Revisiting Obama’s “Apology Tour”

In trying to assess the Helsinki press conference, a blast from the past deserves a second look.

It is an article of faith among many, it would seem, that one of the hallmarks of the Obama administration was its penchant for apologizing for America.  Much was made, and remains made, of his so-called “apology tour” when he visited a number of countries early in his administration. I have seen this re-emerge as a retort or defense of Trump’s Helsinki performance.

Lat week, despite attempts to revise one sentence, Trump dismissed US intelligence findings (and he persists in not taking these attacks on the US seriously) in the context of a trip to Europe in which he insulted NATO leaders (as he did with many of the same leaders earlier this year at the G-7 meetings in Canada).  At the press conference in Helsinki he did more than apologize for the US he, like he has done before, placed blame on the US and asserted an equivalency between the US ans Russia (which helps Putin out substantially, especially to his domestic audience).

So, for example (emphasis mine):

REPORTER (Jeff Mason from Reuters): Thank you. Mr. President, you tweeted this morning that it’s US Foolishness, stupidity and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in US Relations with Russia. Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? If so, what would you consider them that they are responsible for?

TRUMP: Yes, I do. I hold both countries responsibility. I think the United States has been foolish. I think we have all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time frankly before I got to office. I think we’re all to blame. I think that the United States now has stepped forward along with Russia. We’re getting together and we have a chance to do some great things, whether it’s nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping, we have to do it — ultimately, that’s probably the most important thing that we can be working on.

I am not going to freak out, by the way, over the comments except to point out there are better ways for the US President to accept responsibility without creating a direct moral equivalency between his government and that of an authoritarian regime (let alone one that is not equivalent morally, militarily, or economically).

Indeed, Trump has made these kinds of moral equivalencies before. Consider this from his Superbowl interview in 2017 with Bill O’Reilly:

O’REILLY: Do you respect Putin?

TRUMP: I do respect him.

O’REILLY: Do you? Why?

TRUMP: Well, I respect a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean I am going to get along with him. He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. Will I get along with them? I have no idea.

O’REILLY: He is a killer though. Put is a killer.

TRUMP: There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent? Do you think our country is so innocent?

O’REILLY: I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers in America.

TRUMP: Take a look at what we have done too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.

O’REILLY: Yes. Mistakes are different then —

TRUMP: A lot of mistakes, okay? But a lot of people were killed. So, a lot of killers around, believe me.

I would note:  one can talk about American mistakes (and yes, there are plenty) without also creating an equivalency (if not excusing) Putin’s actions.

Put another way: I am not opposed to a US leader showing some humility and even stating there are things we have done that deserve public remorse, but don’t do it to build up an adversarial power, especially one with the human rights record that Russia has under Putin.

Compare these (and others that I will not share), with this following from 2009 via the Heritage Foundation:  Barack Obama’s Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower  or via The Washington Free BeaconFive Times Obama Has Apologized for America.

BTW, here’s the first one on the Heritage Foundation’s list:

So we must be honest with ourselves. In recent years we’ve allowed our Alliance to drift. I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there’s something more that has crept into our relationship. In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

The horror.

At a minimum, I do not see how “look at Obama’s apology tour” is, in any way, a defense of Trump’s behavior.

And if one wants evidence that these things matter–from last year (and therefore not taking in to account recent events):  U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership.

Trump's ratings in Western Europe similar to those for Bush in 2008

This matters not because popularity for popularity’s sake is important.  This matters because countries that do not respect US leadership are far less likely to cooperate than those who do.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. I addressed this same issue back in 2011.

    As I noted at the time, it was complete nonsense. The fact that it’s still considered an article of faith among conservatives says much about the state of modern “conservativism.”

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    ‘American conservatism’ never existed outside of academia, think tanks and a scattering of poorly-read magazines. It was always just a veneer applied over racism, misogyny and bigotry. Those emotions, those states of mind, typify the ‘conservative’ voter. American conservatism has never been anything more than people with fancy degrees rationalizing the inequality and oppression demanded by a segment of the population. These intellectuals conspired to brainwash the American people and now, suddenly, the conservative intelligentsia discovers (shock, amaze!) that they aren’t just riding the tiger, they’re in its belly.

    It’s not a stretch to draw comparisons with European intellectuals who were accomplices in norming fascism and communism in the ’30’s, only to later be shocked and appalled by secret police, death camps and the Gulag.

