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Real Talk: Are Apologies a Sign of Weakness?

President Obama apologizes to the Afghanistan president for soldiers' mistakes.
Last week, it was discovered that copies of the Quran, the most sacred object in the daily lives of Muslims, had somehow been thrown in a pile of trash and burned at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. The resulting violent protests — the burning of the Quran is an offense against God in the Muslim community — have so far left dozens of Afghans and four American soldiers dead.

President Obama sent a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident. I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies,” he wrote, also promising to take appropriate steps to avoid a repeat occurrence, and to hold responsible parties accountable. 

GOP leaders were livid over Obama’s letter, even if every single one would be calling for nothing short of heads to roll if Afghan soldiers had burned just one Holy Bible, much less a whole batch. Too often, it seems, they take the opposite of the President’s position, no matter how ludicrous, just to be contrary. 

Gingrich: “[President Obama] is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the president of the United States, period.”

Romney: “For us to be apologizing at a time like this is something which is very difficult for the American people to countenance.”

Santorum: “This is unacceptable.”

Frankly, I’m surprised by the rare official apology, though I absolutely applaud it. I’ve spent the last two months bouncing around the world, visiting Barbados, Haiti, France and South Africa, and one of the things the people I encountered in each of those places had in common was a collective disdain for America’s arrogance. For our myriad of issues, we tend to operate with a superiority complex when it comes to the world, one that projects “even when we’re wrong, we’re right.” If you’ve ever met a person like that, that infuriating feeling you had is just what the rest of the world tends to feel about Americans. Many non-American people take issue with us not because they’re jealous, but because we behave like spoiled children.

I’m unsure when “I’m sorry” became a pairing of two dirty words, or how it became a sign of weakness. Acknowledging when you’re wrong is what you’re supposed to do, especially when you’re, you know, wrong. Whether it’s over a U.S. government institution committing a highly offensive act like burning a religious tome (even by alleged accident), or even a lesser, more personal offense like bailing on your girls to spend time with your man, doing too much minding of a friend’s business, or taking out your frustration on your spouse with a snappy response, it takes a strong person to be humble enough to admit imperfection and that they were out of line.

Do you think President Obama was right to apologize?

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk