Why an apology on Afghan Quran burning matters

Because it might save lives.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
A Quran is held during a gathering of Washington-area Muslims at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Friday, Feb. 24, in Sterling, Va., where a senior Pentagon official apologized for the mistaken burning of Qurans at a military base in Afghanistan.

When word came that Qurans had been burned by US troops in Afghanistan, there was no doubt there would be bloodshed as a consequence. The reason why they were burned (carelessness and ignorance in this case, it seems) didn't matter.

Afghans responded violently to Quran burnings in the past and it is hardly a secret that the country seethes with anti-American, and generally anti-foreigner, sentiment. President Barack Obama quickly moved to do the only thing he could to mitigate the coming storm: he apologized in a formal letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible," Mr. Obama wrote. 

To listen to some of his political opponents talk, he should have doubled down and instead insisted on a formal apology for the murder of US troops by Afghan soldiers.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called the apology an "outrage," said Obama should have demanded an apology from Mr. Karzai for the murder of US troops instead, and said "this destructive double standard whereby the United States and its democratic allies refuse to hold accountable leaders who tolerate systematic violence and oppression in their borders must come to an end.”

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said the apology was a sign of "weakness." Sarah Palin complained. “Obama apologizes for the inadvertent Koran burning this week; now the US trained and protected Afghan Army can apologize for killing two of our soldiers yesterday," she said.

And quarters of the conservative commentariat were even more strident. Take Andrew McCarthy of the National Review Online. "The only upside of the apology is that it appears...  to be couched as coming personally from our blindly Islamophilic president," he writes. "Muslim leaders and their leftist apologists are also forever lecturing the United States about 'proportionality' in our war-fighting. Yet when it comes to Muslim proportionality, Americans are supposed to shrug meekly and accept the 'you burn books, we kill people' law of the jungle."

Here's why they're all wrong.

The answer to the moral question of "What's worse? Burning books or killing people?" is, of course, "killing people." Far, far worse. Furthermore, the burning at Bagram, an effort to get rid of books that Taliban prisoners were scribbling in to share propaganda and messages, was pretty clearly not an act of malice, but negligence. And yes, a greater acknowledgment from Karzai that enormous American sacrifices have been made to install and keep him in power would be nice.

But the dudgeon and moral outrage rather misses the point of what it means to be commander in chief. Obama, or any president, should have a fundamental thought at the top of their mind every time they speak about America's wars: "Is what I'm about to do or say going to put more troops in harm's way?" In this case the answer is an emphatic "yes." A direct refusal to express contrition for the Quran burning would have put more troops in harms way.

Would more than the at least six US soldiers and officers killed in the past week in retaliation for the Quran burning have died? Impossible to say. But it certainly would have fanned the flames in Afghanistan, leading to a more dangerous situation, not a safer one.

An old friend wrote to me complaining about double standards, asking pointedly if there is as much outrage and violence when Afghans mishandle Qurans. No, generally not. His point was that people there are primed to react violently against foreign, generally non-Muslim troops, more quickly than they do against co-religionists and neighbors – and that makes them hypocrites.

Well, his point is made. But the reality of the cultural terrain in Afghanistan is that mob violence will occur when foreign troops burn Qurans. Many more Afghans will be disgusted. Support for the foreign troops in their midst will decline. Hypocrisy? OK, sure. But far more importantly, it's reality. As long as the US is fighting a war there, it needs to keep sight of the Afghans that are, not the ones it might wish there were.

One can decry the immorality, or double standards, all day long. But it doesn't dispel the fact that more troops were threatened and the president's duty was to help quell this flareup as quickly as possible.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.