Presidential debate fact check: The Obama apology tour?


Mitt Romney: “And then the president began what I have called an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.”

President Obama: “Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.”

 

Overview

During the third presidential debate, President Obama spoke accurately in suggesting that fact checkers, at least mainstream ones, claim that Romney’s characterization of Obama’s international tour as an “apology tour” is inaccurate.  But Romney makes a valid point that Obama’s debate response fails to address, and the fact checkers are wrong about the apologies.

 

The Facts

Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post Fact Checker, said “The apology tour never happened.”

Calvin Woodward, fact checking for the Associated Press, said “Romney has indeed repeatedly and wrongly accused the president of travelling the world early in his presidency and apologizing for U.S. behaviour.”

Robert Farley of FactCheck.org and formerly of PolitiFact, said “Nowhere did we see that the president ‘apologized’ for America.”

Angie Drobnic Holan of PolitiFact said “There’s not a full-throated, sincere apology in the bunch. And so we rate Romney’s statement False.”

And what is an apology?  Merriam-Webster says it is “an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.”

Academic accounts differ, especially in the realm of politics.

 

Matt James

 

Five initial requirements of an authentic political apology can be distilled from this work: (1) naming clearly the wrong or wrongs in question; (2)taking responsibility for the wrong; (3) expressing regret; (4) promising nonrepetition; and (5) refraining from demanding forgiveness.

 

 

G. R. Hook:

 

The first political apology offered by Japan for the war, was given primarily for economic reasons. This was offered by Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka on September 29, 1972 to the People’s Republic of China. In a joint communique between the governments of Japan and the PRC, diplomatic relations were established between the two governments. In this apology no mention was made about being sorry, no actual apologies were offered although responsibility for the war was accepted by Japan. Japan simply “reproached” itself.

 

 

Hook again:

 

The definition of a political apology in this context is the public announcement of a remorseful acceptance of responsibility for wrongful or harmful actions by a government that led to the disadvantage or victimization of a group of its own citizens, or attacks on the citizens of another country. There exists a whole spectrum of “disadvantages” associated with the word “attacks” ranging from slight embarrassment to death.

 

Janna Thompson:

 

There is no agreement on what a political apology means, whether it is meaningful at all, when it should be offered, whether it is possible or appropriate to apologise for injustices of the more distant past, whether offering political apologies is an adequate way of dealing with injustices, and what relation they have to reparative justice.

 

Analyzing the Rhetoric

Given the evidence in the professional literature that experts have widely varying ideas of “apology,” how did fact checkers reach their conclusions that Mr. Obama did not apologize during his foreign tour?  Our evaluation of rhetoric starts with the fact checks.

Glenn Kessler/The Fact Checker

Kessler says that none of Mr. Obama’s alleged apologies contain a word similar to “apologize.”  That observation is true but hardly relevant, as Elizabeth A. Cole shows with her paraphrase of philosopher Charles L. Griswold’s view of the political apology:

 

Griswold sees apology—defined as public acknowledgment of wrongdoing by a political entity, such as a state or a political party—as appropriate for the political sphere for a couple of reasons.

 

Kessler bases the rest of his argument on the assertions that other presidents did the same thing, that Mr. Obama sometimes offered criticisms of other countries while admitting U.S. wrongdoing and that Mr. Obama’s statements do not seem like apologies to Kessler.  Kessler never bothered to define “apology” except to hint that using something like the word “apology” while making an apology is required.

Calvin Woodward/Associated Press

Woodward simply says “Obama didn’t say ‘sorry’ in those travels.”  Like Kessler, he appears to assume that using some word like “apology” is necessary for an apology.  We’ve seen that the professional literature fails to consistently support that claim.

Robert Farley/FactCheck.org

“Obama admits to American failings, and then couples that with a critique of misperceptions fostered about the U.S. in Europe, writes Farley. “That’s well short of a formal apology.”

Did Romney accuse Mr. Obama of giving a “formal” apology?  And even if he did, Farley offers no definition of “apology” formal or otherwise.  Trust Robert Farley isn’t fact checking.

Angie Drobnic Holan/PolitiFact

PolitiFact’s fact check was more involved but ultimately no better founded than the others.

“As we looked over Obama’s remarks,” Drobnic Holan writes, “we noticed that he never used the word that is the universal hallmark of apologies: ‘sorry.’ Merriam-Webster defines an apology as ‘an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.'”