    The truth is that closest thing we have now to a genuinely conservative political party is the Democratic Party.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I thought the entire idea was much-exaggerated, partisan-inspired hyperventilating.

    It has now become received wisdom. It reminds me of the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

    This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    I’ve found it interesting over the past few months to read the number of conservative pundits who have remembered fondly the Obama years. Most recently Max Boot and earlier David Frum, Jennifer Rubin and David Brooks among others.

    Of course as a liberal and a Dem, Trump makes me wish for a return to the presidency of GHW Bush.

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  5. Scott F. says:

    It’s hard not to look at that chart and not realize that right-wing pundits and pols aren’t now defending Trump as much as they are defending Republicanism, same as the the Heritage Foundation and Washington Free Beacon attacks on Obama’s “apologetic” rhetoric were defending Republicanism then. Though Trump may have dispensed with all subtlety, it has long been the case that the preferred policies of the Republican Party have not instilled confidence in our allies that the US is actually allied with them.

    “America First” thinking has a tendency to do that.

    Trump is uniquely awful as a President, but it appears Republicans can’t help but stand up for him, because to stand against him would repudiate so much of what Republicanism has become over the last decades.

  6. @Scott F.: It is what parties do in general-defend their leader. And yes, Republican policy has not been especially pro-alliance of late.

  7. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Granted, it is only natural for some level of partisanship to come into play when assessing our leaders. But, as your writing of late has demonstrated, there should be a threshold beyond which “country” must outweigh “party.”

    There is nothing natural about the current partisan defenses of Trump. The crisis this country faces now continues to be less about Trump than his Republican enablers with their relentless, yet feeble, justifications for even his most egregious behavior.

  8. de stijl says:

    Remember when “politics end at the water’s edge”?

  9. Kari Q says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Heck, I’m starting to think “Nixon wasn’t so bad…”

  10. al Ameda says:

    Put into the context of that Pew Research Center ‘ratings’ chart it’s pretty clear that Republicans have been on a roll since Bill Clinton was president.

    G.W. Bush, and now Donald Trump – in their 3 ‘winning’ presidential elections, they have 2 popular vote losses. They have they nominated and won with candidates who have very little respect for complexity and analysis, and one actually lies more than he doesn’t.

  11. george says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    ‘American conservatism’ never existed outside of academia, think tanks and a scattering of poorly-read magazines.

    Well, it actually existed for a couple of centuries – mainly as fiscal conservatism, but also some traditionalism. The United States was a very different place for most of its history (true I suppose for every country that’s lasted several centuries or longer). But you’re right about the last half century – outside of academia, groups like the Cato institute, and the 5% of society who consider themselves libertarians, its mainly been a cover for things like racism, sexism or war mongering (which is independent of racism and sexism).

  12. @Scott F.:

    There is nothing natural about the current partisan defenses of Trump. The crisis this country faces now continues to be less about Trump than his Republican enablers with their relentless, yet feeble, justifications for even his most egregious behavior.

    The basic behavior is actually not surprising. It is the content that is actually so disturbing.

    And yes, the true problem is that content that Trump has tapped into.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @george:
    The problem with all these terms – conservative, liberal, radical – is that they’re all relative and have meaning only in regard to each other. Not for nothing that we’ve settled on Right and Left since they extend for an infinite distance and have meaning only in relation to each other. When I refer to American conservatives I am thinking in terms of post-WW2 America, to the present day. But extending these vague terms even that short distance back into history shows you how clumsy they are. I thing @Steven Taylor needs to give us a mini-lecture (free college!) and suggest some more useful terminology.

  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kari Q:
    Oh, that’s a stretch but I can understand the logic. At the end of the Clinton admin, a friend commented that Nixon was the last liberal president. Can’t recall the rational, but at the time I felt he made a good, if not convincing, argument.

  15. Kylopod says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    At the end of the Clinton admin, a friend commented that Nixon was the last liberal president.

    Your friend wasn’t the only one; I’ve heard versions of that remark numerous times over the years. Nixon, it should be recalled, started the EPA and OSHA, imposed wage-and-price controls, said “We are all Keynesians now,” lifted the embargo on Red China, and pushed for universal health care–among other things.

