Paul Pillar

Apologies and Misperceived Intentions

Republican presidential candidates finally have an actual apology from Barack Obama to talk about: the one concerning the accidental incineration by U.S. forces in Afghanistan of copies of the Koran. One still looks in vain for that worldwide apology tour by the president that Mitt Romney has talked so much about. Evidently Romney has been equating “apology” with any foreign policy that is not my-way-or-the-highway unilateralism. This weekend Romney offered one of the milder criticisms of the real apology about the Korans, noting that in light of the sacrifices the United States has made in Afghanistan, for many Americans the apology “sticks in their throat.” Newt Gingrich has been far more vituperative on the issue, calling the apology an “outrage” and saying that if Afghan president Hamid Karzai doesn't instead apologize for the subsequent deaths of U.S. soldiers “we should say goodbye and good luck.”

The candidates are reflecting repugnance that Americans understandably feel over highly disproportionate and even murderous responses to offenses that are of a far lower order. Even if the incineration were intentional, it was, after all, only books that were burned (ones on which Afghan prison inmates may have already inflicted their own form of desecration by using them to pass messages), which in no way justifies the taking of lives in response. Americans have seen similar ultra-umbrage from foreign Muslims in earlier incidents, in which the work of a Danish cartoonist or a British novelist has become the occasion for death sentences.

Respect for a foreigner's religiously based customs or feelings is one thing; acceptance of associated lethal actions is quite another. I expect the sentiments of most Americans on this subject are similar to those of General Sir Charles Napier, a British military commander in India in the mid-nineteenth century, in reacting to the practice of Sati, or burning a newly widowed woman on her husband's funerary pyre. When Hindu priests complained that the British banning of the practice was contrary to local custom, Napier reportedly replied:

This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gallows on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

The apology over the Koran-burning sticks a little in my throat, too, and I suspect it did in President Obama's. But statesmanship is not just a matter of acting on one's sentiments. It instead requires a dispassionate calculation of what is in nation's interests, even if doing what is in those interests may require acting contrary to the statesman's own disgust, impatience or outrage. A calculated apology is hardly something Obama invented. In this case, the clear purpose was to minimize the damaging responses to an incident when American lives are at stake. A statement that the United States intended no offense to someone else's holy book does absolutely nothing to harm the standing and prestige of the United States. Gingrich's reaction is understandable as emotion but weird as policy. If Karzai's government were sufficiently in control of matters in Afghanistan that it should have been able to contain better the popular outburst of the past few days, why are we still in Afghanistan to bolster that government?

More important than words of contrition are lessons we ought to draw from this incident. A broad lesson is the Rumsfeldian one that stuff happens. Stuff especially happens in long, messy wars and complicated internal conflicts. The outburst in Afghanistan is not just a response to the incineration of the Korans but also to a now lengthy record of other incidents and practices that have fueled antipathy of Afghans toward the NATO forces. Before the Koran incident there were the night raids and the collateral damage from many other operations. The trend of Western forces having in many respects worn out their welcome was already clear before last week's controversy.

A more specific lesson is that foreigners frequently attribute to the United States intentions that are more negative and nefarious than its actual ones. We Americans often honestly see ourselves as the aggrieved party because we know our intentions in doing some things that have caused controversy were honorable or even altruistic. But foreign populaces and governments often see things differently, and not just because those out to discredit the United States have promoted such a perception. The belief in negative intentions flows partly from having been conditioned to hold such a belief, just as the previous reasons for resentment over what Western forces have been doing in Afghanistan set the stage for the reaction to the incident involving the prison Korans. Beliefs about intentions also flow partly from the belief that a superpower has its act together, that it is capable of doing what it wants to do and that whatever it does is what it intended to do.