A mea culpa decades in the making. Few believed the architect of one of history’s great foreign policy disasters would ever repent. But he did, eventually.
Thabo Mbeki, take note: you are running out of time.
In a memorial lecture marking the death of Robert Mugabe in September 2019, the 77-year-old former president of South Africa offered no mea culpa. He did not apologise for his mishandling of the Zimbabwean crisis of the 2000s.
He doubled down.
In 2003, then US President George W Bush declared Mbeki the international community’s “point man” on Zimbabwe. It was no small burden. A neighbouring state led by a liberation hero was disintegrating under hyperinflation and violent repression. The crisis would have tested any leader.
Mbeki tried to encourage Mugabe down a democratic path. He failed. A different approach to his “quiet diplomacy” may have fared better. Or worse. We will never know.
Mbeki could have plausibly argued that all options on Zimbabwe risked chaos, and left it at that. Instead, he mumbled deceits — “[I] never met one single Zimbabwean who said I want Mugabe deposed” — that would have made Donald Trump proud.
Researchers have studied why some leaders always double down rather than give ground. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler suggest it is due to the “backfire effect”, an extreme form of cognitive dissonance. Some people respond to being corrected by becoming more convinced of their original faulty belief.
They examined ideologues who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq. Many in their survey still believe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), even after the Bush Administration — which twisted intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMD to justify the war — admitted he did not.
If Mbeki is guilty of “backfiring” on one or two issues, periodically, then Donald Trump backfires on everything, hourly. Yet neither is typical of leaders who can’t own up to their failures.
The favoured tactic has long been the non-apology apology: weighty expressions of regret, an acknowledgement — often in the passive voice — that “mistakes were made”, but no direct admission of wrongdoing. Examples are legion.
David Cameron recently had a go in his 700-page memoir, For the Record. The former UK prime minister describes the result of the 2016 EU referendum as his “greatest regret” and concedes that his campaign failed. He maintains that his decision to call the vote — widely slated in Britain today — was nevertheless correct.
Tony Blair cleaves to similar logic over the war in Iraq. He says he “acted in good faith”. While the intelligence “turned out to be wrong… what I cannot and will not do”, Blair insists, “is say we took the wrong decision”. The UK government’s own inquiry essentially found the invasion was a catastrophic blunder.
Why do leaders find it so hard to say “I screwed up”?
Apologies are risky. They can make errors more salient in the public’s mind. An apology might work on a moral level but not if the aim is staying in power. It can be a sign of weakness rather than strong character. As The New York Times repeats often, Donald Trump intuitively grasps that his (mis)conduct will remain merely divisive — rather than a scandal — so long as he does not admit guilt. Trump never says sorry, and his base loves him for it.
We also reward those who don’t look back. A leader who spends too much time reflecting is not moving forward — and politics is all about moving forward. Publics are fickle, events hard to predict. Mistakes are unavoidable in the ceaseless churn. The easiest way to move on from them, President Obama’s former speechwriter, David Litt, wryly observes, “is to convince yourself you never made them”.
Or it could simply be about men and lawyers. Both are unduly represented in politics. For different reasons, neither are especially good at saying sorry.
When Robert McNamara, writing in 1995 about the US’s ruinous management of the Vietnam War, finally admitted that “we were wrong, terribly wrong”, Time magazine called it one of the top 10 apologies of all time.
McNamara was US Defence Secretary during the height of American involvement in the conflict — which came to be known as “McNamara’s war” — in the 1960s. He was also one of the 20th century’s finest technocratic minds, credited with saving Ford Motor Company and later becoming the longest-serving President of The World Bank. Of the men in Washington famously described as “the best and the brightest” by journalist David Halberstam, McNamara was the most prominent.
He agonised over the tens of thousands of US troops killed under his watch, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Clear as that was from the last interviews he gave before his death in 2009, his apology left a bitter taste.
In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara confesses that US military calculations were wrong. On his gravest failing — keeping silent about his doubts over the war when speaking out could have changed history — he palters. He never explains why he chose loyalty to the president and a futile policy over truth. As “great” men often do, McNamara frames the past on his own terms. Triumphs are selectively recalled, failings dissembled.
For this he was savaged by Halberstam:
“In this book… the agenda is McNamara’s, not the reader’s… he not only gets to give the answers he wants but also gets to choose the questions he asks himself. McNamara is like a player at the poker table who, when the game is over still refuses to show his cards… had he come forward [in the 1960s] and said that he had been mistaken in his earlier estimates and that the war could not be won … he would be now a revered American instead of one of our most divided and haunted of men.”
Perhaps not a good model for Thabo Mbeki, after all.
Africa’s most famous living statesman is slipping further into the twilight of an extraordinary political life. He may still offer a kind of atonement. For many leaders, their moment of expiation is just before darkness sets in.
What Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said of life is especially true of the political career: it must be lived forwards but can only be understood — and regretted — backwards.
Yet rarely do political apologies make a difference. Too little, too late and too obviously driven by self-interest to shift opinion, let alone history.
When German Chancellor Willy Brandt suddenly fell to his knees in front of a memorial for the Jewish Uprising in Warsaw, asking forgiveness for Nazi atrocities — in which he played no part — he helped Germany face its past and Europe build a better future.
His apology is an exception. It served a larger social purpose, enabling people to move on. A half-century later, its enduring power lies partly in what he said: nothing. “I did what people do”, Brandt later wrote of his silent gesture, “when words fall short.”
We can all recognise the truth in that.
Statesmen like Brandt would find it tough going in the age of Brexit and Trump. Our appetite to confront collective failures is waning. Few own up to errors. We hardly notice any more when bad faith is rewarded.
Litt says the world he worked in is sick. Demagoguery has been mainstreamed. The system provides no incentives for politicians to behave like decent human beings. Unless we start prioritising truth and self-awareness rather than blind self-confidence in our leaders, he warns, it will only get sicker.
The urge to double down on mistakes — whether made last week or last century — will strengthen if Trump is still in the White House at the end of January 2021. If lies have no consequences, even the non-apology apology will become passé. DM
Dr Terence McNamee is based in Johannesburg and is a global fellow of the Wilson Centre in Washington DC. He is editor of their forthcoming volume on peacebuilding in Africa.
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