons you don’t quite understand, he tells you he’s sorry, not for everything he’s done, but for some of it, maybe for the whole sleeping with your girlfriend thing. Imagine further that one of his buddies then comes along and orders him to shut up, tells him that he’s done nothing wrong, that, if anything, he should be demanding an apology from you—after all, your girlfriend wasn’t that good.
Okay, now how would you describe your roommate’s buddy? Say you can only use one word. Good, that’s the exact word I would have used. (Given that this is a family blog, I won’t repeat it here.) So then…
…since we expect others to apologize for personal wrongdoing, why do so many of us get upset when a politician apologizes for national wrongdoing? Why, to be more specific, has President Obama recently come under fire for admitting that the US has wronged Muslims?
Obama’s apology—if you want to call it that—began in his inaugural speech when he declared, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” A couple weeks later, he told a reporter on Al-Arabiya television, “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that.”
To some observers, these words were long overdue, with Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib still looming large in so many minds. But to commentators like Charles Krauthammer, Obama’s words were mere “self-inflation,” “needlessly defensive and apologetic.” Over the past two decades, Krauthammer writes, sounding much like your imaginary roommate’s buddy, “America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them. It engaged in five military campaigns, every one of which involved—and resulted in—the liberation of a Muslim people: Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Yes, we have nothing to apologize for, Krauthammer continues. After all, “this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on earth.” Heck, we elected a Muslim to the Congress, and now we even have a Muslim’s son in the White House. So when Obama suggests that “pre-Obama America was disrespectful or insensitive or uncaring of Muslims, he is engaging not just in fiction but in gratuitous disparagement of the country he is now privileged to lead.” How dare you apologize, your roommate’s buddy screams—look at all you’ve done for him, that ingrate!
And look at all the US has done for the Muslim world. Extraordinary rendition, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” unflagging support for the Israeli war machine. And let’s not forget the huge amounts of money we’ve given to all those tyrants and dictators who oppress their Muslim populations. Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Syria, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan—all cruel , undemocratic governments, all on the US payroll.
Even those US actions which Krauthammer lauds have had mixed results. Yes, we brought democracy to Afghanistan, but look at the cost. Shortly after we started bombing the country in 2001, a number of human rights organizations began pleading that we stop, warning that our bombs were preventing them from providing the civilian population with food. A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned, “We are facing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions in Afghanistan with 7.5million short of food and at risk of starvation.” Yet the bombs continued to fall. And they continue to this day, no doubt hitting some militants, but also many civilians. So has this “liberation” been good for the Afghan people? Certainly not for many of them.
Similarly, the Iraq War drove a sadistic man from power. But let’s not forget that, for several years, we supported Saddam Hussein, giving his government all kinds of economic and military assistance. Then in 1990 we turned on him, crushing his military, devastating the country’s infrastructure, and imposing sanctions on the Iraqi people which lasted for over ten years. As has been widely reported, the sanctions alone killed hundreds of thousands. And the 2003 invasion, while bringing democracy to Iraq, also unleashed untold violence, resulting in hundreds of thousands of more deaths and over 4.5 million refugees.
So even if we suppose that the above actions were done with the best of intentions, that American leaders never meant any harm when they funded all those dictators and ordered all those bombs to be dropped and people to be starved—even if we suppose all this, the fact remains that tremendous harm has been inflicted upon millions and millions of Muslims. So it seems quite clear that, at the very least, US officials owe the Muslim world a huge apology. And of course it wouldn’t hurt if court intellectuals like Krauthammer did some repenting of their own.