“I will never apologise for the United States, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” President George H.W. Bush’s statement in 1988 was more than just a “Bushism”, of the sort that his son later made famous. It was also a pithy summary of a whole school of thought in the US.

For many conservative Americans, one of the besetting sins of their liberal rivals is a tendency to go around apologising for their country. Jeane Kirkpatrick, a combative conservative, memorably excoriated liberals as the “blame America first” crowd

Now conservatives are complaining loudly that one of those namby-pamby, self-flagellating liberals is sitting in the Oval Office – abasing himself and the country before foreigners. President Barack Obama, they complain, has turned himself into “global apologiser-in-chief”. Rush Limbaugh, the doyen of conservative talk radio, rages that “everywhere he goes, he’s just apologising for the United States”.

In the Los Angeles Times, the political commentator James Kirchik lambasted Mr Obama for his “grand, global apology tour this spring”. It all started, according to Mr Kirchik, when the president gave an interview to Al Arabiya television and called for “mutual respect” between the US and the Muslim world. Mr Obama repeated the sin when, in a speech calling for nuclear disarmament, he said: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” Then in Turkey, the president “apologised some more” by talking of “strained trust” between the US and the Muslim world. And to compound his sins, at the Summit of the Americas, Mr Obama “calmly sat through a 50-minute anti-American tirade by the communist leader of Nicaragua ... and was disturbingly ebullient in glad-handing Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez".

The alert reader will have noticed that none of the examples cited by the outraged Mr Kirchik actually contains the word "sorry". Nor is it clear what Mr Obama was expected to do with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua – deck him? Even when Mr Obama has been unambiguously apologetic, his opponents often quote him out of context. So Mr Kirchik cites the president’s remark to a European audience that "there have been times when America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive". BUT HE CAREFULLY OMITS THE NEXT LINE – "But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious".

For many of Mr Obama’s critics, however, this kind of detail is beside the point. They believe that the president is running his country down – and that such a policy is weak, unpatriotic and ultimately dangerous. Newt Gingrich, a leading Republican, worries that Mr Obama is sending the wrong signal, arguing that "the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators – when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead".

This kind of debate is not unique to the US. John Howard, a conservative Australian prime minister, decried what he called “the black armband version of Australian history”, which saw his country’s history as “little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism”. It took 40 years to elapse before a French president, Jacques Chirac, was able to acknowledge in public that Vichy France had collaborated in the Holocaust and to apologise.

Many patriotic defenders of the US would bridle at any such comparison. In their view, other countries apologise because they have a lot to apologise for. But America is, as Ronald Reagan liked to say, "a shining city on a hill" – the nation that restored freedom to Europe in 1945 and then faced down the threat of the Soviet empire.

It is true that modern America has more to be proud of than most other nations. But it would be absurd for Mr Obama, whose wife is descended from slaves, to deny that America, too, has shameful episodes in its past.

What America thinks about its recent history, in particular, is of more than academic interest. The US is the global superpower – and what it says about its past tells us something about what it will do in the future. So when Mr Obama suggests that the US has made mistakes in its dealings with Europe or the Muslim world, he is quite deliberately sending a signal.

To his conservative critics, the signal he is sending is one of weakness. But no fair reading of Mr Obama’s various comments suggest that he is ashamed of his country, or that he intends to sacrifice American interests. What he is doing is trying to improve some of the poisonous relationships that he inherited from President George W. Bush by acknowledging, usually in rather coded language, that the US, too, can make mistakes. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the torture scandal, this is not an unreasonable point to make. Proclaiming that the US is always right and virtuous may go down well in the American heartland, but it tends to antagonise foreigners – and that is simply counterproductive.

More important, a willingness to discuss your country’s history self-critically is a mark of an open society.

Vladimir Putin has had Russian history textbooks rewritten to take a more positive view of Stalinism. The Chinese ferociously repress any challenges to the official version of the history of Taiwan. Mature democracies do things differently. They are not afraid of open discussion.

Mr Obamas willingness to acknowledge past American errors is a sign of strength, not of weakness.


Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, May 4, 2009