Contrition Strategy

October 26, 2006 Topic: Society

Contrition Strategy

America’s mistakes abroad have reached such a critical mass that contrition has become a sound, even essential, strategy.

Last Saturday the State Department's Alberto Fernandez on Al-Jazeera characterized U.S. policy toward Iraq as "arrogant and stupid". He later, presumably under pressure, disavowed the statement, as if the arrogance and stupidity could be neutralized through such a retraction.

Even a superpower pays a price for wrongheaded policies, and even this president, in this electoral season, has demonstrated a willingness to back away from his stay-the-course policy in Iraq. Indeed, such a reversal is probably merely aesthetic, but the president is correct that acknowledging an ill-conceived policy is necessary to strengthen, or prevent further weakening of, a country and presidency. Bush and his brain trust should now consider a much bolder and broader strategy: contrition.

Needless to say, such an approach is anathema to much of the political establishment, particularly its Republican contingency. It is not in the foreign policy lexicon of many countries, to say nothing of the world's sole superpower. But America's mistakes abroad have reached such a critical mass that contrition has become a sound, even essential, strategy. The debate regarding Iraq and the Middle East has broadened somewhat, but alternative policies must consider this required first step: America must confront the past before planning for a future turnaround in Iraq and the Middle East. This necessarily entails admitting mistakes in order to salvage some Muslim support. Needless to say, the president need not acknowledge either arrogance or stupidity, regardless of whether those accurately describe U.S. policy.  But some form of contrition must be offered.

An Unenviable Position

The United States is in the center of a hornet's nest in the Middle East, in southwest Asia and the broader Muslim world. U.S. forces are stretched to the limit. There is no victory in sight because there is no definable army to be vanquished. Terrorism is the weapon of choice for anyone with a legitimate or illegitimate grievance against his ruler or America.

In contrast to America's vast investment to protect itself, a terrorist need little more than an imagination. Up until now, the United States has relied on what it perceives to be its strength, namely, righteous rhetoric and military force. But the stark reality is that such rhetoric, bombs and bullets will not overcome this global struggle. The flames of global terror will only be diminished by a thoughtful and realistic examination of the past and by careful planning for a more peaceful future.

Great philosophers such as Sun Tzu and renowned statesmen like Sir Winston Churchill stressed the imperative of knowing as much as you can about your adversary. What are his gripes? What are his motives and methods? What goes through his mind? What is the most expedient method of turning him around? U.S. policymakers have a history of misunderstanding their adversaries; they define the enemy's thought patterns as they would like them to be and not as they really are. They seek out and listen to advisers who tell them what they want to hear. If the United States wants to look toward a future that is not defiled by terrorism, it needs to gather information and confront its mistakes.

The History and Art of Contrition

Despite a widespread, reflexive antipathy for contrition, there is an established history of nations that express remorse and subsequently improve relations with their adversaries, such as Germany toward France and England after WWII. Official contrition has also helped countries move beyond domestic strife, such in post-apartheid South Africa. There are also examples of lingering mistrust between nations when one party fails to express regret for past transgressions, Japan vis à vis China and Korea, for example. The Bush Administration has failed to acknowledge that its policies have grossly harmed ordinary citizens in other countries-whose hearts and minds the administration acknowledges are important to the counter-terror struggle. Washington's approach reflects the notion that talking to an adversary signals weakness and an acceptance of that country's objectionable policies. Diplomacy is not seen as a channel for conflict resolution but as a gift to be bestowed by the powerful on the chosen few. Absence of dialogue has become a badge of honor.

America must squarely face the painful lessons of the past. It has overthrown a legitimate government in the Middle East, namely, Mohammad Mossadeq's in Iran, has supported and is supporting all manner of dictatorial regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, has supplied weapons, including chemical weapons to its allies, Iraq for example, and has backed the use of such weapons when its perceived interests were at stake. While it publicly advocates the moral high ground, it has failed to practice what it preaches. Millions have suffered under corrupt and brutal governments that continue to be promoted by the United States. Millions have seen little social and material progress over their lifetime in these same countries. They cannot vote out their corrupt regimes and if they dare to protest they are thrown into horrific jails where they languish for years.

These people have a right to be upset at their rulers and at the United States for supporting dictators, particularly when the U.S. administration has described in such soaring terms its defense of democracy. The administration must redress the past and change course. There is little point in parsing the stakes. Such action is needed for the survival of the world as we know it.

The list of U.S. transgressions is a long one, especially in the rich oil exporting countries of the Middle East with their propensity toward corruption and conflict. By publicly acknowledging its past failures and by matching future policies with its professed principles, America would quickly neutralize most support for global terrorism and the likes of Osama bin Laden.

In Muslim Eyes

The reason is simple. An honest admission by the global superpower of its past mistakes followed by a true change of course would be seen as great strength in the Muslim world. Terrorist leaders would lose their appeal because their tactics would no longer be seen as the only venue for change. This would do more in terms of enhancing social and economic progress in the Middle East, improving America's global image and dowsing the flames of terrorism than all the money the U.S. has spent and will spend on Iraq. This would bring about more goodwill than all the empty rhetoric from here to eternity.

As Mr. Bush so graciously acknowledged, phrases such as "bring ‘em on" serve little to advance the cause of global peace and harmony. Words are almost as consequential as actions.

Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.