Steve Chapman

Don't you miss the days when we had a Republican president who was not afraid to speak up for America in the face of foreign criticism? The kind of president who didn't feel the United States is always in the wrong?

I have fond memories of when George W. Bush ventured abroad to defend his country: "The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world."

Beg your pardon? Oh, my mistake. Those were not the words of President Bush. They were the words of President Barack Obama, in a speech in Cairo last June -- one stop on what Republicans see as his never-ending "apology tour."

Among many conservatives, the rule is: Being American means never having to say you're sorry. Speaking at the National Tea Party convention last month, Sarah Palin lambasted Obama for "apologizing for America." Mitt Romney's new book -- titled, naturally, "No Apology" -- says the president has a deplorable impulse to "apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined."

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Oh? In that Cairo speech, Obama wasn't exactly groveling in self-abasement. He argued that America was entirely justified in confronting "violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security." He called on Muslims to disavow terrorism. He urged democracy and religious freedom in the Islamic world.

But he made a mistake inexcusable to conservatives: acknowledging that the United States has not always conducted itself in perfect accord with its highest ideals. Romney is appalled that an American president would express regret for "unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations," "committing torture" and "selectively promoting democracy."

As in libel cases, though, truth is a defense. No grownup can deny that the U.S. government has sometimes done things in the world arena that do not inspire pride -- our acceptance of the Soviet colonization of Eastern Europe, our role in overthrowing Iran's democratically elected government in 1953, our handling of the Vietnam war (where we were either wrong for going in or wrong for getting out).

Republicans who take credit for toppling Saddam Hussein often forget that the U.S. provided help to him during the Iran-Iraq war. Even though Saudi Arabia is a repressive monarchy, presidents have always treasured it as an ally because of its immense oil reserves.

Democracy in Tehran? For sure. In Riyadh? Let's not get carried away.

Obama's critics think it's shameful for him to decry the brutal treatment of enemy captives. But if he had lost in 2008, we would have a president -- John McCain -- who is on record saying that the Bush administration used torture, that it "harmed us," and that it should "never happen again."

Ronald Reagan didn't believe that pride is the only acceptable sentiment about our history. He made one of the most extravagant apologies ever by signing a law providing compensation to Japanese-Americans who were locked in internment camps during World War II.

Said Reagan: "Here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law." Imagine that -- admitting we were wrong merely because it was true.

Even George W. Bush was not above confessing American misdeeds to foreign audiences. In 2005, he traveled to Latvia to publicly disavow the post-World War II deal that consigned it to the loving embrace of Josef Stalin.

The Yalta agreement, said Bush, "followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable."

Obama no more deserves condemnation for recognizing our dark moments than does Bush. No government is perfect, and no nation is exempt from the temptations of self-interest and hypocrisy.

We've all known people who can never admit error or make amends to those they have wronged. We do not regard such people as strong and wise. We regard them as weak and immature. A vice in an individual is not a virtue in a president.

Romney ends his book by quoting from "America the Beautiful": "America! America! God shed his grace on thee." Never mind another of the lyricist's hopes for her country: "God mend thine every flaw."


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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