February 29th, 2012
04:00 PM ET

Stanger: Apologies matter

Editor's Note: Allison Stanger is Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics and Chair of the Political Science Department at Middlebury College Middlebury College. She is the author of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.

By Allison Stanger – Special to CNN

My last blog post was about the necessity of an apology, and this piece begins with one.  I apologize to anyone who read my argument as somehow blaming American forces for the atrocities that a rogue Afghan officer committed in response to the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. troops.

I have nothing but the utmost respect and appreciation for the daily sacrifices that U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. military have made and continue to make for the Afghan people. I am also fully aware of the dangerous environment in which our troops presently operate and that burning is the sole secure means for disposing of trash in contemporary Afghanistan.

My basic point in the original piece was that the Quran burning incident symbolized something larger: The dead-end course the United States is presently on in Afghanistan and the mounting frustrations that understandably accompany that reality.  Many Afghans do not believe that the incineration was accidental.  Many Americans believe that hemorrhaging U.S. taxpayer money for an unappreciative Afghan people no longer makes sense.

When the U.S. military burns Qurans, mistakenly or otherwise, and an Afghan officer responds to the insult with the execution-style shooting of two Americans working in the allegedly secure Interior Ministry, something has gone terribly wrong. The very idea that it is possible to partner with the Afghan government to build a more stable and secure Afghanistan comes into question.

A number of you have pointed out that our servicemen are young and unaware of Afghan cultural norms, fully capable of burning Qurans without understanding the offensiveness that act entails in the local context.  If that is indeed the case –and it may well be so with the frequent rotation of forces - our chances of succeeding in a very complex diplomatic and military venture by any metric seem very slim.  Whether the incident was really accidental, however, is still an open question.  Three major investigations of the Quran burning are now underway: one American formal military investigation, one Afghan investigation, and one joint NATO-Afghan inquiry.  The Boston Globe reported Wednesday that the joint NATO-Afghan probe is nearing completion.  The outcome of each investigation should shed additional light on what happened and why.

Other readers wondered what the U.S. military should have done with the compromised Qurans instead of burning them.  A better choice would have been to let our Afghan partners dispose of the security risk in a culturally acceptable way.  But that may not have really been an option. The level of distrust between the Karzai government and American forces has grown too high.

With varying degrees of vehemence, all Republican candidates continue to maintain that President Obama's apology for the Quran burning was both a sign of weakness and inexcusable in the context of the murderous Afghan reaction.  They misunderstand the deeper significance of any apology.

Apologies admit that something unintentional has transpired. They are also an expression of respect for the dignity and feelings of others. In apologizing, the White House upheld principles of human decency - the very values we are fighting to defend from Taliban assault.  In reaffirming the American commitment to those values, President Obama's apology seized the moral high ground and was thus an expression of strength rather than weakness.  It also arguably minimized the extent of the rioting that ensued.

On Monday, the White House again defended the apology and pointed out that former President George W. Bush apologized to Iraq in 2008 after an American soldier had used a Quran for target practice. President Karzai, however, has yet to apologize for anything.  That his apology is unlikely to be forthcoming is certainly grounds for reassessing our relationship with the Karzai government and the American commitment to staying the course in Afghanistan.  Apologies matter.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Allison Stanger.


soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Obama's apology was delivered to Hamid Karzai. It's doubtful if the latter had done his best to calm the protesters down or he wanted to make political gains out of the incident, by portraying himself as the protector of his people and the white knight of the Americans. The Taliban hate Karzai and the civilians have no respect for him and his cronies. He has always tried to make himself indispensable and wouldn't mind to hang on to power, but he has to step down in 2014. Nobody knows who will succeed him and what would happen afterwards.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Wouldn't it be great if whoever succeeded Hamid Karzai in 2014 refused to take orders from Washington D.C.? I believe it would but unfortunately, the right-wing thugs in Washington will never stand for that!!!

      February 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  2. james davidson

    I think Prof Stanger's explanation is in place and certainly strikes a different note from before. Thank you

    February 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  3. Marine5484

    I still feel quite humiliated at what those bozoes over in Afghnistan did by urinating on those dead men a month ago. This is a national disgrace and that's all there is to it! We ought to apologize to the Afghan people just for occupying their country, Only a fool would disagree with my post here!

    February 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  4. Rz

    What a crock of manure? Write a book, read a book, burn a book. Did all of them yesterday. Does anyone care?!? NO
    Yes, some things and some people are a shame, but I'm not going to hate, shoot, or issue a fatwe on you just because you're a shame. I myself would personally rather be looked upon as shame rather than a hateful, murderous, psychopathic religious fanatic. All the better, I'd rather be none of the above. People are obviously just too quick to take offense for no significant reason. And that's the real problem.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Reply
    • AJAX

      The author's point was not that murder was justified but rather than burning a religious book is wrong and an apologies for mistakes are good.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
    • 100% ETHIO STRONGER!

      America, must not apologized for anyone. Everyone, in this World are sharing the good benefits and creativity of America.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
  5. 100% ETHIO

    Wow! Wow! Wow!
    I can't believe my own Eye, reading the above apology. It is a ground breaking mistake done. AMERICA must not apologized! All these Socio-Animal beings, must appreciated what America has done to them.

    I personally, I am poor. I am being denied Education and Work in America, by certain groups who do have accesses, voices and authorities to satisfy their own people needs only. But, I still witnessed how America is Great, comparing it with any other Countries.

    Under God, America is proven, its the only Country in Planet Earth, that has top Technology and TRUE Human Intelligences. We seen other Countries are incompetent with America.

    Other Countries, they can't even Govern their own tribal people. But, America manages to Govern all kinds of Worldwide people, under One roof in America. THIS IS AMERICA!!!!!

