How many ways can a diplomat say “sorry” without actually apologizing?
In a joint statement by the US departments of State and Defense, Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta offered “their deepest condolences” and “their sympathies” for the “loss of life” following a NATO bombardment of a Pakistani military border post along the Afghan border. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted his condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers, calling the killings “regrettable” and “unacceptable.”
The NATO bombing killed some 24 Pakistan soldiers. US military sources say they had informed Pakistan that it planned to conduct a joint Afghan-US special operations raid on a Taliban base along the Afghan border, but Pakistan says it never received word. The joint Afghan-US mission called for air support after taking heavy fire during its mission, and the bombs struck the Pakistani post.
Pakistan’s military chief Gen. Athar Abbas has called NATO's non-apology “not good enough,” and said that “This could have serious consequences in the level and extent of our cooperation” with the Western military powers inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has closed its border points into Afghanistan to any further NATO or US military supply trucks.
What is missing in both the NATO and US military apologies is not just the word “sorry,” but also any actual taking of responsibility for the actions. Calling for “investigations” or “committing to transparency” are ways for diplomats to suggest that the US or NATO will take future action. Expressing “grave concern” or “regret” shows an emotional reaction, but it doesn’t indicate that the US or NATO admit any sort of guilt for an action they have taken.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US military joint chiefs of staff, joined US diplomats in “regret,” but said that an apology would not be forthcoming until a full investigation was conducted.
By falling into a mumbly nonequivocation – look for the phrases “reaffirm partnership” or “reaffirm commitment” in the coming days of awkwardness – US policymakers are looking for ways to keep temperatures down and to prevent an escalation of rhetoric past the point of no return. The US and NATO may never be able to get that “loving feeling” back with Pakistan. But soothing words, without strings attached, can help both sides to save face and to back down.
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