Paul Pillar

When to Apologize

That national arbiter of moral behavior, Rick Santorum, said something Monday about the previous day's shooting spree in Afghanistan that stood out from some of his earlier statements. He said that the “proper authorities” should apologize for the incident. Just a couple of weeks ago Santorum castigated President Obama for apologizing for the last previous big problem in American relations with the Afghans; the burning of prison Korans. One is tempted just to discard all of this as campaign hooey, especially given that much of the other "apologizing" for which Santorum and Mitt Romney have criticized Obama is imaginary.  If Santorum is saying, however, the United States should apologize for one incident but not for the other, perhaps he is making some distinctions that warrant a more careful look.

From his comments this week, it appears that intent is an important distinction for Santorum. He said an apology for the shooting rampage is in order as long as it is determined that it was a “deliberate act” by the soldier—“that it's not a mistake, it wasn't something that was inadvertent.” A problem that immediately comes to mind with this criterion is that it does not correspond with the role of apologies in everyday life, the overwhelming majority of which are for inadvertent actions (or inaction owing to forgetfulness). I apologize if I accidentally bump into someone in a crowded hallway or spill a bit of my beverage on someone's clothing. If the bump or the spill were deliberate, then we have an entirely different situation and an apology is probably the least likely thing on my mind. Another problem with the intention test as applied to the incidents in Afghanistan is that the volition in question is that of the sergeant who went on the killing spree and the soldiers who torched the Korans. But they aren't the ones doing the apologizing. It's higher-ups—the “proper authorities”—who would apologize, and it is safe to say that those higher authorities did not intend for either incident to occur.

Santorum seemed to address the latter problem when he said about this week's killing rampage, “It’s something that the proper authorities should apologize for, for not doing their job in making sure that something like this wouldn’t happen.” But then why shouldn't the same standard be applied to the burning of the Korans? If anything, it probably would have been easier for the higher-ups involved in the Koran episode to prevent the incident, merely by issuing sufficiently clear and detailed instructions to subordinates, than it was for superior officers to prevent the sergeant from walking off his base at night and shooting people in nearby hamlets.

Another angle about senior-level responsibility came up in connection with the Koran-burning when Santorum stated that far from the United States owing anyone an apology, Afghan President Karzai should have apologized for the anti-American violence that ensued. But it is very unlikely Karzai could have prevented the violence—either the in-the-street variety or the individual murders of American advisers. (If he had enough power and control to prevent the violence, then his position is much stronger than we thought and there certainly is no excuse for continuing a counterinsurgency on his government's behalf.) If the reason for an apology from higher authorities is that they did not prevent an incident that was in their power to prevent, then why should we ask for an apology from Karzai?

The violent reaction to the Koran-burning perhaps involves another distinction that shaped Santorum's view on apologies even though he did not express his position in these terms. A lethal reaction, including cold-blooded murder, to the burning of a religious book—whether the burning was accidental or not—is inexcusable and vastly out of proportion to any purported offense. It is deplorable that anyone should consider ignition of a book to be a rationale to kill. If that's how Santorum views last month's situation, I agree with him. But evidently many Afghans—denizens of a land where long and costly jihads have been fought—see things differently from either Santorum or me.

That gets to another principle about when apologies are in order. The obligation to apologize stems from the effect on the offended party, as seen from the offended party's point of view. If I accidentally spill part of my beverage on your clothing, an apology, and perhaps an offer to pay a dry cleaning bill, is in order because of the effect on you, not because of any inherent badness in what I have done. The foreign policy equivalent of failing to recognize the principle involved is found all too often in policy preferences—which Santorum espouses as much as anyone—that are unilateral, exceptionalist, and based on an assertive form of nationalism that is insufficiently sensitive to the perceptions and preferences of foreign states and their populations. The need to maintain such sensitivity does not just have a moral base, and it definitely is not a matter of subjugating our values to anyone else's. It is instead a matter of realizing how much foreigners over whose interests and values we have ridden roughshod can react in ways that will harm our own interests. It is thus in our interest to maintain and implement policies that give due regard to foreign interests and values—and to apologize when we inadvertently fail to do so.