Thursday, March 1, 2012

Obama and the Koran: Was it wrong to say sorry?


By P.J. Crowley, Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State
Being the leader of the free world means never having to say you are sorry.
Members of a religious group at an anti-American rally in Lahore, Pakistan express anger at the burning of the Koran, 21 February 2012
President Obama did not apologise to Pakistan after a raid
accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers stationed along the Afghan border
That appears to be the view of Republican presidential aspirants Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. All three have been critical ofthe apology offered last week by US President Barack Obama following the Koran-burning incident in Afghanistan.
Mr Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, termed the apology an "outrage."
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney thought it would be "very difficult for the American people to countenance". Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum suggested Mr Obama's contrition "showed weakness".
The fourth remaining candidate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, long ago advocated a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Koran-burning is not likely to change his mind.
Are these comments by Mr Gingrich, Mr Romney and Mr Santorum - each vying to unseat the president - all about scoring political points?
Let's hope so. The candidates' arguments don't feel wrong so much as dated: debating points from the Cold War era, 30 years ago.
Mr Gingrich, who has suggested it is impossible to "fix Afghanistan", instead demanded an apology from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
He wants contrition from the Afghan leader for the deaths of at least six Nato service members, most thought to be American. The latest two deaths came on Thursday, more than a week after the Koran-burning sparked such outrage. Once again, the deaths were thought to be deadly retribution by Afghan security personnel.
To be fair, the Koran incident has put the unpredictable President Karzai between a rock and a hard place, with little political capital in the bank.
No doubt there should be an Afghan apology as well as an American one - particularly if the Afghan government expects the US Congress and the American people to continue to support this fragile and frustrating relationship.
'Not deliberate'
The fact that President Obama went first is usually considered, well, leadership.
In the Republican debates Mr Romney said he would make decisions regarding Afghanistan based on "conditions on the ground determined by the generals".
The first US official to recognise the danger of the Koran-burning and issue an apology was not President Obama, but Gen John Allen, the commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan.
Gen Allen and his diplomatic counterpart, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, undoubtedly welcomed the political apologies that came from President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
They understand that the future of the US-Afghan relationship is at stake and with it the sustainability of the counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan (and from Afghanistan into Pakistan). Those are operations that Mr Romney supports.