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Mpho Tutu Headshot

Never Too Late to Apologize

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PRESIDENT OBAMA IRAQ
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People often think that when you apologize you are showing weakness, when, in fact, quite the opposite is true. It takes great strength to apologize. It shows courage to admit that you have been wrong. Authority is not lessened by an apology offered. It is enhanced.

We strongly believe that it is time -- and not too late -- for the United States to apologize for the war in Iraq. A war that began based on falsehoods and mistaken beliefs about weapons of mass destruction. Many years have passed since that conflict began, but its repercussions are being felt in Syria, in Iran, and in an increasingly unstable world.

There is no statute of limitations on the truth. It is always the right time to admit the wrong, apologize, and ask for forgiveness.

The words must be said to the people of Iraq, "We invaded you on the basis of a lie. We are sorry." The world must be told, "We misled you, we are sorry." The leader who is able to say this will demonstrate a true authority -- a moral authority. The world needs the sole remaining superpower to have moral authority. We need the United States not to be a playground bully but to be peacemaker and a respected part of the global community. Anything less weakens America and imperils the world.

America has a unique opportunity to show the world that it does care about right and wrong. American can demonstrate that its superpowers are not characterized solely by its military and economic might, but by its moral might. This is the superpower that Nelson Mandela showed. It takes true strength to own up to and make an honest accounting of one's transgressions. This is true for an individual, and for a nation.

It does not matter that it is a different man who now leads America -- each successive leader inherits the mantle and can be the moral voice for the people. In 1988, President Ronald Regan apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans in 1941. In 1993, President Bill Clinton apologized to the people of Hawaii for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Queen a hundred years earlier. In 2008, the U.S. Congress issued its first official apology for slavery, 143 years after the 13th Amendment was adopted ending slavery.

Apologizing for the war in Iraq doesn't have to come decades from now, it can come from a leader strong enough to admit fault. This is true leadership.

We would much rather vote for the man who openly admits his country's mistakes, apologizes, and seeks to make reparations, whether concrete or symbolic, than for the leader who insists his country and his country's leadership is universally infallible. There will be those who say, "My country, right or wrong," but none is infallible. We all make mistakes, and when we do, it is only in the light of truth that we can right our wrongs. In South Africa, it wasn't until we looked the beast of apartheid in the eye that the beast began to lie down.

The past does not just go away -- it has this awful capacity to return in various forms. As the great American novelist, William Faulkner, said, "The past is never dead. It is not even the past."

The specter of Iraq still lurks, and until there is a leader strong enough, courageous enough, and honest enough to tell the story, admit the wrong, offer an apology, and reconcile the relationship, the specter will continue to haunt the U.S. on the world stage, and hinder any attempts at future peace.

We do believe that peace is possible and that there is no situation that is without hope. It is not a naïve belief. We've seen it happen in South Africa, in Rwanda, in Northern Ireland. We've seen it happen in families and among neighbors who have fought for generations. We have seen the hope of peace shine in the eyes of the most innocent victims of war and brutality, and have seen the worst transgressors find new life in unburdening themselves with an honest admission.

What we are only beginning to realize is that if one of us harms another, we harm ourselves. If we undermine another's dignity, we undermine our own. We remind ourselves of this in our daily interactions with friends and family and so-called foes. There will be times when our actions are misguided, hurtful, and we cause untold harm to others. We can make it right however. At any moment, we can choose the path of reconciliation. It is not always easy. It involves difficult conversations. But when we choose the path of truth and reconciliation, we are choosing the path of peace.

We invite the President of the United States to lead the way in recognizing our shared humanity, and uniting us as a global family. The Iraqi lives that were lost in this conflict are no less valuable than the American ones, lost so tragically. Each of the combatants and civilians was loved by a mother and father, and other family and friends.

The people of the United States, the people of Iraq, of Syria, of Iran, all want to walk the path of peace. It is up to the leaders of these nations to walk this path as well. It is a path that can be walked only in truth, however, and with an honest accounting of the past. It takes great strength and great leadership to admit where you have gone wrong, where you have fallen short, and where you may have tread before in error or duplicity.

But we believe that there is always the capacity for change, for redemption, and it is never, ever too late to apologize. Not for an individual nor for a country.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge, which is a free 30-day online program developed by Desmond and Mpho Tutu to teach the practical steps to forgiveness they share in their new book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. Learn about the campaign here, and sign up to participate yourself. Read all posts in the series here.