With Iran’s president speaking of “uncivilized Zionists” and the Israeli prime minister calling Iran “the most dangerous country in the world,” it may seem odd for one Middle East leader to stand before the United Nations this week and apologize for his country’s past violence.
Yet that is what Mohammed el-Megarif, Libya’s interim president, did on Thursday.
He actually gave two apologies on behalf of all Libyans for the actions of Muammar Qaddafi. One was for the late leader’s disrespect toward the UN Charter on rights. The other was for “all the harm, all the crimes committed by that despot against so many innocents ... for the extortion and terrorism he meted on so many states.”
Just days earlier, Mr. Megarif also apologized personally to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Sept. 12 attack in Benghazi that killed four American diplomats. (Details of that assault remain unclear.)
And perhaps in a sign of a trend in the Middle East, Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, also apologized – for an attack by a crowd on the US embassy over the anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube.
For Americans, who by now have seen waves of apologies from public figures like Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Tiger Woods, it may be easy to overlook this unusual contrition in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods. Yet humility, vulnerability, and making amends is just what the Middle East needs to deal with its intense, long-lasting conflicts.
If apologies are heartfelt, they can have real healing power. They bring trust and honesty to a relationship, even if they are not made by the perpetrator but simply on behalf of a country or institution.
They can help prevent a repeat of an offense. And they are better still if they also come with some restorative justice. Libya’s leader, for example, promises to cooperate with the United States in bringing the embassy attackers to justice.
Postwar Germany set a high standard for the world in its apologies for Nazi atrocities. In 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt dropped to his knees during a visit to a memorial for Polish Jews killed during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.
Many US presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush, have apologized for current or past acts by the government. In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has often accused President Obama of apologizing for past US deeds, mainly in the Middle East. (Mr. Romney’s 2010 book is titled “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”)
While the word “apologize” or “sorry” wasn’t used by Mr. Obama in cases cited by Romney, the president has criticized the actions of his predecessor before foreign audiences, claiming they were not representative of American values.
Such domestic disputes over values may make Americans less sensitive to hearing important apologies like those of Libya’s Megarif. He even stressed his country’s “solidarity” with the US and that Libya’s future will be “chartered by people like Chris Stevens [the slain ambassador], not by people like his killers.”
Today’s apology culture in the US can sometimes be overdone. And detecting sincerity in a public figure’s utterance of “sorry” isn’t always easy. Yet Americans seem past the time when they will follow the advice of actor John Wayne who, in a 1949 western movie, said: “Never apologize and never explain – it’s a sign of weakness.”
So, thank you, Libya. Apology accepted. Let a new day dawn.