    America must not apologize anyone!!!!!

    March 1, 2012 at 3:07 am | Reply
  6. Sukari

    In order for an apology to be effective, the recipient has to have an understanding and accepantance of forgiveness.

    March 1, 2012 at 10:11 am | Reply
  7. Pamela

    It is amazing how easily educated persons in the US (or Europe for that matter) who do not know Afghanistan or the Afghans, pass judgements about what is happening here.

    "... the daily sacrifices that [...] the U.S. military have made and continue to make for the Afghan people ..."

    What sacrifices, may I ask? The mere statement is an insult to the countless Afghan victims of US military agression in this country.
    Whatever sacrifices the US military might make on a personal level, is for the US government and the greedy corporations which are governing it, the so-called military-industrial complex.
    Don't burden the Afghans with a moral duty to be gratefull in addition to all the suffering that is inflicted upon them!
    And don't forget that 10 years ago the taliban were a few and their power limited to the border with Pakistan.
    It is those fumbling US military who have allowed them to take over virtually the whole country!
    And to become the biggest opium producer in the world, while under the taliban that production had dwindled to nearly nothing!

    "In apologizing, the White House upheld principles of human decency – the very values we are fighting to defend from Taliban assault."

    That would be true, if the apologies were sincere, which they are not. Don't take my word for it, check official statements of UN/NATO military and politicians.
    Apologies' are offered to placate the victims and relatives, in order to stop them from retaliation, in other words, in order to save our own skins.
    It has nothing to do with feeling remorse/shame/contrition about what was done to the victims.
    And I can tell you form very long personal experience, that Afghans have an uncanny antenna for distinguishing between sincere and phoney apologies.
    The former are highly appreciated and acted upon. The latter are despised.

    "President Karzai, however, has yet to apologize for anything."

    This is simply not true. He did apologise for the killings and also at earlier occassions. At any rate, President Karzai does what the US tell him to do.

    March 1, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • 100% ETHIO STRONGER!

      Pa = pardon
      Me = me
      La = lady

      What a moron and disgraceful you are. Why don't you go and live in Afghanistan? If you do, I will automatically, pay your one-way Air ticket.

      For sure, even in Afghanistan, you will commit Utter and Treason, since your bad habit is concerned.
      What makes you to hate U.S.A is, probably you lost one of your Taliban boyfriend.

      You need help, lady.

      March 2, 2012 at 1:18 am | Reply
      • Pamela

        You'll be relieved to know that I already do live -and work- in Afghanistan, since many years :-).
        That's why I think that I do have the right, and even the moral duty, to rectify all kinds of nonsense, desinformation and propaganda peddled by politicians and embedded press about Afghanistan, Afghans and our western, arrogant, callous and agressive behaviour in their country. How would you feel, if since 10 years you had heavily armed Rambo's from let's say Mongolia -a country which you or your government had never attacked or harmed in any other way-, parading in your town, intimidating your little sister or mother, arresting and torturing your father, killing your brother? All because some enemy of Mongolia had taken up residence in your country. Don't forget, that it is the US government which facilitated the start of the taliban movement in Pakistan and has financed them for a long time.
        Afghans have never done us any harm, they had nothing to do with the 9/11 bombings. Even the taliban had no responsibility in that event, they were just an internal nuisance for the Afghans themselves.
        But all Afghans have been made to pay for it, all of the roughly 25 million of them have been made into scapegoats for something they were not responsible for, because the US government needed a victim for its revenge about 9/11. And of course the US -the biggest empire on earth- did not have the guts to attack Saudi Arabia -the home country of Bin Laden-, for obvious strategic oil reasons.
        So it chose a defenceless country which had no way of resisting the combined agression of nearly 50 foreign countries, and has turned it into its private military exercise field. Soon to become its private military base from which to launch drone and death squad attacks (sorry : "elite teams which eliminate security threats in pre-emptive self-defense") into other Central Asian countries.
        I would suggest you spend the money on a ticket for yourself, come and see this great country before you succomb to Islamophobia and accuse Afghans of what they are not. For I can assure you, that -in spite of already 30 years of wars- they have the greater human dignity that I have seen in any other nation, including my own, and I have lived, worked and travelled in very many different countries since some 40 years.
        And we are destroying that dignity by doing everything we can to corrupt them, to buy their 'hearts & minds' in order to protect our own skins, as if they were for sale. Maybe that is the biggest of our war crimes.
        If you insist on spending money on a one way ticket for me, you're welcome to it, I will donate it to the countless IDPs who are squatting in dire poverty in makeshift camps around Kabul, chased by the war in the south of the country. Chased by the taliban, by US drone bombs and night raids and all our criminal NATO armies. Chased and hardly receiving any help, for our 'successful, stabilising, military surge' refuses to admit what is really going on, refuses to admit how many families they have chased from their homes. Not only they were made refugees in their own country, they are also hidden from public opinion.

        Jamal, accept my sincere apologies for the crimes that my part of the world, inluding my (European) country, have and still are, inflicting on yours. I don't know how we will ever atone for that.

        March 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  8. Jamal

    Thank you Pamela !!! As an Afghan I am grateful to your clarification.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
  9. laurali

    Lets get out. They don't want us there. We went in because the Taliban harbored Bin Laden. We got OBL, the Taliban are not (yet, currently back) in power.
    We rather teave on a note of strength and not a mess that will leave the country worse off
    Pamela, I think Obama's apology could be heartfelt despite his explanation to Americans. He has lived abroad including in Muslim contries and seems to be a respectful person, though I understand your anger at all things American especially it's leader given what's happen to your country and him not leaving right away.
    lets get out and cut our losses.

    March 15, 2012 at 1:37 am | Reply

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