Does a Hegemon ever Meaningfully Apologize?

US threatens further naval incursions despite furious reaction from China


Many tributaries, very tricky to navigate, flow from this main current of public avowals and disavowals; not least, must an apology lead to reparation, if it is to be to be at all meaningful? That is, without a subsequent act of reparation or restitution, can it be fully constituted as an apology? Or is the performance of a speech act something that itself makes change?

Marina Warner

What underlies a proffered apology has obvious relevance. Particularly important is whether the apology was sincere or whether it had ulterior motive. And what does it indicate to the citizens of a country when its government refuses or elides meaningful apology for its wrongdoing?

What is the ideology that underlies the determination not to apologize; that is, what are the foundations or motives for not apologizing? Right-wingers will portray apologizing as a sign of weakness.

The recent incursion of US navy personnel into Iranian coastal water has seen the American corporate media focus inordinately on the fact that purportedly no apology has been issued to Iran. CNN cited John Kirby, a spokesman for Secretary of State John Kerry: “There is no truth in reporting that Secretary Kerry apologized to the Iranians.”

CNN also cited a nameless CENTCOM official seeking to disavow the videoed apology of a US navy sailor: “Clearly this staged video exhibits a sailor making an apology in an unknown context as an effort to defuse a tense situation and protect his crew.” Clearly the anonymous official’s comment targets the trespassee rather than the trespassers.

CBS News featured the US vice president in its headline: “Biden: Iran didn’t want or get apology for boats incident.” The right-wing Daily Wire, however, contends Biden is lying about not apologizing.

BBC News, cited general Ali Fadavi, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards naval forces, saying the US did apologize to Iran for its naval incursion.

Whether the United States did or did not apologize for its incursion into Iranian waters is revelatory. What is historical fact is the longstanding refusal of US officials to apologize in a sincere and meaningful manner for wrongdoing on its part.

This is especially applicable to Republican politicians. This is emblemized by the words of former president George H.W. Bush who audaciously quipped, “I’ll never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate drew inspiration from Bush the Elder’s obstinacy which he used for his book unabashedly entitled: No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.

Romney sought a wedge between himself and Barack Obama who has on occasion offered a form of apology. Last year, president Obama made a “rare” apology for a US war crime: the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan. However, despite paying compensation to the families of those killed and injured, what does the failure to prosecute the guilty parties in this war crime signify? When war criminals escape censure and punishment, can cash and such an apology be considered authentic and meaningful atonement?

The spotty and cavalier US record as far as saying sorry for its slew of major crimes extends deep into its past.

Disdainfully, it is still unwilling to apologize for the genocidal mushroom clouds it caused over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the tail-end of World War II.

The US still has not apologized for its abduction and enslavement of Africans. Most Americans apparently agree with this non-apology.

A breakthrough of sorts occurred during the administration of president Bill Clinton when both houses of the United States Congress adopted the Apology Resolution (U.S. Public Law 103-150 [107 Stat. 1510])

acknowledg[ing] that the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum.

But what does it mean to say, in effect, sorry we took your land, and then leave unstated: but we will continue to keep what we stole from you? Is that a genuine apology?

Bill Clinton apologized for the slave trade in Africa. He apologized on behalf of the international community for the genocide in Rwanda:

The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.

As a president of a country that fancies itself as the leader of the free world and the world’s only indispensable nation, it is not surprising that the US would presume to speak for other nations. Of course, in doing so the US dilutes its responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda. ((In fact, the US sides with the genocidaires in Rwanda. Read the factual compilation by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, Enduring Lies: The Rwandan Genocide in the Propaganda System, 20 Years Later (2014). Moreover, the US remains on the sidelines of a far greater genocide in Congo, as does much of the world. Again, see Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, Enduring Lies: The Rwandan Genocide in the Propaganda System, 20 Years Later (2014).))

On 19 December 2009, president Barack Obama signed into law a joint resolution, an apology to Indigenous peoples:

Declares that the United States acting through Congress: (1) recognizes the special legal and political relationship the Indian tribes have with it, the solemn covenant with the land we share, and that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes; (2) commends and honors the Native Peoples for the thousands of years that they have stewarded and protected this land; (3) apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on them by U.S. citizens; (4) expresses its regret for the ramifications of former offenses and its commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together; (5) urges the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in U.S. history in order to bring healing to this land by providing a proper foundation for reconciliation between such entities; and (6) commends the State governments that have begun reconciliation efforts with recognized Indian tribes located in their boundaries and encourages all State governments similarly to do the same.

Among the Indigenous reaction was an article entitled: “A Tree Fell in the Forest: The U.S. Apologized to Native Americans and No One Heard a Sound.” It lamented, “The US apology, as un-public as the delivery has been thus far, also misses the opportunity to list the transgressions.”

Another article at Indian Country asked, “Is an apology that’s not said out loud really an apology? What if the person expressing the apology doesn’t draw attention to it?”

It causes thoughtful people to ask: What’s the purpose of an apology if it swept under a rug? What’s the purpose of an apology if no concrete actions or compensation are being enacted?

However sincere or not Obama’s “apologies” may have been, they have been fodder for criticism from more extreme right-wingers. One right-wing UK newspaper called “Obama’s supine approach … a humiliating spectacle” for the US. The newspaper further argued that the “new strategy is weakening his country and making the United States more vulnerable to attack.” [italics added] Note that the apology is considered a “new strategy.”

The Thatcherite writer opines further, “The brutal truth is that the United States is increasingly viewed as a soft touch by its enemies, increasingly jeered rather than feared.”

Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has during his terms in the White House, had America involved in the violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Venezuela, Yemen, Ukraine, etc. What does this portend for his use of apology?

In his novel Disgust, author J.M. Coetzee’s protagonists ponder the quintessence of an apology:

Isaacs accepts Lurie’s apology but states, ‘We are all sorry when we are found out. The question is what lesson have we learned? The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry?’

  • First published at American Herald Tribune.
  • Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.