President Obama personally apologized on Wednesday to the head of Doctors Without Borders for what he described as the mistaken bombing of its field hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, promising a full investigation into the episode, which took the lives of nearly two dozen doctors and patients.
But five days after an American C-130 gunship devastated the medical facility, Mr. Obama’s personal expression of regret in a telephone call from the Oval Office appeared to do little to satisfy the leader of the doctors group, who issued a terse statement saying the president’s apology had been “received.”
Dr. Joanne Liu, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, repeated her demand for an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to “establish what happened in Kunduz, how it happened, and why it happened.”
White House officials said the president had confidence that the investigative effort now underway, including an inquiry being conducted by the Department of Defense, would be “transparent, it will be thorough, and it will be objective.”
Direct presidential apologies to victims of American actions abroad are rare, but not unheard of. In 2012, Mr. Obama wrote a letter of apology to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan after several copies of the Quran were burned by American military personnel, leading to violent protests across that country. In 2004, President George W. Bush apologized for the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib military prison, telling world leaders that he was “sorry for the humiliation.”
Whether to deliver an apology is a difficult and sensitive decision for any president, but particularly for this one. Mr. Obama has been pilloried since the beginning of his presidency by Republicans who accuse him of being an serial apologist for America. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president in 2012, wrote a book titled “No Apology,” a not-so-subtle dig at Mr. Obama. And Dick Cheney, the former vice president, recently published a book renewing the apology criticism of the president.
In this case, Mr. Obama proceeded with caution. Two days after the bombing, he expressed his “deepest condolences” to families of the hospital victims, calling it a “tragic incident.” But he and other White House officials resisted further comment for several days, citing the need to let investigations continue.
That changed on Wednesday after grim and detailed congressional testimony by Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, who told lawmakers the attack was “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Josh Earnest, the press secretary, said that “when the United States makes a mistake, we own up to it, we apologize.” He explained the shift in the decision to apologize by saying that Mr. Obama had concluded “that he had learned enough about this matter to conclude that it was appropriate for him to offer an apology.”
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SOURCE: MICHAEL D. SHEAR and SOMINI SENGUPTA
The New York Times