We’re not quite sure what to make of the spat over the perceived inadequacy of America’s apology to Pakistan for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a U.S. air strike last November near the Afghanistan border. We’re glad, though, that Pakistan finally reopened important supply lines to Afghanistan that it had closed shortly after the incident.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “sorry” this week may have made the difference. She said she and the Pakistani foreign minister “acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military.”
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Reham, replied that her country accepts Secretary Clinton’s apology. “We appreciate Secretary Clinton’s statement and hope that bilateral ties can move to a better place from here.”
Apart from the word “sorry,” Secretary Clinton’s apology resembled a series of apologies from U.S. officials, including one she made earlier. “I once again reiterated our deepest regrets…” Secretary Clinton said this week.
The United States apologized immediately after the incident in the person of Gen. John Allen, the chief NATO commander in Afghanistan.
He expressed “deep condolences to the families and loved ones of any members of Pakistan Security Forces who may have been killed or injured.”
Even the Pentagon issued an apology after its investigation of the incident concluded that both U.S. and Pakistani forces had made mistakes. The Pentagon offered “sincere condolences to the Pakistani people, to the Pakistani government, and most importantly to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who were killed or wounded.”
A State Department official wouldn’t discuss Secretary Clinton’s use of the word “sorry,” instead noting that her statement said both countries shared responsibility for the disputed incident.
If the United States was indeed sorry for actions that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, including the word in our initial apology would seem appropriate, even if Pakistan shared responsibility — and even if the United States and Pakistan neither understand nor trust each other.
It would have been wise to keep our already tenuous bilateral relations from becoming further — and unnecessarily — strained. More important, it would have been the decent thing to do. If a Pakistani air strike had killed 24 of our soldiers, even if they had shared some of the responsibility, our nation would have expected — demanded — a formal apology.
We cannot help but wonder if the word “sorry” was left unsaid until this week because the White House feared looking weak here at home. President Obama, after all, has been criticized in the past for apologies he’s made by domestic political foes who apparently think either that our nation doesn’t make mistakes or that apologies are beneath us.
If that was a factor — not that the White House would admit it — that would say more about weakness than the reluctance to say one is sorry for something one ought to be sorry for.