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Of Course Obama Should Apologize

By Dan Froomkin
12:55 PM ET, 06/ 3/2009

Disparaging President Obama's overseas trip as an "Apology Tour", some conservative critics are trying to make the argument that being a powerful champion of liberty and admitting mistakes are somehow mutually exclusive.

But particularly as Obama addresses the Muslim world tomorrow morning in Cairo, he has plenty to apologize for. The entire neoconservative "war on terror" that was supposed to strike fear in the hearts of our enemies instead backfired spectacularly, turning into what some saw as a failed and contemptible war on Islam -- complete with torture chambers -- at enormous cost to our nation's security and moral standing.

For Obama to undo even some of that damage, which is a tall order, of course he needs to acknowledge what went wrong.

Anthony Shadid, reporting for The Washington Post from Iraq, conveys the reality in the Muslim street.

When President Obama delivers his address to the Middle East on Thursday from Cairo, he will face the legacy of names like Haditha, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, places that have become more symbol than geography over nearly a decade of perhaps the most traumatic chapter in America's relationship with the Muslim world.

More than any other president in a generation, Obama enjoys a reservoir of goodwill in the region. His father was Muslim. His outreach in an interview with an Arabic satellite channel, a speech to Turkey's parliament and an address to Iranians on the Persian New Year have inclined many to listen. Just as important, he is not George W. Bush.

But Obama will still encounter a landscape in which two realities often seem to be at work, shaped by those symbols....

"At least he has to apologize," said ... Ghofraan Dhiaa [a clerk at women's clothing store in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada]. "He can either apologize himself or on the behalf of his predecessors. But there needs to be recognition."

Christopher Dickey writes for Newsweek:

The need for dignity and respect—a craving for recognition and vindication—is at the heart of the region's most intractable conflicts...

[A]ll sides need to quit looking at their moral standing as a zero-sum game in which any concession to others is an admission of moral failing on their own. And this is the kind of lesson Obama likes to teach....

In his memorable speech on race relations in the United States during the campaign last year, Obama told African-Americans that "moving beyond our old racial wounds" meant "embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past." His core message to all sides: "Your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams."

That is likely to be the tone of Obama's address to the Islamic world (and Israel) as well. It's often said that two wrongs do not make a right. But in the Middle East today, admitting the wrongs on all sides may be the only way left to start to making things right.

Former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright writes in a New York Times opinion column:

Since the president is unlikely to announce major policy changes, he must persuade Muslims abroad to view our existing policies in a new light. That is no small job. It requires separating the rationale for contemporary actions from the long history of clashes between Islam and the West, and it requires overcoming the resentment caused when Muslim noncombatants are killed as a byproduct of conflict.

The more direct the president is in acknowledging these problems, the more likely it is that Muslims will think objectively about his words.

Muslims desire respect and respect demands frankness.

And New York Times opinion columnist Thomas L. Friedman this morning describes his own interview with Obama, in which the president suggests his main goal will be truth-telling -- no matter how painful it is to all parties.

When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, "there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: 'Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can't impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.' Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people."...

A key part of his message, he said, will be: "Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly."

Obama's explanation of that is fascinating. Friedman concludes:

When young Arabs and Muslims see an American president who looks like them, has a name like theirs, has Muslims in his family and comes into their world and speaks the truth, it will be empowering and disturbing at the same time.

Nevertheless, here is the drumbeat from the right. Mitt Romney tells Dan Gilgoff of U.S News:

[W]e certainly should not stand up and apologize for America. America has sacrificed too much to restore liberty to people in the world to ever be in a position of constant apology. I think the president was wrong in going on Arabic TV and saying that America has in the past dictated to other nations. I think he was wrong in fact and that it was the wrong thing to say....

I hope as [Obama] goes to Cairo he shows the resolve and strength of America on preserving and defending freedom and does not in any way suggest an apology. This is a time for strength and commitment to common principles, not a time for apologizing for America. We have done too much. Too many lives have been sacrificed on behalf of the freedom of other people in the world for America to engage in an apology tour.

Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News opinion column about "something he definitely ought to leave at home: grating apologies for America's past....

None is needed. Genuine pride in representing America will do just fine.

Our nation has no peer in liberating people from the grip of tyranny, especially in the regions Obama will visit. That's a fact of history and the President of the United States ought to take every opportunity to say so....

