Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The Obama “Apology” Tour

The Obama “Apology” Tour

Photograph via Grouchy Old Cripple

So on the same day that embassies were attacked and Americans killed, with proclamations of “United We Stand” and “Never Forget” still appearing in my Facebook feed, Mitt Romney’s campaign released a statement condemning the Obama administration’s response to these attacks. The administration’s response—really, the response of those in the besieged Cairo embassy—was too weak, said Romney’s campaign:

[quote]It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.[/quote]

You can read the basic chronology of various attacks and statements here. You can read the bipartisan criticism of Romney’s statement anywhere on the Internet. I don’t want to linger on Romney’s statement. Instead I want to examine how we got here.

I noted three months ago the astonishing resiliency of the idea that Obama began his presidency with a worldwide apology tour, as well as that of the related claim that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. At the time, I predicted “Romney will surely level this charge yet again some time this summer or fall, giving us opportunity to discuss it whenever it occurs.”

This was hardly prescient on my part. It was amazing that the meme hadn’t been a larger part of the campaign throughout the spring, though of course it popped up here and there, because it has been a hallmark of the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy—of his whole presidency, of his whole worldview—for well over three years now.

In the wake of Romney’s critique, The Daily Beast marked Obama’s speech in Cairo in June of 2009 as the start of this insanity. I strongly urge you to read the text of that speech, which is pretty nonapologetic. But know that the Obama apologizing meme actually precedes that. I tie it to a speech Obama gave in Strasbourg, France, in early April of 2009. In addition to saying many great things about America, Obama also said that “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”

[pullquote_right]Obama’s conciliatory tone in foreign speeches was a repudiation of the policies and attitude of our last president.[/pullquote_right]

(If there is one place besides the Middle East where a supposed Obama apology would draw Republican ire, it is France. Francophobia has somewhat decreased in the GOP over the last few years, ceding to other phobias. But recall that after French president Jacques Chirac opposed the Iraq War, anti-French jokes were all the rage on Fox News, and that French fries became freedom fries, at least in the House of Representatives cafeteria.)

Regardless of the exact starting point, the spring of 2009 is when this fever dream took flight. Karl Rove. Charles Krauthammer. At one point The Heritage Foundation released a Top Ten Apologies list. During this campaign, after the spring lull, Mitt Romney spent the second half of July and most of August mentioning Obama’s apology tour. Any such mention at the GOP convention in Tampa drew wild applause.

Politifact has consistently rated these claims as false. As I mentioned, I am less interested in the veracity of these ideas than in where they come from and why they are accompanied by so much anger. What exactly are the roots of the Republican obsession with Obama’s apology tour? I have long suspected they were entwined with the effort to convince low-information voters that Obama is foreign—that he is the other, somehow un-American, if not by birth than by worldview. Surely that is a part of it, simple politicking.

Yet there is more to it. Regardless of whether or not you believe Obama apologized, there is no doubt that one of his goals in his trip abroad was recasting the external posture of the president, and thus the United States, toward the world. This was, in fact, a somewhat explicit part of his 2008 campaign. Obama’s election, his subsequent trip around the world, and the measured, conciliatory tone he took in foreign speeches, were a repudiation of not only the policies of our last president but his attitude.

Ah, yes. George W. Bush. He was absent from the convention, but rest assured he was there in spirit. His presidency was a failure but conservatives—particularly neoconservatives—have not accepted this. In their eyes, the things Obama has apologized for—torture, Guantanamo, the Iraq War, and so on—were things that Bush did. And yet conservatives don’t believe these were errors. Romney’s foreign policy team draws heavily from Bush’s; 17 of his 24 foreign policy advisors worked for Bush. Mitt Romney wants to double the size of Guantanamo. He wants a vice president like Dick Cheney. He wants to prolong our stay in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course there can be no apologies. There can be no apologies because we have done no wrong.