In its admirable fertility, the English language provides an ample choice of alternatives for the commonplace expression "I'm sorry." The offending party can "apologize," "express regrets," or "voice remorse." The culprit can confess "error," "fault," or "guilt," while vowing to "repent," "atone," and/or "compensate." Especially in election years, "sorry," in all its gradations, is often dissected to suggest that a public figure is groveling. Thus Barack Obama's opponents accuse the U.S. president of needlessly saying "sorry" overseas on what presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called Obama's "American apology tour." The attacks reached a fever pitch when Obama sent a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai apologizing for the careless burning of Qurans by U.S. personnel at Bagram Airfield. Candidate Newt Gingrich called the apology an "outrage" because six Americans were killed in the riots provoked by the burning and as many as 30 Afghan lives were lost. The White House was still scrambling to respond to continuing protests of the Quran burning when a seemingly berserk soldier reportedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province on March 10. Rarely have the politics of sorry seemed so sensitive.
The first question worth examining is whether Obama is in fact guilty as charged, but the more interesting second question is whether saying "sorry" really matters in foreign affairs. In respect to the first question, fact-checkers at the Washington Post failed to find a single full-throated apology in any of the president's overseas speeches; instead, he repeatedly extolled America and its ideals. Like his predecessors, Obama has become practiced in conceding error without saying sorry, as exemplified early in his presidency when he held that a Boston police sergeant had "acted stupidly" in arresting an African-American scholar, Harvard University's Henry Louis "Skip" Gates. Having caused an outcry, the president then recalibrated his words, holding that both policeman and professor had "overreacted," and invited both to share a beer at the White House.
In respect to the broader question, in my view, saying sorry truly does matter, and it was wise and just for Obama to do so following the tragic blunder at Bagram Airfield. Few wounds fester longer than a failure to acknowledge gross abuses, even in times long past. Japan to this day remains tongue-tied regarding treatment of Korean "comfort women" during World War II and is still faulted in Asia for its tardy and awkward apologies for its wartime transgressions. Turkey steadfastly resists to even acknowledge its indiscriminate slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman troops during World War I, prompting the French National Assembly to pass a law criminalizing denial of what is widely regarded as a genocide. Turkey, for its part, accuses France of ignoring its own crimes perpetrated during an Algerian war that claimed more than a million lives (Algeria's count) or at least 300,000 lives (in France's reckoning) -- a discrepancy ironically symmetrical with contested counts of Armenian fatalities in Turkey.
Concerning France's undeclared war in Algeria, President Nicolas Sarkozy all but shrugged prior to his sole visit to Algeria in 2007. True, he told an interviewer that many suffered in the conflict, but "I'm for a recognition of the facts, but not for repentance, which is a religious notion that has no place in relations between states." To date, there has been no official apology for France's violent repression and use of torture in the war, so Algerians have repeatedly complained. Even as national leaders are held to heightened standards of moral responsibility, they tend to duck for cover in traditional formulas for avoiding or narrowing blame. I have developed a score card of sorts describing the six degrees of contrition, ranging from virtual dismissal to full embrace.