He can say loudly and clearly that President Bush conceded it was a mistake to use the word "crusade" to describe the war on terror immediately after 9/11.

Obama can dispel other corroding myths, such as the one that after the attacks, thousands of Muslims were willy-nilly thrown into American jails. He can and must draw the distinction between the criminal abuses committed by some U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, and the authorized, life-saving interrogation used on a few fanatical killers at Guantanamo.

But what do you do when those "corroding myths" are the truth? That what happened at Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with what happened at Guantanamo and the CIA black sites has become an article of faith for the far right. But the facts are clear that both were the direct result of decisions made at the White House. Peter Brookes writes in a Boston Herald op-ed:

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama is likely to use his visits to Saudi Arabia and his speech in Egypt tomorrow as stops on his Apology World Tour, repudiating Bush-era Middle East and War on Terror policies.

Instead of creating perceptions of weakness - which would only invite more provocations and attacks - he should rally Arab states to take a strong stand against the Iranian threat. It's one thing on which we can all agree.

And here's right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh:

We can't impose our values on the rest of the world, right? That's what President Obama said. Sure as hell sounds like the rest of the world can impose their values on us. They don't like Gitmo, we have to shut it down. They don't like what we've done, fine, Obama will run around and apologize. I'm telling you, folks, it is not the United States of America that serves as Barack Obama's role model. It's other socialist nations that have failed and the concept of socialism that is his role model. I'll tell you what, stupid little community organizer, organize this.

Obama has not hesitated in the past to acknowledge that the U.S. has some ground to make up, particularly with the Muslim world. He granted his first White House televised interview to Al Arabiya, after all, where he explained:

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. And that I think is going to be an important task.

Nile Gardiner and Morgan Roach write for the Heritage Foundation that Obama "has already apologized for his country to nearly 3 billion people across Europe, the Muslim world, and the Americas." They're not so crazy about the idea: "The overall effect of this approach has been to weaken American power on the world stage rather than strengthen it," they write. But their list of Obama's "10 most significant apologies" is good background.

And Obama faces another negative legacy of neoconservatism, in addition to the need to apologize for it: The perversion of proud goals. Michael Tomasky writes in a Guardian opinion piece:

The most interesting question, to me, is how he'll describe his vision of what America can do to promote democracy and liberty. Yes, these were neocon goals. But it's not the goals that were wrong, just the ends (military force). During the Bush years, some American liberals came to reject even these goals just because Bush endorsed them. So one of Obama's tasks on Thursday is to reclaim these goals, yank them out of their neoconservative context and place them in a liberal-internationalist one.

That discourse will be directed toward Americans, and others living in countries where freedom is secure. But much of the speech has to be aimed at people – and leaders – in the developing world, where it is not. Obama's election inspired the world. Can he inspire now that he's president? Can he lay out principles and values that a complex and defiant and snappish world will hear, absorb and maybe even try to live by? Egypt is a ripe test case, and I wonder whether Obama will have the bad manners, but laudable courage, to direct any words about freedom to President Hosni Mubarak.

Meanwhile, in other news, William Maclean writes for Reuters:

A double blast from al Qaeda against Barack Obama shows the group is as worried as ever by the persuasive skills of the U.S. president, who makes a speech to Muslims on Thursday.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in an audio recording aired on Wednesday by Al Jazeera television, said Obama had planted the seeds of "revenge and hatred" towards the United States in the Muslim world and he warned Americans to prepare for the consequences.

A day earlier, the militant network's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri urged Egyptians not to be seduced by Obama's 'polished words' when he makes a major address in Cairo seeking to repair ties with the Muslim world.

Obama is already in Saudi Arabia, the first stop on a trip that continues to Europe after his Cairo visit. From his remarks before a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah:

This is my first visit to Saudi Arabia, but I've had several conversations with His Majesty. And I've been struck by his wisdom and his graciousness. Obviously the United States and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship, we have a strategic relationship. And as I take this trip and we'll be visiting Cairo tomorrow, I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek His Majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East.

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times:

In an interview with Laura Haim on Canal Plus, a French television station, Mr. Obama noted that the United States also could be considered as "one of the largest Muslim countries in the world."

The right wing of the blogosphere is predictably going bonkers. But as Greg Sargent blogs, that's not what Obama actually said. What he actually said was: that "one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world."

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