"No Shame in Apologizing!"

"Soft Typewriter" by Claes Oldenburg (From Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, 1995).

An essay, titled "No Shame in Apologizing," written by Lebanese columnist Hussam Itani, caught my attention a few months ago. I was reminded of it last Sunday, when I  read another lengthy essay in the Sunday New York Times by Iraqi-American scholar and intellectual Kanan Makiya. In this essay, Makiya does something different from many Arab intellectuals and politicians when he apologizes or admits miscalculations and errors of judgment he made regarding American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As a graduate student of Political Science, I supplemented my study of international and comparative politics with social psychology, and thanks to these non-political science courses I learned about attributions, cognitive dissonance, and consistency as mechanisms used by policymakers in decision-making. According to political scientists who employ social psychology in analyzing international politics, leaders tend to distort facts often because of  boosting their self-esteem and satisfying egos. Regardless of the political and human costs of these mechanisms, leaders are not likely to apologize mainly because of psychological reasons. This conclusion, while intellectually popular, it remains debatable as ever among social scientists.

In "No Shame in Apologizing," Itani reasons that there is a stigma against "apologizing" in the Arab world: to apologize is to risk being called "weak" and lacking in "manhood."  Regardless of what is at the root of this "manly" tradition, there are countless examples of politicians, scholars, and journalists who never express regret for their errors, not to mention blunders. Itani makes his case clearly with Jihad Makdisi, a former spokesman of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, who never apologized for all the lies he disseminated around his country and the world, especially after he defected and became safe inside the U.S. Similarly, Itani points at the many military officers who defected from the official Syrian army that became disenchanted with the Assad regime, but refrained from apologizing for what they did prior to their defection.  It is inconceivable that the Assad regime was able to commit the crimes it did without the assistance of some of these defectors, Itani writes.

Kanan Makiya is an Iraqi intellectual and currently a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and famous for his "Republic of Fear." To say Makiya was and is a polemical intellectual is an understatement. But I am not here to rehash the discourse on the 2003 Iraqi invasion of Iraq and the debates between Makiya and his critics; instead, I am interested in an Arab intellectual who has the courage of admitting faults and thus representing an exception among the majority Arab scholars and intellectuals who are loyal adherents to the "shame in apologizing" tradition. I am fully aware that none of what Makiya writes would comfort either Iraqis or Americans who lost loved ones in the 2003 Iraq war, something he himself admits.

In the time lead-up to the 2003 invasion, Makiya confesses to what he calls errors of judgment: "Both the George W. Bush administration and the Iraqi expatriate opposition to Mr. Hussein — myself included — grossly underestimated those costs in the run-up to the 2003 war. The Iraqi state, we failed to realize, had become a house of cards." He adds a sort of familiar line of rationalization, "We didn’t know then what we know today. Some, including many of my friends, warned of the dangers of American hubris. I did not heed them in 2003."

Frankly, I am surprised that Makiya could have overlooked the fact that today's sectarianism, whether in Iraq or in Syria, does not emerge in vacuum, and thus it is one of the inevitable causes of absolutist regimes like those of Saddam, Hafez, and Bashar. Nevertheless, he admits another error, saying "my greatest misjudgment was in hoping that Iraq’s new leaders would act for the collective Iraqi good." Again, this is another line of mere utopian reasoning. What in Ahmed Chalabi's past record leads Makiya to believe that this man will work for the collective Iraqi good!

Two thoughts come to mind after reading Itani and Makiya.  A major concern for Itani is the future of Arab societies, not only in Syria but also in Lebanon and Palestine. For allowing the past to influence its future runs contrary to every goal the Arab Spring stands for. If the same political culture that thrived under Assad and even before is allowed to continue by reinstating defectors who lacked the courage to "apologize" for their criminal acts and subsequently escape accountability and punishment, the inevitable result would be a reproduction of the same repressive regimes in Syria's future. Thus no matter what forces sustain the tradition of considering "apology" as shame, those defectors who committed crimes they need to be held accountable, a process that is a precondition to building better societies.

When I first came across Makiya’s apology, I was tempted to view it as a challenge to the stigmatization of "apology" in the Arab world, but later I realized that Makiya has been living and working in the West for a long time. So his attitude in admitting errors in judgment are not grounds for shame in Western culture but rather could further his credibility, especially when these admissions were made in the context of an opinion-analysis. Makiya may have little influence on Arab intellectuals and politicians, but he could set an example for some Arab-American intellectuals, where many of which uphold traditional attitudes toward "apologizing" for errors, very evident in advocating a culturally "defensive" discoursethan speaking their mind by emancipating themselves from archaic traditions and thus enriching Arab-American life with creative ideas.

Elie Chalala

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