04/08/2011 04:52 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2011

For the U.S. in the Middle East, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

One Sunday in 1994, disguised as a Belgian priest, I slipped past Senegalese soldiers guarding separatist guerrilla leaders. The rebels had been fighting a regional war to win independence for the Casamance region in the south, and had agreed to a truce and negotiations with the Senegalese government.

Head down, shuffling past the guards and their automatic weapons, I reached the room where the rebel leaders were sitting behind a table. I asked them what they hoped to get from the talks -- full independence, some other form of political autonomy, concessions on investment to the region, guarantees for their safety, or something else.

"First,"one of them said solemnly, "we want them to say sorry. We want the government in Dakar to say they are sorry for the hardship and pain they have caused our people." This struck me as hopelessly naïve and a waste of a bargaining chip, and I told them so. But they were insistent - an important part of any deal had to include an acknowledgment from the Senegalese authorities that they had wronged the people of the Casamanace.

Years later I realized how important simple apologies can be in ending conflicts -- in Northern Ireland the British governments and the paramilitaries all said sorry in their own way, and it mattered. Former South African President de Klerk said sorry for apartheid, and it mattered.

What's missing from the current discussions in Washington about the Middle East is a recognition that U.S. officials might want to say sorry to the people of Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere for the part the U.S. played in supporting and arming the dictatorships there for several decades.

The talks are about the transition to democracy, internet freedom, the lifting of emergency powers, upcoming elections, how the U.S. government might help and what it can pay for. All necessary and appropriate issues. But few of the dozens of U.S. officials I've heard in meetings over the last few weeks have given any hint of regret about the US funding the repressive, torturing, corrupt regimes who stifled democratic voices for so long.

No concession that the U.S. helped to create the problem in the first place, scant acknowledgment that the U.S. may have backed the wrong horse -- morally and politically -- in siding with the despots against the people. Even after the popular revolution began in Egypt this year the Obama administration's first instinct was side with President Mubarak in the interests of 'stability'. No-one seems to feel the need to say sorry to Egyptians for this, or for the years of previous support for the dictatorship.

If a grand presidential apology is unlikely (though in 1999 President Clinton said an official sorry for U.S. complicity in the Guatemalan military's human rights abuses), more modest statements of contrition by U.S. officials might help mitigate resentment against the U.S. in some parts of the Middle East.

Supporting the tyrants in Egypt and Tunisia was a colossal mistake. Saying so would be a decent first step in earning a new reputation for the U.S. in the region.

The Casamance guerrillas never got their apology, and the violence there continues in one of Africa's longest-running conflicts. The failure to address old grievances fuels new ones. If U.S. officials in Cairo, Tunis, Washington and elsewhere could admit they made some bad choices, recognize they got things seriously wrong over many years it might help restore some desperately needed credibility. But sorry seems to be the hardest word.