Among the qualities that make Ben Affleck’s new film “Argo” so superb and groundbreaking is its willingness to put American history into its full context — regardless of whether that context offends the chest-thumping theology of American Exceptionalism™. Rather than starting the story at the moment U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran in 1979, and therefore simply portraying Iranians as wild animals motivated by inexplicable rage, Affleck first documents America’s blood-soaked intervention in Iran, from deposing a democratically elected president to installing a brutal dictator. That is, he levels with us and with his global audience, acknowledging what the CIA calls “blowback” — the logical idea that our acts of violence and aggression will likely provoke a violent reaction, in the same way that acts of violence against us provoke a violent reaction from us.
In starting his film with this examination, Affleck proves he is a more mature, thoughtful and serious filmmaker than those in Hollywood (which is to say, most in Hollywood) who produce films that never tell any backstory because it gets in the way of the old ticket-selling Good America vs. Bad Foreigner storyline. He also proves he is a more mature, thoughtful and serious citizen than most Republican politicians and conservative media voices who have used the 2012 election campaign to promote their own Good America vs. Bad Muslim retread — the one called “The Apology Tour.”
Brought to you by the same Republican fabulists who produced the 2009 blockbuster fiction called “Death Panel,” “The Apology Tour” — most recently invoked in the last presidential debate and now the focus of a new Romney campaign ad — tells the tale of a traitorous and unpatriotic new president who travels the world telling other countries how much he despises America for all of its failures both at home and abroad. Thanks to this, goes the fantastical story, the president has seditiously and deliberately undermined his own nation by projecting weakness and fear.
Truth-wise, “The Apology Tour” is about as factual as “Love Actually” — which is to say that, yes, there is a president of the United States, and this president does travel abroad and make speeches, but just like our president did not create a diplomatic crisis by leering at a British secretary, he did not travel abroad and give speeches apologizing for America. As CNN’s fact-checkers summarize, when Obama took the international trip in question in 2009, he “never uttered an apology for the United States.” This was previously confirmed by PolitiFact, which gave “The Apology Tour” its “Pants on Fire” rating, which is nothing short of the Academy Award for political lying.
To know the fact checkers are right is to simply go to Glenn Beck’s website and watch the collage of Obama video clips that Republican “Apology Tour” promoters insist is the documentary evidence supporting their hysterical agitprop. In those clips, of course, you won’t see any apology or contrition at all. Instead, you will merely see honesty and a recounting of indisputable facts. You will, for instance, see a president admit that “we sometimes make mistakes” that “we have not been perfect” and that we “at times have sought to dictate our terms” rather than work multilaterally. You will see him admit that when it comes to Europe, “There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive even derisive.” You will see him speak frankly about the United States, saying the country is “still working through some of our own darker periods in our history” and making some “required some course corrections.” You will even see him echo conservative libertarian critics of the Patriot Act by saying that, “In some cases (9/11) led us to act contrary to our traditions and ideals.”
In short, you won’t see contrition, you will merely see a president do what Affleck did — merely acknowledge basic contextual facts that, whether we like it or not, define and shape our ongoing foreign and national security policy challenges. Because that is even more rare and taboo in politics than it is in Hollywood, Obama has been excoriated by a completely fictitious story that has absolutely no connection to reality.
Considering its mendacity, why has “The Apology Tour” nonetheless metastasized into a talking point that is repeated so much that it has become unquestioned assumption? Because it taps into a virulent strain of jingoism that has been ascendant on the political right — a strain that got a public boost in the 1980s with Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s “Blame America First Crowd” speech and now categorizes any recitation of inconvenient historical facts or truisms as akin to “hating America.” Indeed, only a few years after George W. Bush rightly apologized for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, the right’s “Apology Tour” catechism now effectively posits that the only way for a president to love America and build relationships in the world is for that president to never admit we’ve made mistakes and to use trips to foreign capitals as occasions to give the world a big Old-Glory-wrapped middle finger.
This raises another, even more troubling question: Even if Obama had actually apologized for American mistakes in the past (which, again, he didn’t), would that have been so horrible? The right says yes, arguing — as Romney did during the debate — that the world looks at contrition and sees “weakness.” This is a reiteration of the belief most clearly articulated by Sarah Palin, who said that no matter what happens or what we do, we have “nothing to apologize for.”
But, then, was Bush harming America when he apologized for Abu Ghraib? Was President Ronald Reagan showing “weakness” and unpatriotically undermining the country when he apologized to Japan, France, China and Soviet-controlled Poland for various international episodes? Hardly. They were instead showing the world that an exceptional nation is one that is mature enough to recognize problems and mistakes and to, yes, pursue what Obama would call a “course correction.” They were also showing their comprehension of the most coldly calculating truism in statecraft: Preserving important relationships and/or opening the possibility of bilateral reconciliation often means copping to the mistakes we’ve made.
Doing so doesn’t mean we are denigrating ourselves or even assuming blame for a soured international relationship. It just means we are fessing up to our past errors in the hopes of building trust and alliances in the future. Had Obama not merely noted disturbing facts but apologized for some of them, he would have deserved the same bipartisan support his predecessors received when they rightly expressed contrition. After all, if the weakening of history’s run-of-the-mill empires typically has been marked by hubris and an aversion to admitting mistakes, then those most interested in strengthening a truly Exceptional America should heartily embrace the opposite: namely, humility and a willingness to apologize for obvious transgressions.