    The thing is, in his time Nixon was not commonly viewed as a liberal. He began his career as an ardent commie-hunter, and when he was selected as Ike’s running-mate he was regarded as being to Ike’s right. He tended to position himself somewhere between the moderate and conservative wings of his party. It’s just that the GOP itself has moved so far to the right since Nixon’s time that Nixon looks like a flaming liberal by modern standards, even though he really wasn’t.

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  16. @Michael Reynolds:

    I thing @Steven Taylor needs to give us a mini-lecture (free college!) and suggest some more useful terminology.

    Something for me to think about.

  17. @Kari Q: @Kylopod: I would easily take Nixon over Trump. Nixon was corrupt, but he understood his broader job as president and at least understood government. His policies did not threaten the basis of the international order, either.

    (And I say all of that while considering one of our worst presidents).

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  18. george says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The problem with all these terms – conservative, liberal, radical – is that they’re all relative and have meaning only in regard to each other.

    True; however for most of American history conservative relative to liberal meant fiscal, since both liberals and conservatives agreed on racism, sexism and war mongering (though on second thought, it was mainly Democrats who wanted America to enter into WW1 and WW2). The current conservatives are, even in relative terms, a very different animal than the first two centuries of American conservatives. I’d bet heavily that none of Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Nixon, or Reagan would consider Trump supporters conservatives in anything but name (CINO’s?) even in relative terms.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Oh, that’s a stretch but I can understand the logic. At the end of the Clinton admin, a friend commented that Nixon was the last liberal president.

    Nixon was an opportunist, and cared more about Nixon than about his policies. He wanted power, and he knew what he wanted to do with it in some areas, but would bend with the political winds in others, and would try different things when what he wanted to do didn’t work.

    Pity about the corruption and the likely treason (there are credible reports of his campaign working to disrupt peace talks with Vietnam before the 1968 elections) — this flexible attitude is what America has needed ever since he stepped down.

    Equal parts greatness and horribleness in Nixon.

  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kylopod: I’m not positive that he was the first, but Nicholas von Hoffman was the first that I heard to identify Nixon as “the last liberal President.” I think he wrote a New Republic article on the theme.

  21. Kylopod says:

    @george: I am not sure if we’re really disagreeing, but the words “liberal” and “conservative” haven’t always had the same meaning that they do today. The so-called “classical liberals” were strong advocates of the free market. The original Republican Party divided itself into Conservative Republicans and Radical Republicans over the slavery question, and those terms definitely did not have the same meanings that they would suggest today. In 1872 Ulysses Grant’s challenger belonged to a short-lived political party called the Liberal Republican Party–but of course the word “liberal” in its title has got pretty much nothing to do with how the word is used today.

    I don’t think it’s possible to even begin seeing anything remotely resembling the liberal/conservative divide of today until you reach the Progressive Movement of around the turn of the 20th century, because that’s where you first start to see the debate over government as a tool for combating social and economic inequality. But even there, I’d be cautious. For one thing, many of the Progressives held views that today we’d probably identify as culturally conservative–after all, one of the movement’s legacies is Prohibition. Second, not all the Progressives who lived into the 1930s went on to be supporters of the New Deal, which we often think of as the baseline of modern American liberalism/progressivism.

    The basic problem in defining these terms over time is that liberalism is somewhat of an ever-expanding project where “conservatism” is whatever stands in resistance to present reforms. So for instance, a typical “conservative” in the 1930s would have opposed the creation of Social Security, while a “conservative” a few decades later may have said Social Security was fine (or at least tolerable), it was all those later excesses of the Great Society that were the problem. So it’s possible that a “liberal” in one age might turn out to be a “conservative” in another. There’s no absolute, eternal definition of either term; it’s just that “conservatives” tend to locate some point in the past when things started going downhill, and they aren’t all in agreement on when that point is.

    The more intellectual conservatives typically like to define their philosophy as a kind of caution or skepticism at too much change, or at least too rapid change (I think that’s what Buckley had in mind when he defined a conservative as someone who stands athwart history and yells “Stop!”). A lot of today’s “conservatives” are basically reactionaries–they aim to turn back the clock. But very few of them will admit it, as “reactionary” is a pejorative term, and the American right bathes itself in mythology and propaganda casting itself as the champion of freedom and open thought against a repressive and intolerant left. In other words, they essentially view themselves as the liberals and us as the reactionaries.

  22. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    (And I say all of that while considering one of our worst presidents).

    The issue with Trump is not that he compares badly with the best presidents, but rather with the worst.

