Saturday, February 26, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Mitt Romney and Obama's apologies

At PolitiFact's FaceBook page:
We had several readers ask us recently to fact-check whether Obama has apologized many times for the United States. Here's a report we wrote last year, for those who are interested in the issue.
The term "recycled garbage" comes to mind ...

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Morris Kennedy:  editor


What Romney wrote, with yellow highlights indicating the portions reproduced in the PolitiFact story:
Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined," Romney writes. "It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable. There are anti-American fires burning all across the globe; President Obama's words are like kindling to them.

President Obama, always the skillful politician, will throw in compliments about America here and there.  But what makes his speeches jump out at his audience are the steady stream of criticisms, put-downs, and jabs directed at the nation he was elected to represent and defend.

In his first nine months in office, President Obama has issued apologies and criticisms of America in speeches in France, England, Turkey, and Cairo; at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in New York City. He has apologized for what he deems to be American arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions, for acting unilaterally, and for acting without regard for others; for treating other countries as mere proxies, for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, and for feeding anti-Muslim sentiments; for committing torture, for dragging our feet on global warming and for selectively promoting democracy.
The lone portion from the above not directly quoted by PolitiFact was accurately summed up via paraphrase.

After noting that criticizing Obama over apologies makes up a theme of conservative criticism, writer Drobnic begins the fact check:
(A)s we looked over Obama's remarks, 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." If someone is apologizing, it seems that is a discrete act that can be verified and fact-checked. We set out to discover how accurate Romney was in describing Obama as constantly apologizing.
Drobnic's approach provides ample reason for concern.  If "sorry" is "the universal hallmark of apologies" then wouldn't Merriam-Webster include that in the definition?  Or American Heritage, maybe?
To make excuse for or regretful acknowledgment of a fault or offense. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
Regret may be expressed by means such as the tone of voice or even body language.  "Sorry" is not necessary.

From this precarious foundation, PolitiFact proceeds to specific examples.

  • France:

At a town hall meeting in France, for example, Obama encouraged Europe to work with the United States, and admitted that the United States "has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." But he immediately said that Europe has been guilty of a "casual" and "insidious" anti-Americanism.
The reciprocal criticism of Europe does not disintegrate the regretful acknowledgment of America's supposed arrogance and derision, does it? Chalk three up for Romney ("arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision ...")

  • England:
In England, a reporter said that during the 2008 campaign, Obama had said that the power and authority of the United States had diminished in recent years. Obama was quick to turn the question toward the Bush team. "Well, first of all, during the campaign I did not say that some of that loss of authority was inevitable," Obama said. "I said it was traced to very specific decisions that the previous administration had made that I believed had lowered our standing in the world.... I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we've made, that you're starting to see some restoration of America's standing in the world."
Drobnic ought to have paid some attention to Romney.  Using the keywords from Romney's list I located a different statement in the same speech that was more likely the one Romney had in mind:
"I just think in a world that is as complex as it is, that it is very important for us to be able to forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions.  Just a -- just to try to crystallize the example, there's been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods.  "Oh, well, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade."  Well, if there's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that's a -- that's an easier negotiation.  (Laughter.)  But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in."
That's Obama disapproving the problem-solving approach of Roosevelt and Churchill.  Score another for Romney ("arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions...").

  • Turkey: 
PolitiFact omitted reference to the Turkey speech in its main story but provided a more comprehensive supplement (see "Afters").

  • Cairo:
At a speech in Cairo on relations between the U.S. and the Islamic world, Obama got very close to regretting decades-old U.S. actions in Iran.
 How close is it possible to move without actually uttering the universal hallmark of apologies?

But then he immediately countered with criticism of Iran. He did not make a formal expression of regret, but suggested both countries simply "move forward." Here are his exact remarks: "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.  Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.  This history is well known.  Rather than remain trapped in the past, I've made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward."
The implicit argument, as nearly as I am able to determine it:  Maybe Obama did apologize (chances being slim without "a formal expression of regret"), but even if he did it doesn't count because he followed with a criticism of Iran and suggested that we move forward.  In Drobnic's shoes I'd have wondered at the implications of the "move forward" language.  Obama found Iran guilty of offense against the U.S. ("hostage-taking and violence").  In the context of a wrong suffered the "move on" clause seems to translate to something along the lines of "we forgive you (and we hope that you'll forgive us)"--a tit-for-tat.  In diplomatic terms it is difficult to understand why a party would want forgiveness for something that party did not regret.  We'd do the same thing again but let's just forget about that if we can just get negotiations moving seems like a poor foundation for trust.

It is reasonable to find regret implicit in the president's statement.  Score another for Romney ("arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions (...) for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations").

  • CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
See "Afters."

  • The National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Obama's most pointed remarks on Guantanamo were  at the National Archives, in a major speech on fighting terrorism. Obama said that after 9/11, "our government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions." He also said that the Guantanamo prison "likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained. So the record is clear: Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies."
Sounds like a few regrets are tucked in there.

