Over the past few weeks, I’ve posted a number of items on the use of apologies in modern politics. It started last month with the president’s press conference, when reporter after reporter asked Bush to speak on the administration’s failures. No luck there. Bush denied that there were any problems, and continued to speak on the coalition’s success in liberating Iraq. Unfortunately for the administration, the subject didn’t die with the press conference.
The Abu Ghraib affair strikes at the heart of this issue and it will serve as a character test for the Bush administration. So far it has done a miserable job, but yesterday the president muttered a few words—one of them being the dreaded “s” word. Finally!!! I’d count it as a miracle.
TNR and Salon’s War Room have both done a thorough job following the “apology” case. Read how Chris Strohm in TNR ranks the most recent apologies:
Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt
Kimmitt, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, yesterday gave the most sincere apology of any American to date: "My Army's been embarrassed by this," he said. "My Army's been shamed by this. And on behalf of my Army, I apologize for what those soldiers did to your citizens. It was reprehensible and it was unacceptable. And it is more than just words, that we have to take those words into action and ensure that never happens again. And we will make a full-faith effort to ensure that never happens again."
Army Major General Geoffrey D. Miller
Miller, who was brought in last month to replace Brigadier General Janis Karpinski as the superintendent of prisons, also directly apologized to Iraqis Wednesday. "I would like to personally apologize to the people of Iraq for the actions of the small number of leaders and soldiers who violated our policy and may have committed criminal acts. We are investigating those acts as rampantly as possible and will bring those responsible to the bar of justice."
Both Miller and Kimmitt get extra credit for their compelling use of the second person in addressing Iraqis directly--rather than talking generally about how terrible the abuses were, as others have done.
President George W. Bush
In interviews with Al-Arabiya and Al Hurra satellite television networks yesterday, Bush said the actions were "abhorrent" but offered no apology. "We've discovered these abuses. They're abhorrent abuses," he said during the Al Hurra interview. "The actions of these few people do not reflect the hearts of the American people. The American people are just as appalled at what they have seen on TV as Iraqi citizens have. The Iraqi citizens must understand that."
Bush's statement falls short on a few counts. First, he didn't apologize. (Of course, as we know, he never does.) Then, rather than speaking to Iraqis directly, he spoke about them in the third person: "The Iraqi citizens must understand that." Sounds more like a command than an expression of contrition.
Finally, worse than not bothering to apologize himself, Bush let his spokesman apologize for him. "We've already said that we're sorry for what occurred and we're deeply sorry to the families and what they must be feeling and going through as well," Scott McClellan said later in the day. "The president is sorry for what occurred and the pain that it has caused."
Reporters pointed out that Bush hadn't actually apologized. "The president is deeply sorry," McClellan restated. "I'm saying it for him right now." Well, that settles it.
Powell pulled the exact same move as Bush--declining to apologize, and letting his spokesman do it for him. "We are all terribly distressed and shocked by those photos and by what those photos said about the manner in which the troops there were doing their job," he said. "And as you've heard the president, you've heard Secretary Rumsfeld, myself and others say, it's unacceptable. We are a nation that believes in justice. We are a nation that's governed by the rule of law, and nowhere is that more the case than in the armed forces of the United States."
On Saturday, Powell's spokesman, Richard Boucher, had offered the State Department's apology, saving his boss the indignity of having to do it himself. Boucher told The Boston Globe that the United States is "very sorry" that the abuse occurred, and will do everything in its "power to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Kerry ranks low on this list because, given the chance to show how he might have handled this situation better than his rival, he simply demurred. He was, to be sure, critical. "The horrifying abuse of Iraqi prisoners, which the world has now seen, is absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable," he said. "And the response of the administration, certainly the Pentagon, has been slow and inappropriate." But he remained noncommittal when pressed by reporters on whether Bush should apologize to the Iraqi people or whether he would apologize if he were president. He said the investigation first needs to determine how high up the chain of command responsibility goes. "The person who speaks on behalf of [the United States], the president of the United States, needs to offer the world an explanation and needs to take appropriate responsibility," he said. "And if that includes apologizing for the behavior of those soldiers and what happened, we ought to do to that."
Not to be outdone by Kerry, Lieberman went ahead and made himself an apologist for Bush's failure to apologize. Asked about Bush's remarks, he said: "It sure seemed to me that the tone of all of this was that we regret it. It was effectively an apology."
Never the best at owning up to mistakes, Rumsfeld seems to believe that an apology from the United States should be assumed or implied. When prompted for an apology, Rumsfeld gave one of his typical responses: "Oh my goodness. Anyone, any American who sees the photographs that we have seen has to feel apologetic to the Iraqi people who were abused, and recognize that that is something that is unacceptable and certainly un-American." It's as if he's saying that what took place was so terrible, so obviously worthy of an apology, that it would be beneath him to actually offer one. Classic Rumsfeld logic.
End result: no apology.
Brigadier General Janis Karpinski
The most blatant failure to apologize has come from the person who probably should be taking the most responsibility. Karpinski, who was in charge of the prison system when the abuses occurred, has not apologized and even resists accepting blame for the incident. "I certainly take the responsibility for some of this because those soldiers were assigned to a company under my command," she told CNN on Tuesday. "Blame? I don't think that the blame rests with me or with the 800th MP Brigade. In fact it's unfair because we had 3,400 soldiers and 16 facilities and this was the only facility where interrogation operations were taking place and this is the only facility where there were infractions."