In the wake of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, Tuesday that left an American envoy dead, conservatives are bringing back one of the most deeply dishonest narratives of the Obama administration: that the president apologizes for the United States.
It goes back to 2009, when Obama spoke in Cairo, calling for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” Karl Rove responded in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “The President’s Apology Tour.” Almost instantly, the right-wing blogosphere began savaging the president’s attempt at diplomacy, taking up Rove’s “apology tour” moniker. Characteristically implying that the U.S. president should demand that the world prostate itself in his presence, Charles Krauthammer wrote that Obama had circled the globe with a “basket of mea culpas.” The meme has lived on in the conservative message machine, particularly among neoconservative pundits attempting to portray Obama’s foreign policy as weak and confused, reminiscent of Jimmy Carter. It circulated through the Republican primary, when Mitt Romney filled his debates with comments about Obama’s “apologizing for America.”
But the prevalence of the “apology tour” in Republican rhetoric doesn’t mean it was real. In December 2011, as the “apology tour” narrative was reemerging on the campaign trail, Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler conducted a lengthy analysis of the charges and concluded, “The claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context.” Kessler compared Obama’s statements with those by George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, who both expressed regret for past American policies and suggested they were responsible for violence. “Note to GOP speechwriters and campaign ad makers: The apology tour never happened.” Conservative blogger Daniel Larison has doggedly refuted Romney’s apology attacks, referring to them as “the central lie of the Romney campaign.”
The one time Obama did apologize, it was with good reason: the U.S. military had accidentally burned Qurans in Afghanistan, igniting protests. Even then, right wingers failed to see anything at issue but a display of American weakness. From the GOP campaign trail, Rick Santorum insisted no apology was necessary, and Newt Gingrich called Obama an “appeaser.”
On Tuesday, it was Cairo again throwing fuel on the right’s apology fire. A statement from the U.S. embassy there disavowed a 14-minute trailer for a film by an Israeli filmmaker that amounts to a mishmash of crude insults of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, claiming that the religion’s greatest prophet was a womanizer, a homosexual, and a pedophile. "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” the statement said. The administration later said the statement did not reflect the view of the U.S. government.
But even before the news of ambassador Christopher Stevens’s death in Libya, conservatives were fanning the flames. Romney immediately accused the administration’s “sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks.” On Fox News, Krauthammer called the embassy’s initial response “a hostage statement,” and said he would have told the protesters to “go to hell.” On the website of Commentary, Jonathan Tobin wrote, “Is it possible to learn from history? Apparently not if you are an American president determined to win the love of the Islamic world.” In an equally bellicose follow-up, Tobin called the embassy’s statement “shocking” and “craven” and complained about Obama’s “tone of moral equivalence.” In a caustic screed on Facebook, Sarah Palin called the statement “so outrageous some thought it must be satire … How’s the Arab Spring working out for us now?”
This chest beating and apparent ignorance of diplomatic nuance is in some ways a surprising turnaround for a party once known for its realism on the international stage. And in the middle of a widely criticized Politico story Tuesday about Romney “getting the full John Kerry treatment on national security,” an adviser to the GOP candidate made a revelatory admission: that Romney should stay away from foreign policy because it’s “the president’s turf.” The militaristic overtones of the Democratic National Convention last week suggested the same: that when it comes to foreign policy, Obama and his party feel nothing but confidence.
The president’s actual record is what makes the “apology tour” rhetoric most absurd. Obama has been savaged by the left for his actions on foreign policy, which have involved an almost wholesale maintenance of the Bush administration status quo. The president refused to pursue the previous administration’s war crimes, and has shown little hesitation to individually targeting and killing enemies, even when the collateral damage is horrific—and illegal. The administration has decimated al Qaeda’s leadership with constant drone strikes in Pakistan despite that country’s demands that they stop—a flagrant violation of another nation’s sovereignty. You can argue that those actions were necessary and justified, but you can’t say they were the work of an apologizer.