What a great shame that the deadline for Iraq to turn over its voluminous weapons report obscured a wonderfully Orwellian moment: Saddam Hussein’s “apology” to Kuwait for his 1990 invasion and looting of that country. For those (like me) who see the weapons report as a device to buy both Saddam and George W. Bush time (albeit, toward different ends), Saddam’s apologia was a tonic. Alas, my busy Monday prevented me from tackling the subject in a timely manner. I had given up on this column until, in a neat bit of deus ex machina, Trent Lott, leader of the U.S. Senate, picked up the baton of insincerity. And so, to work.
HISTORY IS filled with public apologies, some sincere, some not; some backed by reparations, others delivered under the barrel of a gun. Some seek to redress enormous historical outrages. Others are self-serving rationalizations that aim to redefine history, to deflect potential damage, or to rally the faithful.
Now, it would be grossly unfair to equate Saddam Hussein with Trent Lott. For one thing, Lott has never used chemical or biological weapons on his enemies, to the best of my knowledge. Lott also is a genuine believer in democracy.
But the two leaders do now have one important thing in common: Both have shown their true colors, and both of their “apologies” are patently unconvincing.
A TRIP TO PLANET SADDAM
“We apologize to God for any deed that angered him in the past, which we might not have known of and is blamed on us, and on this basis we also apologize to you.” Imagine the cynicism necessary to view this as an apology for sending 750,000 troops into a neighboring state and absorbing it as “Iraq’s 19th province:”
This is kind of like Stalin going on the radio to address the Poles: “We apologize to God for any ‘pact’ we supposedly signed, without our knowledge and of course not really our fault, that may have seemed to split your nation between us and the Germans and allowed them to deport your Jews to death camps and murder your citizens. And, of course, we’re sorry for the deaths of all those brave Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, which God must have been in favor of or he wouldn’t have let the Germans do it, right?”
Saddam’s apology was duly rejected by Kuwait. Particularly galling, if one is to take the notion of “apology” seriously, was Saddam’s call for “believers, loyalists and holy warriors (to) get together with their counterparts in Iraq under the tent of their creator - instead of the tent of London, Washington and the Zionist entity.” This obviously is meant to encourage Kuwaitis and other Gulf peoples to turn against their governments, most of which, having had a good look at life inside Baghdad’s “tent” during Iraq’s brief occupation of Kuwait, have decided that American troops would be a welcomed addition to their national defense.
BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
National apologies are not as unusual as one might assume, though rarely are they as fraught with insincerity as the one Saddam issued Saturday. In the past few years, some of the more notable examples found Britain’s Tony Blair apologizing to the millions of Irish (then under British rule) who perished during the Potato Famine of the late 1840s. Never to be outdone by a Brit, the Irish Republican Army last summer issued a broad apology for the hundreds of civilians killed by its bombs since the late 1960s - an apology still viewed as a ploy by the IRA’s detractors.
Down this same murky path are the apologies, of sorts, that Israel and the Palestinian Authority regularly offer the world for the civilians that are killed in their incessant bloodlettings. To regard them at face value would be, to say the least, overly optimistic.
Sometimes, apologies herald a genuine effort to reconcile. During a period of thaw in 1998, Iran’s President Muhammad Khatami apologized for the hostage-takings of Americans in the Iranian revolution, and received in exchange an expression of “regrets” (a very significant construction, as you will see) from then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for the CIA coup that overthrew Iran’s elected prime minister in 1953. Nonetheless, Iran made the cut for President Bush’s “Axis of Evil.”
SO SORRY, NOT SO SORRY
Germany (the western bit, at least) is a serial apologizer — and so it should be, given the horrors it set in motion during the 20th century. East Germans, on the other hand, by and large were told that they were as much a victim of Hitler as any Jew, being that all East Germans were by definition communists (and as such, enemies of the Nazi Party.)
Since unification, eastern German schoolchildren are now required to look the Holocaust in the eye just as their western counterparts have been — at least those who grew up after the cultural upheaval there in 1968.
The experience is so intense that some worry the country might be susceptible to “apology fatigue” — i.e., a backlash against these regrets. God, let’s hope not.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is probably the gold standard for national apologies — certainly one unmatched in other racially based conflicts. But post-apartheid South Africa is a work in progress, so stay tuned.
The great Machiavelli of nations when it comes to apologies, of course, is Japan, which despite launching its bit of World War II with an invasion of Manchuria in 1931, still manages to portray the attack on Pearl Harbor as an act of self-defense. (The circumstances surrounding the attack are more complex than most American schoolchildren are taught, but Japanese self-defense simply doesn’t come into it).
Japan’s neat little variation on apology is “regret,” usually coupled with generous financial investments that ultimately leave the regretee watching Sonys and driving Mitsubishis. This is a great device that allows for diplomacy and commerce to continue, all the while letting folks on the homefront interpret the remark as, “Sure, we’re sorry we lost the war, but we don’t take responsibility and we certainly didn’t rape Nanking or turn Korean women into sex slaves. That’s all propaganda!”
REGRETS, WE’VE GOT A FEW
But what about the United States? For the near-genocidal wars against the native American tribes? (No, though we let them get rich building casinos. Canada, on the other hand, apologized officially to their native groups in 1998 and set aside territory the size of several eastern states for them).
America’s record of official apologies is pretty short, aside from somewhat routine “regrets for any civilian deaths” expressed by government spokesman during military action. We have not apologized, for instance, for Hiroshima, or for taking much of the southwest from Mexico, or for the Bay of Pigs, or Vietnam, because we’re not sorry, at least officially. There is a debate in some circles about an apology for slavery, complete with reparation payments. There was some talk during the 500th annivesary of Columbus’ accidental landfall in America, that native Americans might get an official apology, too. So far, just talk.
InsertArt(1913674)An exception was in 1988, when the government officially apologized to its Japanese-American citizens for throwing them in prison camps during World War II and offered survivors cash reparations.
Politically, of course, apologies are just another electoral tactic. Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech defused a crisis during his time as Eisenhower’s vice president by making light of the fact that he accepted gifts from lobbyists (among them, a little dog named “Checkers.”
Bill Clinton and his aides made apologies a tool of foreign policy. The president apologized for CIA complicity in the death squads that once roamed Guatemala. He traveled to Africa and apologized for his part in allowing 750,000 people to be massacred in Rwanda. Ironically, he never apologized for his many sex scandals, nor, more importantly, for destroying the Democratic Party for a generation. (Carter, it should be mentioned, also overlooked this latter responsibility).
A LOTT TO BE SORRY FOR
This brings us fairly neatly to the most recent American variety. Last week, Lott, the Mississippi senator, heaped praise on the retiring centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., a man who ran for president in 1948 only because Harry Truman refused to fight for the segregation of blacks and whites in the South.
Said Lott, “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
Challenged on his fairly forthright endorsement of re-establishing Jim Crow laws in America, Lott, like Saddam, issues a statement to express his regrets. “A poor choice of words conveyed to some that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended.”
I read Lott’s apology, and Saddam’s too, and could not help hearing my mother’s voice here saying, “Sometimes, it’s just not enough to say ‘sorry.’ ” Unfortunately, only Saddam appears to be threatened by America’s sense of right and wrong.
Additional research by MSNBC.com intern Lalita Aloor.
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