  23. george says:

    @Kylopod:

    I am not sure if we’re really disagreeing, but the words “liberal” and “conservative” haven’t always had the same meaning that they do today.

    No, I think we’re basically on the same page. I was just responding to Reynold’s comment that there’s never been an America conservatism outside of a few select places (academia etc) – I disagreed (as I said, I think that for the first two centuries there was a real and widespread conservatism in America). As both you and he have pointed out the term is relative, and as you further pointed out, the relative comparison is harder because liberal has changed so much, as have the major issues.

    But even so, for most of the first two centuries much of American conservatism were very similar to what is called conservatism in most of the rest of the world. That’s no longer the case – a conservative in say the UK or Canada or Germany for instance believes in public health option, believes that the gov’t plays a useful role in improving the life of its citizens, even believes that abortion is a closed issue (for instance, the recent Canadian conservative Prime Minister, Harper, wouldn’t even let his party discuss it). The current American conservative movement is completely unrecognizable anywhere else in the world – that’s very different than say the case a century ago.

  24. I will say this: if one understands “conservatism” to mean a preference for the status quo power structures, then we continue to have conservatives–it is just that their policy preferences shift.

    Conservatives, for example, tend to prefer tax cuts because they preserve the underlying power structure. They tend to be skeptical of, if not fear, social change (and hence tend to be very worried about civil rights policies).

    But the issue is less the policy goals, than the overall power structure.

    What we are seeing right now is more reactionary than conservative. Reactionaries want retrogressive change to some imaginary past (e.g., Make American Great Again).

  25. @george:

    But even so, for most of the first two centuries much of American conservatism were very similar to what is called conservatism in most of the rest of the world.

    I doubt – until recently (probably until WW II), in most of the rest of the world (or at lest in Europe) “conservatism” meant some variant of “throne-and-altar” (in the 1920s and 1930s, not rarely as fellow travelers of fascism) – I think this kind of conservatism never was much popular in the States, where almost nobody (excluding some obscure alt-right bloggers) is in favor of monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, and not even the Religious Right wants to “establish” a specific denomination as an “official Church” (only some promotion of vague and generic “Christian values”)

  26. Kylopod says:

    @george:

    The current American conservative movement is completely unrecognizable anywhere else in the world – that’s very different than say the case a century ago.

    I would say that today’s American conservatism has a close relationship with the traditional political Right with a capital R. That may seem obvious now, but I should add that this was true long before Trump came along. Indeed, what is called the “conservative movement” in America–the insurgent movement associated with Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan that emerged in the 1950s in opposition to the Eisenhower wing of the GOP–has had strong Rightist elements from its very inception. (This can be seen clearly in the movement’s long love affair with authoritarian strongmen, as when Buckley in 1957 called Franco “an authentic national hero.”) At the same time, it retains small-c conservatism’s attachment to cutting taxes, regulations, and the social safety net, and is generally more extreme about these things than conservative parties abroad–which also sets it apart from most Rightist parties in other parts of the world, who tend to be true economic populists (as opposed to the fake ones we see here in the US).

  27. Yank says:

    ‘American conservatism’ never existed outside of academia, think tanks and a scattering of poorly-read magazines. It was always just a veneer applied over racism, misogyny and bigotry. Those emotions, those states of mind, typify the ‘conservative’ voter. American conservatism has never been anything more than people with fancy degrees rationalizing the inequality and oppression demanded by a segment of the population. These intellectuals conspired to brainwash the American people and now, suddenly, the conservative intelligentsia discovers (shock, amaze!) that they aren’t just riding the tiger, they’re in its belly.

    Yup. This is why I get so annoyed when you see NeverTrump Republicans/conservatives act surprised about what happened to their party. A lot of the problems that plague the GOP were there before Trump and many of these conservative “intellectuals” were the at the forefront feeding this nonsense to the base.

    These people shouldn’t be taking seriously. However, since they are conservatives and bash Trump, they will have a spot on MSNBC or CNN for the foreseeable future.

  28. gVOR08 says:

    A conservative in Russia in 1917 was a czarist who fought the communists. A Russian conservative in 1991 was a communist. As Dr. Taylor points out, it’s largely a matter of preserving the current status quo. In practice, conservatism is always the currently wealthy and powerful protecting their wealth and power. The ideology is whatever message they need to con enough of the rubes into going along.