At least PolitiFact defines the word “apology.”  But is a dictionary the best source when we apply the word in a specialized sense as with an international apology?  And does Merriam-Webster say that “sorry” is the universal hallmark of apologies?

Drobic Holan supplements her evidence with testimony from “several different experts.”  PolitiFact disregarded the opinion of one, Nile Gardiner of the conservative Heritage Foundation, without explanation.  Gardiner said Mr. Obama had definitely apologized.

John Murphy of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said, using PolitiFact’s paraphrase, “Obama is using conciliatory language for diplomatic purposes, not apologizing.”
Since apologies may use conciliatory language for diplomatic purposes, Murphy’s answer does not explain why Mr. Obama isn’t apologizing.

PolitiFact also cites Lauren Bloom, author of  “The Art of the Apology”

 

She said Obama’s words fall short of an apology, mostly because he didn’t use the words “sorry” or “regret.” “I think to make an effective apology, the words ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘we’re sorry’ always have to be there,” Bloom said.

 

The issue, of course, is not whether Mr. Obama apologized effectively but whether he apologized at all.  Coincidentally, PolitiFact goes on to paraphrase Bloom as saying that non-apologies like Obama’s do have a use in international diplomacy.  So one can apologize effectively with a non-apology?  PolitiFact does not follow up to help dispel the confusion.
Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann of Laurier University in Ontario, Canada completes PolitiFact’s list of experts.

Howard-Hassmann said “To say the United States will not torture is not an apology, it is a statement of intent. A complete apology has to acknowledge something was wrong, accept responsibility, express sorrow or regret and promise not to repeat it.”

President Obama in Cairo, June 4, 2009 (bold emphasis added):

 

And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter or forget our principles.  Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country.  The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.  We are taking concrete actions to change course.  I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.

 

It is true, as Howard-Hassmann says, that declaring an intent not to engage in torture is a policy decision.  However, in context this policy decision implicitly includes each of Howard-Hassmann’s requirements for an apology.  Admitting to not following one’s ideals automatically expresses regret in this context, revealed in the decision to change course.  Minus regret, what reason does the president have to change course?  Something was wrong (acting contrary to our traditions and ideals), the United States did it (accepting responsibility) and we’re changing course (sorrow and regret/promising not to repeat it).

If that’s not an apology then the difference between the two is infinitesimal.

Where the fact checkers do not essentially rely on their own dubious expertise, they arbitrarily determine which expert opinion decides the matter while ignoring readily available professional literature that undercuts their conclusions.

Governor Romney

Romney has good support in the professional literature for calling Mr. Obama’s foreign speeches an apology tour, particularly if we allow license for hyperbole.

President Obama

The president speaks accurately in saying the fact checkers found Romney’s claim about his “apology tour” false.  Rhetorically, Mr. Obama’s statement represents a fallacious appeal to authority.  The fact checkers are wrong about the apologies when measured against a representative selection of the best evidences.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter what the fact checkers found, since they were wrong.

Correction March 19, 2013

Fixed a transcription error in the quotation of Matt James.  We repeated the third item twice:  “(3) expressing regret; (4) expressing regret; (4) promising nonrepetition.”  We regret and regret the error and apologize to Mr. James.

References

Kessler, Glenn. “Obama’s ‘Apology Tour’The Washington Post Fact Checker. The Washington Post, 22 Feb. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Woodward, Calvin. “Presidential Debate Fact Check: Romney€™s ‘Apology Tour’™ Claims, Obama’€™s Flub on Massachusetts Education And more.” National Post. Postmedia Network Inc., 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Farley, Robert. “Romney€’s Sorry ‘€˜Apology’€™ Dig.” FactCheck.org. The Annenberg Public Policy Center, 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Drobnic Holan, Angie. “Mitt Romney Said Barack Obama Began His Presidency with an Apology Tour.” PolitiFact. PolitiFact, 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Drobnic Holan, Angie. “Obama’s Remarks Never a True ‘apology’PolitiFact. PolitiFact, 15 Mar. 2010. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

James, Matt. “Wrestling With the Past: Apologies, Quasi-Apologies, and Non-Apologies in Canada.” The Age of Apology: Facing Up to the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008. 137. Print.

Thompson, Janna. “Apology, Justice, and Respect: A Critical Defense of Political Apology.” The Age of Apology: Facing Up to the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008. 31. Print.

