Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Propaganda Coup for the America-Haters

The apparent torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners* is a terrible PR blow to the Bush administration. The disgusting site of Iraqis being tortured by American soldiers was surely a daunting challenge for an administration that was diplomacy challenged at the best of times.

(*-apparently it wasn't just Iraqis. The Globe and Mail of Toronto reports of a Canadian civilian who also claims to have been tortured by US troops in Iraq. But he had a "funny" name so maybe that's why he allegedly got caught in the middle)

The most sickening photo was in The New Yorker magazine, whose caption read Two American soldiers pose behind a pyramid of hooded and naked Iraqi prisoners. The two soldiers had sh*t-eating grins on their face.

"It's a terrible thing, but it's not as bad as Saddam's torture chambers," say war defenders, as though this makes a lick of difference. It's probably not as bad as Saddam's torture chambers in that it's not (hopefully) as widespread and systematic. Certainly the broadcast of such images wouldn't have caused Saddam to blush, let alone push him to go on pan-Arabic television. "A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this," President Bush told al-Arabiya.

But no one should take any comfort from such distinctions. Because, fairly or not, I wonder how many Iraqis will make such distinctions anyway. The administration has continually underestimated the importance of PERCEPTION in what is now as much a war of public relations as any other kind.

The abuses might not be as bad as Saddam's regime but we were SUPPOSED to be better than Saddam. A lot better than Saddam. That's how we tried to sell our Crusade. Getting rid of a brutal regime is the only justification for invasion left that hasn't been discredited. Stuff like this seriously undermines even that lone remaining rationale.

Yes, war is hell. Our soldiers are in a nearly impossible situation, not of their making. Put people in inhumane conditions and they will act in inhumane ways. This is how terrorists recruit. This is apparently what's happened to some of our soldiers. But the fact of this situation isn't accidental. The soldiers are in that situation because a conscious decision made by a president with the support of some 70% of the population (including his Democratic presidential opponent). To place all the blame on President Bush's shoulders is disingenuous; no one can say the president didn't have the broad support of the people.

These war crimes are a serious blow to the only noble (stated) justification for the invasion: the establishment in Iraq of a democratic system that respects human rights. The US military as a whole is trying to make the best of a bad situation and these atrocities are making things so much worse, it's almost impossible to overstate the damage. Now, those extremist groups who said, "We told you the west represented evil and would rain indignity upon you" will say they were vindicated.

Images of these atrocities will be the best recruiting tool for anti-American organizations since the Iraq invasion itself.