But PolitiFact is apparently reserving judgment until after checking with a few experts.
• Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy analyst with the the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Obama is definitely apologizing, and it's not good. He co-wrote the Heritage analysis, "Barack Obama's Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower."
PolitiFact rules Romney "False," so obviously Gardiner's take did not account for much.
• John Murphy, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies presidential rhetoric and political language. He said Obama is using conciliatory language for diplomatic purposes, not apologizing.
Murphy's explanation passes for euphemism.  Conciliation relies on pleasing gestures.  What is it about Obama's language that pleases the targets of the diplomacy if it isn't the admission of wrongdoing expressed with regret?
• Lauren Bloom, an attorney and business consultant, wrote the book, The Art of the Apology, advising businesses and individuals on when to apologize and how to do it.
Bloom's explanation is hilarious:
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.

Obama's remarks are really non-apologies, and they're not good in business or personal relationships, Bloom said. The one area where they can be useful: international diplomacy.
Obama's words were not apologies because they were not effective apologies except in terms of international diplomacy.  Perhaps we can overlook their effectiveness in terms of foreign policy for the sake of overlooking their effectiveness as apologies.  Bloom's explanation contradicts itself.
• Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, a professor who studies international human rights, maintains the Web site Political Apologies and Reparations, a database of documents on apologies. Many of the apologies in the database relate to genocide or slavery.
Howard-Hassmann's opinion approaches that of Bloom in terms of its absurdity:
"To say the United States will not torture is not an apology, it is a statement of intent," Howard-Hassman (sic) said. "A complete apology has to acknowledge something was wrong, accept responsibility, express sorrow or regret and promise not to repeat it."
Her statement is a perfect analogy to the non-apology apology.  It is the non-justifying justification.

A complete apology has to acknowledge something was wrong?  Obama:  "Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford."

Accept responsibility?  Obama:  "And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course."  Doesn't "we" indicate a taking of responsibility as well as further confirming that Obama thinks something was wrong?  Sorrow and regret are implicit in the admission that something was wrong, and Obama explicitly appeals to the failure to align policy with "our values" as the rationale for putting a stop to enhanced interrogation techniques.  Howard-Hassmann's assessment conveniently ignores the facts.  Obama was not simply stating an intent but rather placing the intent in the context of an admission of wrongdoing and acceptance of responsibility--the very things the expert counts as the elements of a true apology.

With experts like these, who needs uneducated laymen?

Chalk up another one for Romney ("arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions, for acting unilaterally, (...) for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations (...) for committing torture").

PolitiFact includes material about apologies offered by presidents other than Obama--stuff that is not particularly relevant.  We have enough evidence at this point to move to PolitiFact's conclusion:
(W)e're checking Romney's statement that Obama "has apologized for what he deems to be American arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision" and a host of other reasons. If you think American presidents should never admit to any sort of error at any time, you might find yourself in philosophical agreement with Romney's criticisms. We set out to discover whether Obama really had apologized in his speeches, and what he was apologizing for. But in our review of his words, we came up short. Yes, there is criticism in some of his speeches, but it's typically leavened by praise for the United States and its ideals, and often he mentions other countries and how they have erred as well. There's not a full-throated, sincere apology in the bunch. And so we rate Romney's statement False.
It's always amusing to see PolitiFact dispense with ideological objectivity:  "If you think American presidents should never admit to any sort of error at any time, you might find yourself in philosophical agreement with Romney's criticisms."  Or you might agree with Romney because Obama's rhetoric paints the U.S. as politically weak on the world stage as the ignored expert Nile Gardiner pointed out.  The comment from PolitiFact was inappropriate in an ostensibly objective story.

The rest of the conclusion is no better.

PolitiFact's review "came up short" for a slew of ridiculous reasons.  PolitiFact completely ignores the statement of its one sensible expert source, Nile Gardiner.  PolitiFact makes apologies into non-apologies for a variety of spurious reasons, albeit with the nonsensical support of supposed experts.  PolitiFact makes no reasonable case for saddling Romney with a hypertechnical (and incoherent) understanding of "apology."

The grades:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  F
Morris Kennedy:  F


A case might be made for holding Romney as less than perfectly true if Obama did not apologize for every item on his list.  I'm not interested in taking the time to verify whether Romney did that or not.  But it seems important enough to verify that apologies took place in the speeches not mentioned in the PolitiFact story.
  • Turkey:
The president's remarks in Turkey fit his pattern of using the confession of past U.S. mistakes and his corrective efforts to encourage other nations to similarly address their own faults.
I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be President of the United States. But it is precisely that capacity to change that enriches our countries. Every challenge that we face is more easily met if we tend to our own democratic foundation. This work is never over. That's why, in the United States, we recently ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. That's why we prohibited -- without exception or equivocation -- the use of torture. All of us have to change. And sometimes change is hard.
Obama went on to encourage reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia.  The mentions of Guantanamo Bay and the prohibition on torture implicitly fault both.  And the president emphasizes that he has corrected the errant path.  Whether he encourages Turkey to likewise correct wrongs does not affect the fact that the rhetoric fits a reasonable definition of "apology."
  • CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
The speech at Langley is chock full of criticism for the detention facility at Guantanamo and harsh interrogation techniques, coupled with the pledge to end both.  The Langley speech is ironically the easiest to defend as something other than an apology since Obama says little to take responsibility for the things he criticizes.  On the other hand, the criticisms line up with the items on Romney's list.

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