Hook, G. Raumati. “The Road to Reconciliation Begins with an Apology.” MAI Review (2008): 5. Web. 23 October 2012.

Hook, G. Raumati. “The political apology as a millenial phenomenon.” MAI Review (2008): 3.  Web.  23 October 2012

Cole, Elizabeth A. “Apology, Forgiveness, and Moral RepairEthics & International Affairs 22.4.  Winter (2008): n. pag.  30 Dec. 2008. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

10 Comments

  1. Brash Equilibrium

    This meta fact check is terrible. You provide an air of authenticity by citing expert definitions of what an apology is, demonstrate that Obama gave some diplomatic apologies, and then conclude that it was an apology tour. Your logic is only as good as Romney’s, and it goes like this: “If you somewhere and do something, because it is convenient for me to say so, that is what your entire series of visits to foreign countries was for. And, moreover, the United States has nothing to apologize for.” Good luck with revolutionizing the fact checking industry. You’re only about as partisan, and probably more, than the media you censure.

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      “You provide an air of authenticity by citing expert definitions of what an apology is, demonstrate that Obama gave some diplomatic apologies, and then conclude that it was an apology tour.”

      Something like that, yes. What I actually said was that Romney has a good foundation for calling it an apology tour, particularly if we allow license for hyperbole. But I guess we can skip right over that.

      “Your logic is only as good as Romney’s”

      Thanks. But your last line in your justification for saying so is a straw man. I don’t offer any comment on whether the U.S. should apologize for anything.

      “Good luck with revolutionizing the fact checking industry. You’re only about as partisan, and probably more, than the media you censure.”

      Explain why the other fact checkers failed to try to obtain an air of authenticity by surveying professional journals on the subject of apologies.

      Reply
      1. Brash Equilibrium

        “Explain why the other fact checkers failed to try to obtain an air of authenticity by surveying professional journals on the subject of apologies.”

        Which is *completely irrelevant* as I just argued. There are two parts to the claim, apology, and tour, implying that it was a tour for the purpose of apology.

        “If we allow license for hyperbole.”

        I thought we were fact checking. So, yeah, we *can* skip right over that.

        Reply
        1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

          “Which is *completely irrelevant* as I just argued.”

          Your argument is incoherent. It is obviously relevant what “apology” means in terms of international and political relations. This is the only fact checking site to examine the professional literature on the subject.

          “There are two parts to the claim, apology, and tour, implying that it was a tour for the purpose of apology.”

          There’s no question there was a tour, so the key issue is whether apologies took place on the tour. That’s the fact checking aspect of the claim. It’s not practical to investigate the purpose in most cases, but the mere fact that statements of regret for U.S. actions occurred in something like a pattern probabilistically supports the conclusion. Since that part of the claim is only dubiously checked as a fact, my site uses the heading “Analyzing the Rhetoric.” In my analysis I determine that it is reasonable to call it an “apology tour” since it was a tour and included apologies. All the more so if we allow license for hyperbole.

          “I thought we were fact checking. So, yeah, we *can* skip right over that.”

          If it could be a fact that Romney was using hyperbole then we should not skip right over that. It is one of the key facts that we should use when we interpret public statements.

          There’s no magic wand that allows us to unerringly interpret human communications. It’s about time that you and the mainstream fact checkers come to terms with that fact.

          Reply
          1. Brash Equilibrium

            “Your argument is incoherent.”

            Speaking of hyperbole…

            “It is obviously relevant what “apology” means in terms of international and political relations”

            I didn’t argue that the definition of apology is inappropriate. It’s just that you seem to have neglected the definition of a tour, and what the juxtaposition of “apology” and “tour” implies: that Barack Obama’s tour of foreign countries when he came into office was a tour for the purpose of giving apologies for America’s shortcomings. That wasn’t the purpose of the tour. Thus, the characterization of it being an apology tour is false.

            Do you want to call that argument incoherent, or would you rather offer a proper rebuttal?

          2. Bryan W. White (Post author)

            “I didn’t argue that the definition of apology is inappropriate.”

            Correct. You said you argued that it was irrelevant. I just pointed out that it’s relevant. Apparently now you agree.

            “It’s just that you seem to have neglected the definition of a tour, and what the juxtaposition of “apology” and “tour” implies: that Barack Obama’s tour of foreign countries when he came into office was a tour for the purpose of giving apologies for America’s shortcomings.”

