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The American Way of Manners

Posted on Dec 2, 2013
David C. Foster (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Col. Manners and Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m sorry to bother you and embarrassed to ask you about this, but I was confused by something the other day.  According to a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Secretary of State John Kerry offered to deliver a letter of apology, possibly signed by President Obama, for “past mistakes” made in the Afghan war, including the killing of civilians.  It was to be part of ongoing negotiations for a future security pact.  Soon after, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, “No such letter has been drafted or delivered. There is not a need for the United States to apologize to Afghanistan.”  Not long after that, Kerry, too, swore that no apology had ever been on the table or was forthcoming. 

If I make mistakes, I apologize.  What’s wrong with the U.S. government doing the same?

Confused and Apologetic in Tucson


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Dear Confused and Apologetic,

I’m glad you asked.  The political etiquette of apology is straightforward enough and easy to grasp.  Individually, we are expected to apologize for mistakes we make or pain we cause others.  That’s a matter of human decency.  Collectively, however, Americans don’t apologize.  That is a reality all but written into the Constitution and a matter of American decency. 

Regular countries, like regular people, are obliged to say their sorry.  You invade your neighbor, for instance, and an apology is indeed in order. With an exceptional superpower, however, it’s another matter.  For Washington to apologize, whatever the issue, would be like the guest of honor at a formal dinner arriving in jeans.  Nobody would ever forget it or think well of you again.  In fact, any great power that apologized would experience an instant devaluation of the currency that every pundit in Washington agrees is the single most important on this planet: credibility.  You may not be able to bank it, but you sure can lose it. 

Admittedly, we don’t know the details of what our secretary of state might have said or promised to the Afghan president, but if it was an apology, then he stepped over a real “red line” in American politics.

An apology to the Afghans would be a) absurd (it’s the Afghans!) and b) humiliating (it’s the Afghans!).  American credibility would suffer a blow from which it would be unlikely to recover.  And imagine what a post-apology world would be like: no country could ever again count on us to travel enormous distances, invade their land, and occupy them.  

Yours unapologetically,

Col. Manners


Dear Col. Manners,

Recently, I saw the following headline in the Washington Post: “U.S. should be wary of Iran’s goal to dominate the Middle East.”  It was atop an op-ed by former Senator Joe Lieberman.  Still, I think you’d agree that it’s impossible to imagine the opposite headline—“Iran should be wary of Washington’s goal to dominate the Middle East”—anywhere in the Post in this century.

There is, I think, a pattern here.  For instance, headlines and stories about “the Iranian nuclear threat” have been commonplace in our press and the phrase is still being used, even in the wake of the recent interim nuclear agreement between that country, the U.S., and other powers.  At the moment, Iran has zero nuclear weapons.  Everyone agrees on that.  The U.S. has a nuclear arsenal of approximately 7,700 weapons, enough to end life on Earth and several other planets, but when was the last time you saw a headline with “the U.S. nuclear threat” in it?  Israel has an estimated arsenal of 80 to 200 nuclear weapons.  (“The Israeli nuclear threat”?) Pakistan, which may have sold the makings for such weaponry to North Korea and Libya, and is reportedly prepared to sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia on a moment’s notice, has 100 to 120 nuclear warheads and threatens India (as India threatens Pakistan).  Oddly though, I can’t remember seeing a “Pakistani nuclear threat” headline anywhere or, say, any discussion whatsoever about putting sanctions on Pakistan lest, in a future act of proliferation, it ships weapons to Saudi Arabia or on that Kingdom lest it receive them.

Don’t you feel our media should be more evenhanded?

Progressive from Pittsburgh


Dear Progressive,

As a start, do me a favor and climb down from your soapbox for 30 seconds.  I’m sure you write in all sincerity, but let me say that it’s obvious your beliefs blind you to reality.

Let’s just take that “nuclear threat.”  Had the Iranians gotten there first and invented nuclear weapons, as we did in 1945, who would complain?  Or had they, for instance, vigorously pursued the nondisruptive Israeli approach of refusing either to acknowledge or deny the nuclear arsenal they were building, that, too, would be a different kettle of fish.  After all, if you think about it, isn’t that the height of politeness?  The Israelis have been so committed to their particular form of nuclear privacy, to calming, not roiling, troubled waters that if you even try to expose their arsenal, they are ready to jail you for the duration.

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