March 8, 2007
A Presidential Apology?
— Daniel Malotky
President Bush has acknowledged on several occasions that mistakes have been made in Iraq. His statements, however, have been framed to present him as a strong leader who is willing to take responsibility for his actions. None of his public remarks has constituted an apology, and he scrupulously avoids any suggestion that the invasion as a whole was a mistake.
In these non-apologies, we confront the tragic gap between the ideal and the real. Repentance is at the heart of the faith this president so publicly espouses; the intersection of spirituality and morality, for Christians, lies in the ironically positioned capacity for admitting one's moral failure. The redemption that the President surely desires is only possible by shedding the sense of his own — and, by extension, America's — inherent righteousness by admitting wrongdoing.
That the president has not even started down this path, however, has deeper causes than frustrated liberals typically suppose. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr proclaims that all of our religious and moral ideals are illusions. They are illusory, according to Niebuhr, not because they are necessarily false, but because they cannot be fully realized. Articulating a central tenet of Christian Realism, Niebuhr asserts that our highest ideals are relevant, but that we inevitably fall short in our attempts to implement them.
Too often, however, we become fixated on the mitigating imperfections of the world, found in our institutions, our enemies, and ourselves. In our rush to be realistic, we overlook practical possibilities that are consonant with our deepest beliefs. In despair over our limitations, we neglect to do the good that could in fact be done.
Real-world examples of public apology, like those integral to the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, provide some indication that this despair is unfounded. While the process has hardly established complete justice in South Africa, it has facilitated the transition from a repressive white-minority regime to majority rule in a manner that is striking for its peacefulness. Though less obviously motivated by religious principles, Governor Schwarzenegger's apology to Californians and his subsequent reelection suggest that our ideals need not operate heedless of political realities.
This worldliness could also be found in a presidential mea culpa. The president has nothing to lose politically. He is a lame-duck president with an approval rating fixed in the thirties. The war in Iraq has already cost Republicans control of Congress, and it will continue to exact a heavy political cost through the next election cycle if nothing substantial changes.
A confession would provide his Republican colleagues some political cover, but it also would provide the best opportunity to achieve the president's goals in Iraq. More than any other proposed strategy, it would rob enemies of the United States of their ability to claim the moral high ground. As long as the insurgents can raise legitimate questions about our intentions, they can cast themselves as nationalist warriors or martyrs for Allah. A confession would deflate this moral balloon, for paradoxical though it may seem, the president would grab the high ground in the eyes of Iraqis and the rest of the world by conceding it.
If Niebuhr is right, of course, we should not expect a full-blown confession from President Bush any time soon — the countervailing realities, like the attending requirement to acknowledge blood on his hands, must seem overwhelming — but we can still push for an approximation. If he does not feel capable of admitting that his administration, intentionally or not, misled the American public about WMD and Saddam's ties to al Qaeda, he might at least acknowledge that in the wake of 9/11, he was too eager to embrace any scrap of evidence, however contrived, to support his preconceived notions. If he will not admit to questionable intentions for the invasion, he might at least confess that his administration was too ready to believe the rosy pictures they painted about being greeted by Iraqis as liberators.
Liberals might not be satisfied with anything less than a "Jimmy Swaggart" moment, but even a limited confession would help. Though moral failure, as Niebuhr shows, often arises by proceeding as though the gap between the ideal and real does not exist, we are not well served by assuming that the gap leaves us in an amoral wasteland, in which survival (political or otherwise) becomes the only relevant criterion for determining our course of action.
Daniel Malotky is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy, and Director of Ethics across the Curriculum at Greensboro College.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "The Earth Charter as a New Covenant for Democracy" by J. Ronald Engel. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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