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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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Woodward, Calvin. “Presidential Debate Fact Check: Romneys ‘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 Repair” Ethics & International Affairs 22.4. Winter (2008): n. pag. 30 Dec. 2008. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.