One of the keystones of Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been his willingness to apologize for America’s role in the world and what he sees as its sinful past. It is all part of his worldview which disdains the notion of American exceptionalism and the nation’s unique role as a bulwark of freedom. Three years of this kind of thinking has alienated allies and done nothing to ameliorate the animus of foes he has attempted to appease. But there are, apparently, some things for which Obama won’t apologize, and we should be grateful for that.
According to the New York Times, the president has refused to accede to the requests of the State Department that the United States formally apologize for the recent incident in which two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed by U.S. airstrikes during a skirmish between American forces and the Taliban along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. With anger at the U.S. rising in Pakistan, American diplomats have pleaded for the president to admit our troops were wrong and apologize. But Obama, fearing the political fallout if he should be seen bowing down to a country that is actively helping our enemies, has gone along with the Defense Department’s refusal to issue an apology. Even if was politics rather than principle that motivated the president, he is to be applauded for not listening to Foggy Bottom.
The Pakistanis, who have been allies of the Taliban even while they have worked with the U.S., have blocked NATO’s supply route to Afghanistan in retaliation for the killings and demanded the CIA leave an airbase in that country from which drone strikes have been conducted. But while the United States needs Pakistan as much if not more than the Pakistanis need it, there have to be clear limits as to how far American leaders must go to assuage Islamabad’s sensibilities. In particular, Pakistan’s military and its intelligence establishment have unclean hands with regards to the Taliban. The idea that Washington should apologize for an incident in which Pakistan’s role as a sponsor of the Afghan Islamists was revealed is an affront to the troops Obama sent there to fight them and their al-Qaeda allies. Unless an investigation reveals genuine wrongdoing on the part of the Americans who fired, the Pakistanis need to be satisfied with the more amorphous expression of regret already issued.
As for the political implications of this decision, there will be those who will regret the president’s choice and worry he is merely looking to avoid giving the Republicans ammunition. But the question of standing up for the American military goes far deeper than politics. Were Obama to revert to a policy of apologies in this case, it would damage far more than his political prospects. Such an apology would be an affront to our troops and send a dangerous signal to both friends and foes in Afghanistan. If Obama won’t stand up for his own soldiers, why would they believe the U.S. will stand by its allies? At least for the moment, Obama has properly answered that question.