On Andrew Exum’s recommendation, I read Robert Kagan’s column today, and I’m glad most of us are on the same page in rejecting the intellectually flabby pseudo-distinction between wars of "necessity" and "choice." As DMC says in that weird movie they made about Run-DMC with Rick Rubin as the villain, a man always has a choice. But in the course of the column, Kagan provides an odd but, I think, significant non-sequitur:
Obama and his top advisers apologize for America’s past sins, implicitly suggesting they will commit no new ones.
That simply does not follow. Never does an apology entail a promise of upcoming infallibility. If an apology is meaningful, it implies rigor at attempting not to commit the same mistake that prompted the apology. You have never received an apology and walked away thinking, "Well, now that Doug said he was sorry, I expect him to be perfect from now on."
So, OK, a weird misunderstanding from Kagan. Why’s it significant? Because it carries the presumption that because apologies in matters of state implicitly contain absurd promises, they shouldn’t be made. That’s a weak argument even if Kagan’s presumption was true. Apologies are a method of reckoning with past mistakes. They can be deeply meaningful to a people who’ve been wronged. If Iraqis were to hear that America is sorry for invading and occupying their country, that would go, I would submit, a long way toward cementing the enduring U.S.-Iraq relationship that Kagan, unless I’m misunderstanding him, wants. That’s not to say that countries ought to take utilitarian approaches to apologizing when they’ve done wrong. It’s to say that integrity and responsibility in admitting error is both responsible and savvy. Power is not and never will be its own justification.
Also, as to the main point of the column, Kagan argues that Obama’s claim of necessity in prosecuting the Afghanistan war is an attempt at moral blemishlessness. I’m not really sure that’s the case — in speeches, Obama often tells his audience to expect mistakes — but it’s a reasonable-enough argument, and certainly a debatable proposition.