Presidential apologies are used with discretion, laden with risk

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WASHINGTON -- When should a president say he's sorry?

President Barack Obama's apology to his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, has resurrected the politically vexing issue of national contrition at a delicate moment in both the war in Afghanistan and in the presidential campaign at home.

The president's "I'm sorry," for U.S. military involvement in the burning of copies of the Quran, has resonated in Kabul and on the campaign trail, where Republicans have been using it to support their claim that he is more interested in apologizing for American mistakes than in defending American power.

But Mr. Obama's decision to apologize sprang from a mix of principle and pragmatism, the hallmarks of presidential apologies over the years.

The mostly partisan outcry over Mr. Obama's apology shows the challenge he faces as both a candidate for re-election and as a wartime commander in chief, roles whose motivations are sometimes at odds. In this case, his attempt to assuage angry Afghans with an apology he hoped would protect American troops allowed some conservatives to question the strength of his leadership.

Much of the criticism stems from the more humble tone Mr. Obama has sought to bring to American foreign policy after the swaggering approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Mr. Obama has banned the harsh techniques that the International Committee of the Red Cross called torture from U.S. interrogation policy and made clear that he believes living up to American values is an essential source of the nation's power. Repairing U.S. relations with the Islamic world has been one of his foreign policy priorities.

When and why a president has chosen to say "I'm sorry" has varied over the years, and Mr. Obama's apology to Mr. Karzai, a longtime ally in a decade-old war, is among only a few in recent decades that have been delivered in real time.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan, held up by today's Republican field as the embodiment of American self-assurance, apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

He signed legislation that eventually disbursed $1.6 billion in reparations to those affected by the policy, which the legislation said was the result of "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

"The trick is always to apologize for something the country did when you weren't president," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "What is remarkable is apologizing for something that has happened while you were president."

That same year, for instance, Reagan declined to apologize after missiles fired from the USS Vincennes downed an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people on board.

He expressed regret for the loss of life -- a common presidential formulation over the years that offers a quasi-apology for something associated with the event, but not for the event itself. But Reagan did not apologize to Iran, a nemesis, showing that who is on the receiving end often determines whether an apology is issued.

Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, who was running for president in 1988, said at the time of the Vincennes incident that he would "never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don't care what the facts are."

Mr. Bush was known as a moderate Republican, experienced in foreign policy. But he lived up to his pledge, a track record his son broke from after he took office.

A man of few expressed regrets, George W. Bush nonetheless said sorry several times as president.

In November 2002, for example, he apologized, through the U.S. ambassador in Seoul, several months after a U.S. military vehicle hit and killed two South Korean girls.

The king of presidential contrition, though, was Bill Clinton, who apologized repeatedly over his two terms in office for national policy, past and present, and his own behavior.


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