            You said it was a two-part fact check, tour and apology. I pointed out that Romney’s accurate about the tour and accurate about the apologies. So when you said it was a two part fact check apparently you meant it was a three part fact check (and this is what I’m talking about when I say your argument is incoherent).

            I addressed the third of your two parts: It’s not a matter for rating it a fact or not. We don’t know intent. But we can see the pattern of apologies in President Obama’s speeches, which provides probabilistic support for the idea that Mr. Obama intended to apologize while touring. Somehow you neglected to address that part of my argument while claiming that I’m not addressing your argument. Ironic, no?

            “That wasn’t the purpose of the tour.”

            What was the purpose of the tour, IYO?

            “Thus, the characterization of it being an apology tour is false.”

            Whoa, whoa, whoa. It’s a tour. And it includes apologies. So the two aspects of the claim you said we should look at are true. But the third one you tacked on later isn’t true (apparently because you say so) so the whole claim is false? I’m afraid my right-wing bias inhibits me from understanding your logic.

            Seriously, do we get any evidence in favor of your assertion that apologizing was not the purpose of the tour? Or any reasoning why it isn’t reasonable for Romney to call it an apology tour if it’s true that Obama went on tour and true that Obama apologized?

          3. Brash Equilibrium

            Clearly I mistyped “inappropriate” when I mean “irrelevant”, so your first point is…well…irrelevant. And while I agree that the definition of an apology is obviously relevant to whether or not something is an apology tour, your high-powered, against-the-old-guard application of that definition to refute the fact checkers’ rulings is definitely irrelevant.

            “You said it was a two-part fact check, tour and apology. I pointed out that Romney’s accurate about the tour and accurate about the apologies. So when you said it was a two part fact check apparently you meant it was a three part fact check (and this is what I’m talking about when I say your argument is incoherent).”

            LOL. This is effing hilarious. He’s accurate about the tour, and accurate about the apologies, he must be accurate about the apology tour! So in your world, whenever two sets exist, their intersection is never a null set. Yes. Stellar reasoning there. If my argument is incoherent (to you), at least it isn’t logically invalid.

            “We don’t know intent. But we can see the pattern of apologies in President Obama’s speeches, which provides probabilistic support for the idea that Mr. Obama intended to apologize while touring.”

            And how are you calculating those probabilities? (This is a rhetorical question.)

            “Somehow you neglected to address that part of my argument while claiming that I’m not addressing your argument. Ironic, no?”

            I didn’t address that part of your argument because I was still trying to convince you that your whole premise for this “meta fact check” is irrelevant. I think it’s best if we take one premise at a time from now on. We were still working on the “In general, apology + tour != apology” tour part. Now you want to say that this is one of the special cases when it does. Okay, fine. Let’s review what Obama was doing in his early travels.

            In a bunch of speeches, Obama pointed out that, in the previous administration, American foreign policy had gone astray. I won’t debate with you about whether or not it had, but I’d love to hear you argue that most of the world didn’t think it had. On the other hand, Obama also pointed out that this pattern had caused a counter-productive “reflexive anti-Americanism”. When you read his speeches, the purpose of his early travels was to publicly re-establish a multilateral stance in American foreign policy by publicly criticizing what he viewed as faulty foreign policies of the previous administration, but also be discouraging knee-jerk anti-American sentiment. That is both more complex and more strategically defensible than an “apology tour”.

            In any case, let’s get out of fact check land so that we can pretend like we can read minds. Because it’s pretty clear why Romney called it an apology tour. That gives Obama’s diplomatic mission a negative connotation. It brings up an image of a President that panders to foreign countries. Find me a speech in which he was pandering, and you’ll have proven to me that you are a GENIUS at literary criticism. Moreover, Romney’s use of the term evokes in conservatives their desire for a more unilateral and hawkish foreign policy. So look who’s pandering now?

          4. Bryan W. White (Post author)

            Read the FAQ and then try to explain how you concluded that I am using logic of the form “He’s accurate about the tour, and accurate about the apologies, he must be accurate about the apology tour!”

      2. Brash Equilibrium

        Ah. I see. So this website is subjective spin and commentary on subjective spin. Well, good luck. I hope you get picked up by The Blaze or Breitbart!

        Reply
        1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

          So where’s the spin, other than from you making up something you thought I had said that I really hadn’t?

          Reply

Leave a reply here or on our Facebook page

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.