Frame Game

Excuses, Excuses

Clinton spins the embassy bombing.

Last August, after finally admitting to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s grand jury that he had carried on and covered up an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton went on national TV to apologize. He began by calling his behavior “wrong” and taking “complete responsibility” for it. But within seconds, Clinton tarnished his apology by lapsing into excuses, self-justifications, and blame-shifting. This week, as he tries to explain NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, he’s doing the same thing.

How did the bombing happen? According to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, NATO “attacked the wrong target because the bombing instructions were based on an outdated map,” which “inaccurately located the embassy in a different part of Belgrade.” Henceforth, said Cohen, “the State Department will report to the intelligence community whenever foreign embassies move.” In other words, people in the U.S. government who knew the embassy had moved hadn’t bothered to tell their colleagues who were deciding which buildings to bomb. There’s nothing for the United States to say about this except that we perpetrated a moral outrage through inexcusable stupidity and recklessness. But as usual, Clinton is finding plenty of other things to say.

1) I’ve already apologized. Last year, when asked to apologize, Clinton repeatedly insisted that he had already done so. But saying you have already apologized is the opposite of apologizing. The latter is a way of accepting criticism; the former is a way of deflecting it. Saturday, in his initial remarks about the bombing, Clinton expressed “regret” and “condolences” to China but never used the word “apologize.” Two days later, he declared, “I have already expressed our apology.” When asked about American responsibility for the tragedy, Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin reiterated that Clinton had already “apologized.”

2) My actions were minimal. In his speech last August, Clinton used weasel words and passive verbs to minimize his deceit. “While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information,” he allowed. “My public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression.” To minimize this week’s embassy bombing, Clinton called it a “mistake,” “accident,” and “tragic event” (other U.S. officials called it “regrettable” and an “error” entailing “loss of life”). Clinton used the passive voice to obscure his responsibility (“the Chinese Embassy was inadvertently damaged and people lost their lives”) and offered good intentions as an excuse (“We’re doing everything that we can to avoid innocent civilian casualties”).

3) Everybody does it. In 1992, Clinton smothered questions about his adultery by confessing to “causing pain in my marriage,” refusing to say more, and pointing out that many American couples were in a similar position. In his August 1998 speech, he offered the same defense. Likewise, Clinton suggested this week that in war the occasional embassy bombing is to be expected. “This will happen if you drop this much [ordnance],” he argued Saturday. Cohen echoed that line Monday (“In combat, accidents will happen”), as did White House spokesman Joe Lockhart (“Mistakes happen”).

4) It’s the economy, stupid. Unable to convince Americans last year that he was truly sorry for offending their values, Clinton appealed instead to their material interests, vowing incessantly to “keep working for the American people.” This week, having bombed the Chinese Embassy, Clinton is making a similar appeal to China’s prudence. On Monday, he reminded China of his “commitment to strengthen our relationship,” while Albright and Lockhart emphasized that “good relations are manifestly in the interest of both nations” and that “a broad-based relationship … serves both our interests.”

5) It’s my enemy’s fault. Clinton ruined his speech last August by blaming Starr and Paula Jones’ lawyers for forcing him to shade the truth to fend off Starr’s investigation, which had “gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.” This week, Clinton again buried his apology under a recitation of his enemy’s wrongs. He even used the same word–“proportion”–to deflect scrutiny. “We need some sense of proportion” in evaluating the bombing, Clinton pleaded. “This was an isolated, tragic event, while the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo … is a deliberate and systematic crime.” Albright, Rubin, and other U.S. officials reasserted that distinction, and Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon pointed out that the other guy started the fight: “This was not a fight that NATO sought. It was a fight that could have been avoided, but Mr. Milosevic decided not to avoid it.”

It’s true that the Serbs’ crimes dwarf NATO’s in scale and malice. It’s true that China’s financial interests are best served by stifling its anger. It’s true that wars always cause unintended civilian casualties. It’s true that NATO is trying to avoid such casualties. And it’s true that Clinton has apologized. These are all perfectly good spins. But the point of an apology is to accept responsibility for what you did and otherwise to shut up. To apologize, in short, is to abstain from spin–one of the few feats of which Clinton seems incapable.

Photograph on Table of Contents by Sasa Stankovic/AFP.