Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Politics of Apology

Published in National Review Online on September 18, 2006



Let’s look back at a recent episode in the politics of apology.  Democratic Iran expert Kenneth Pollack tells the story of the Clinton administration’s failed efforts to draw Iran into a negotiated settlement of our national differences.  From 1997 through 2000, the Clinton administration convinced itself that it was close to a breakthrough toward detente with Iran.  If America could make just the right gesture, Clintonians believed, Iran would negotiate, a grand bargain would be struck, and detente would be achieved.  So on April 12, 1999, at a state dinner, President Clinton confessed in “unprompted” remarks that “Iran…has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations.  And I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, look, you have a right to be angry at something my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us today did to you 50 or 60 or 150 years ago.”  Note that Clinton here goes so far as to apologize, not simply for past actions of the United States, but for the acts of European countries 150 years ago.Then in 2000, at a state dinner in Washington, Secretary of State Madeline Albright directly apologized for specific past American actions toward Iran, from our role in orchestrating the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, to our backing of the Shah, to our backing of Iraq in its war with Iran.  Albright also highlighted President Clinton’s personal belief that America “must bear its full share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S. — Iranian relations.”Commenting on all this, national security expert, Thomas Donnelly says, “Even as Albright was speaking, the Iranian government had begun to crack down on internal dissent and resume a hard line, anti-American stance abroad.  Donnelly then quotes from Pollack’s own verdict on Clinton’s hoped-for opening to Tehran:

“I [Pollack] felt [at the time] that we had come very close to making a major breakthrough with Iran and that if only we had done a few things differently…we might have been able to make it happen.  Over the years, however, I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong in this assessment.  Any rapprochement that could be nixed by two words in a speech was a rapprochement that was doomed to failure anyway.  That is the fundamental lesson of the Clinton initiative with Iran.  The Iranians were not ready….Iran was ruled by a regime in which the lion’s share of the power — and everything that truly mattered — was in the hands of people who were not ready or interested in improving ties with the United States.”  (See Pollack’s book, The Persian Puzzle. For Donnelly, see his essay in Getting Ready for a Nuclear Ready Iran.)

So when dealing with Islamists determined to knock heads with the West, apologies for colonial history or past American foreign policy don’t work.  If anything, apologies — especially anxious apologies for wrongs that were never even committed by us — convey an impression of weakness that simply invite further defiance.  Yet Democrats like Clinton, Albright, and the New York Times seem to rely on such apologies as critical instruments of foreign policy — even (or especially) when dealing with hardened Islamists.  And you’re telling me that when a show-down with Ahmadinejad sure to come in the next two years, we can afford to let the Democrats win this election?  I don’t think so.

The Pope, by the way, has not apologized for his remarks, but only expressed sorrow at their having been misunderstood.  In this respect, the Pope has hewed to a much tougher line on apologies than President Clinton and Secretary Albright.

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