TCS Daily

Apologize, George W. Bush!

By Douglas Kern - October 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Apologize for fighting an unwinable war. Apologize for failing to win that unwinable war before the All-Star break. Apologize for fighting the insurgents too aggressively, and apologize for showing them too much mercy. Apologize for forcing democracy and freedom upon the mere 85% of Iraqis who desire them. Apologize for ignoring the thoughtful and nuanced objections of some civilian-bombing terrorists in the Sunni Triangle. Apologize for not sending enough troops and apologize for taking too many troops away from their homes and families. Apologize for...oh, apologize for something. It really doesn't matter what. Just admit that you were wrong about something important. It's ever so much easier to defeat your arguments when you concede them to us first.

Apologize, George W. Bush, because there's something delicious about watching righteous men eat their words. You won't be so quick to dismiss nuances and overtones and penumbras when you have a shame-faced apology sticking in your craw. And when we've neutralized your moralizing tone, it will be vastly easier to neutralize the popular, we're-the-good-guys morality that you propound. Oh, we could take the high road, of course, and praise an apology as a dignified gesture that will help to heal the bitter divisions in our society. But we won't. Your apology will be reduced to a lurid sound-bite on some vicious DNC advertisement that mocks your confident faith and uncompromising principles. And let's not even think about how America's enemies will use your apology to undermine your credibility. Get used to the smell of your apology, George W. Bush. It will be rubbed in your nose until the day you die.

Apologize, George W. Bush, even though official apologies are invariably useless. When a government official "apologizes" and "takes full responsibility," you can be certain that the official isn't sorry, and plans on doing nothing. Bill Clinton apologized for slavery -- not that it made a difference to anyone, anywhere. Janet Reno took full responsibility for the Waco debacle -- not that she or anyone else lost their job over it. Apologies don't bring the dead back to life, and they don't fix failed policies. In wartime particularly, it's better to actually change flawed policies than to engage in the ritualized Kabuki theater of apologies and lamentations and public self-flagellation. It would be enlightening to examine whether the Bush administration has, in fact, changed its policies when they have proven unsuccessful. But such an examination isn't as much fun as demanding public repentance.

Apologize, George W. Bush, although wartime presidents never do. Roosevelt didn't apologize. Truman didn't apologize. Neither did Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, or Nixon. Every wartime president has made mistakes -- sometimes ghastly mistakes that cost the lives of soldiers and civilians. But no one ever demanded apologies from those presidents, perhaps because Americans used to understand that war is an inherently chaotic and unpredictable thing in which awful mistakes will always be made.

Apologize, George W. Bush, although your apologies will dishonor the dead. As your opponent once pointed out: who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake? No one, of course, so you will discredit a great many dead heroes by apologizing for their cause. Admittedly, your opponent has a head start in this event. He's spent his entire adult life devising reasons American exercises of military power are never legitimate. But if you try real hard, George W. Bush, you can catch up. Perhaps one day, you, too, can earn the contempt of veterans who will not draw specious distinctions between their own honor and the honor of the cause for which they fought.

Apologize, George W. Bush, because we need to see in you a reflection of our own uncertainties and discomfort towards the war. Some of us are conservatives who genuinely believed that the whole Iraqi conflict would be a joyous, carefree romp, with bonfires and backslapping and Ewoks singing, just like at the end of "Return of the Jedi." Others of us are hardcore leftists who spent the eighties and nineties denouncing America's indifference towards murderous tyrants and genocidal regimes. Your war, George W. Bush, exposed the naïve right and the moralizing left as poseurs, unwilling to stomach the harsher consequences of their professed beliefs. That exposure upsets us. And we want you to be as upset as we are.

Apologize, George W. Bush, because in every election certain issues matter not for what they are, but for what they show us about our candidates. Consider flag-burning. It affects no one. But we want to believe that our elected officials are the kind of people who hate flag-burning enough to prohibit it -- or, depending on your politics, that our elected officials love freedom of expression enough to protect flag-burning. The issue is meant not to be resolved, but to reveal. It's politics as Rorschach test. When it comes to Iraq, you look at the blob of ink and you see an eagle. When we look at it, we see -- well, we want to see "a dove," but we can't. So we see only the blob of ink; only confusion and error. We want you to see that, too, and an apology will show us that you see the world as we do. Forget strong leadership, George W. Bush; leadership creates a responsibility to be good followers, and we're tired of that responsibility. Don't lead us. Be us.

Apologize, George W. Bush, although demands for apologies amount to nothing more than a petulant demand for respect -- a respect that, in this case, we have not earned. For all of our whining and nitpicking and breast-beating, we have no better idea of how to resolve the Iraqi situation. John Kerry has no better idea. The French and Germans have no better idea. We dislike your style and we question your motives but -- despite all your shortcomings -- we can do no better. We accuse you of arrogance because you will not listen to us, but we have nothing to say. We accuse you of failing to obtain legitimacy for the war from other countries, but they have none to give. We accuse you of many things, because your vision for Iraq is indirectly a terrible accusation against our own fecklessness and folly.

Apologize, George W. Bush, even though the mistakes are ours.


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