Saturday, October 27, 2012

Obama, Romney, and the "Apology Tour"

One of the most-discussed topics in the 2012 presidential debate has been the issue of President Barack Obama's so-called "apology tour".

The GOP candidate -- former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) -- and many others have accused Obama of apologizing for the behavior of the United States as he visited other countries during his first year in office in 2009.

The "apology tour" was a topic of discussion in the third presidential debate between Obama and Romney on October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, FL:
ROMNEY: And then the president began what I've called an apology tour of going to -- to various nations in the Middle East and -- and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.

OBAMA: Bob, let me just respond. Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign, and every fact-checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.

ROMNEY: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to -- to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to -- to Turkey and Iraq. And -- and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
Again, Romney is not the only person to make this accusation against Obama. The Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) provides 10 quotes from Obama and says:
On several occasions, President Obama has sought to apologize for the actions of his own country when addressing a foreign audience … The President has already apologized for his country to nearly 3 billion people across Europe, the Muslim world, and the Americas.
Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh says:
[I]t is true! He did run around the world blaming America; agreeing that America had been the problem here or there. In Cairo he talked about how the American people had imposed their way on people for far too long. Everybody knows he engaged in an apology tour!
Fox News defends the accusation, saying:
[T]he definition of apology is "a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another."
Others insist the apology tour never happened.

 CNN says:
Obama did indeed mention past U.S. flaws in speeches. But in those addresses, Obama never uttered an apology for the United States.
Columnist Steve Benen says:
[F]or those who still care about facts and reality, Romney really is lying. Obama has never apologized for America.
The fact-checker for the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, says:
In none of these cases does Obama actually use a word at all similar to "apologize." … nothing akin to the word "apology" is ever used by Obama. … compare what Obama said to what George W. Bush said at Senegal's Goree Island in 2003. Bush called the U.S. constitution flawed and said that America is still troubled by the legacy of slavery. This does not seem like an apology, either -- but it is even more sharply framed than Obama's comments. … The claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context. Obama often was trying to draw a rhetorical distinction between his policies and that of President Bush, a common practice when the presidency changes parties.
And the fact-checking site Politifact says:
Romney has accused Obama of beginning his presidency "with an apology tour." Our reviews of Obama’s 2009 foreign travels and speeches showed no such thing. While he criticized past U.S. actions, such as torture practices at Guantanamo, he did not offer one  apology. It’s ridiculous to call Obama’s foreign visits and remarks "an apology tour." We rate this statement Pants on Fire!
So, who's correct?

As far as I can see, what's going on here is a problem relating to ambiguity, particularly with respect to the word "apology".

Suppose, for instance, I break something that belongs to you, and that I then come to you and say:
"I broke this. It was wrong for me to break it, I shouldn't have done it, and I won't do it again."
Have I apologized? I haven't used the word "apologize" (or any variation of it) or the phrase, "I'm sorry". But I've clearly admitted wrongdoing to the person (you) who was wronged. So, have I apologized nonetheless?

Fox News mentions the dictionary definition of the word "apology", and Obama's words seem to fit that description (as do Bush's, with respect to the quote regarding slavery that Kessler mentions). But, more correctly, that's a definition of the word "apology", not the one and only definition of the word. Lots of words, after all, have more than one definition; that's where ambiguity comes from.

And, even if we accept this particular definition, it leaves open the question of whether or not regret, remorse, or sorrow can be expressed without using the words "apology" (or some variation of it) or "sorry". Are those particular words necessary to perform an apology?

I'm not sure. It seems to be to be vague.

But the parties in this debate do seem sure. Obama's critics are absolutely sure that an apology doesn't require the use of these words, while Obama's defenders are absolutely sure that an apology does require the use of these words.

But what is the evidence for either of these positions? This more general point about what does (or doesn't) constitute an apology is the issue that each of them need to justify.

One last observation: it could be that Obama's words overseas were intentionally making use of this vagueness and ambiguity.

In diplomacy, people often choose their words carefully in order to placate one party without offending another party. Perhaps Obama expressed regret for wrongdoing without using the words "apology" and "sorry" so that some people would perceive him as apologizing -- and be happy about that, because they believe an apology is merited -- while other people wouldn't perceiving him as apologizing -- which would upset them, because they don't believe an apology is merited.

Perhaps that was the plan. Though, if it was, it doesn't appear to have succeeded on the second front.

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