Wednesday, October 24, 2012


One of the arguments Mitt Romney is making for why President Obama should not be re-elected is what he's calling "The Apology Tour." Essentially, he's arguing that Obama, through a series of speeches in the Middle East and subsequent actions, has projected weakness by suggesting the United States has at times behaved in a way that we should be sorry for.

Why this is seen by Romney as an effective attack (and one they're pushing even harder now) in his own bid for the White House---other than the rather cynical and obviously Rovian tactic to attack your political opponent's understood strengths (indeed, few presidents have worked as ruthlessly to protect this nation as Obama)---is because of a widely held notion in the US that we do good for the world by projecting an unshakable sense of strength (especially to the players in the unstable Middle East). To many weaker minds and those of weaker character, that notion leaves no room for self-doubt and certainly no self-admonishments. It's a popular notion in the US and is celebrated in our films and other popular entertainment.

I'd like to pick that notion apart here, though, because in its absolute application it's beyond foolhardy; it's down right dangerous. Any president who leaves him/herself no diplomatic wiggle room because of a promise to never apologize puts us all at considerable risk.

But first, let's back up to the debate just a moment. Over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, in the reactions to the third presidential debate, someone noted that they had wished Obama's retort to Romney's taunt about the so-called Apology Tour had been: "Governor Romney, the only time I've had to apologize for America was when you went overseas and insulted out closest allies in Britain and Poland." 

In listening to Romney's explanation of "The Apology Tour" and attempting to perceive this profits-über-alles businessman's view of the issue, I was reminded of a 1953 exchange former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had in her role as an American stateswoman while appearing on "Longines Chronoscope," a TV program about politics (watch the entire interview here). In part, I was reminded of it because Romney's rhetoric seems so outdated, as if he believes the world stage remains as it did in 1953:
Edward P Morgan:

Mrs. Roosevelt, some nights ago, I had dinner with a man and his wife in Spokane, Washington. Quite sincerely, but quite seriously, they asked me two questions: they said, "Do these foreigners hate us as much as they seem?" and "Are they ever going to be grateful for the things that we do for them?" Now you've just come back from one of your latest trips to far parts of the world. Can you answer those questions?

Eleanor Roosevelt:

Well I would not say that foreigners hated us. I would say that many of them were a little suspicious. That they did not like to feel that everything they wanted to do, they had to ask us for our help. Or some  of it would come from the United Nations, and they liked that better, because they were members. They felt they got it by right, and there was no one individual nation that they had to depend on. But I would say that it was always hard to be grateful for something that you felt you would like to be able to do with asking anyway.
Roosevelt later goes on to explain, with particular regards to nations forced to rebuild after the devastation of WWII:
I think of course that there is some envy in it. When people say, "Will they never be grateful for what we've done?" I think there is gratitude, but gratitude is sometimes swamped by the sense of why was this done, "Was it done in the long run so we could, we who just freed ourselves from political domination, be dominated through economics?"
And without an awareness of that suspicion, a non-apologetic President is doomed to repeat those mistakes (the kind of mistakes that led the US to overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran, which still haunts us to this day, for example). 

But in thinking through Romney's apparent position on "apologies," I was also struck by how this worldview is actually no longer affordable. Romney would seem to argue that we, the United States, must lead through strength, with ultimately the implicit threat of military action against anyone who would dare challenge our right to do so. What Romney seems to not understand, but that Obama seems to have firmly grasped, is that even our military strength is not unlimited and, more importantly, it pales in comparison to the type of soft power that Obama often wields so effectively (or at least better understands the use of, if Romney's Summer tour abroad is any indication).  As Joseph Stiglitz explains in his book, The Price of Inequality:

America's global strength is its soft power, the power of its ideas, an educational system that educates leaders from all over the world, the model that it provides for others to follow. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the limits of military power; not even a large country spending as much on the military as all of the rest of the world combined can truly pacify or conquer a country with one-tenth its population or 0.1 percent of its GDP. The country has long exerted its influence by strength of its economy and the attractiveness of its democracy.

But the American model is losing some of its luster. It's not just that the American model of capitalism didn't provide sustained growth. It's more that others are beginning to realize that most citizens have not benefited from that growth, and such a model is not very politically attractive. And they sense, too, the corruption (American style) of our political system, rife with the influence of special interests.

Of course, there's more than a little schadenfreude here. We lectured countries all around the world about how to run their economy, about good institutions, about democracy, about fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. We even lectured them about their excessive inequality and rent seeking. Now our credibility is gone: we are seen to have a political system in which one party tries to disenfranchise the poor, in which money buys politicians and policies that reinforce the inequalities.

We should be concerned about the risk of this diminished influence. Even if things had been going better in the United States, the growth of the emerging markets would necessitate a new global order. There was just a short period, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when the United States dominated in virtually every realm. Now the emerging markets are demanding a larger voice in international forums.
We can no longer afford the type of arrogance Romney demands. He's living in the 1950s if the truly thinks the world still works that way. I don't believe he does think the world still works that way. But he's cynically willing to suggest he does to get himself elected. The danger, again, is if through such arrogance he paints us into a corner that causes the nation real harm.


Blogger findingfabulous said...

Thanks for so eloquently articulating what I have been feeling "Any president who leaves him/herself no diplomatic wiggle room because of a promise to never apologize puts us all at considerable risk." Core, critical point, if people could just see it from the world's perspective for a moment.

11/02/2012 11:58:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home