COMMENTARY Now the desperate damage control By Ehsan Ahrari
The firestorm of criticism related
to the Abu Gharib prison debacle may eventually lead to
the ouster of the United States from Iraq. This
observation may be read as an overstatement as of now;
however, examining the modalities of damage control
regarding that fiasco makes one wonder if the initial
information about the abuse of prisoners - both Iraq and
Afghanistan - is so bad, then what more must one expect
in the coming days on this issue? President George W
Bush appeared on Arab language television to tell the
audience that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US
was "abhorrent". But the US
condemnation all over the world continues. There are
congressional calls for the resignation of Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The rolling of heads may not
stop with him, however.
The US attached very
high moralistic rhetoric to its invasion of Iraq. At
first it was supposedly saving the world from the
threats of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
When those weapons were not found, the US rhetoric
immediately found another anchor. We were told that the
object of "liberating" Iraq from the brutal rule of
Saddam was noble enough a goal to go to war. The US did
everything since then to underscore how much better off
the Iraqis are going to be under the American-sponsored
system of government. That system, to be sure, was to be
based on the American version of secular democracy. It
was argued that for a multi-ethnic society like Iraq, an
American-style federal arrangement would be well suited.
There is to be some sort of proportional representation
for all ethnic and religious groups, and even for women.
But one of the major problems related to the
global "war on terrorism" was that it was also based on
an acute supercilious rhetoric - it was so focused on a
Manichean perspective of good and evil, and black and
white. No complexity of ideas or thought was tolerated.
The perpetrators of violence were depicted as
"evil-doers". Thus, by extending the logic of this
rhetoric, American forces emerged as "forces of virtue",
which could do no wrong. America replaced the extreme
Islamist version of the Taliban regime with a system
that resembled fledgling democracy in Afghanistan. The
same was true in Iraq.
The Iraqi insurgents were
described as "dead-enders", terrorists, and a mixture of
"outsiders", who were there to cause trouble. In this
instance as well, the emphasis was that anyone who
opposed American forces (ie, forces of virtue) was
nothing but a representative of the forces of evil.
Under this type of supercilious frame of
reference, it is hard to believe that the American
perpetrators of abuse of Iraqi prisoners did not regard
themselves as doing something good while they were
abusing those prisoners, humiliating them, and having
fun at their suffering and misery. After all, how can
forces of virtue do anything wrong?
Add to the
preceding the need to get information from those
prisoners. There have been a number of events and
anecdotes reported in the media that attest to the
urgency of extracting information from those prisoners.
That urgency was regularly transmitted from the
uppermost echelons of the Pentagon. Given that such a
high priority for information was coming from the very
top, it became easy to ignore regulations or violate
proper techniques of interrogating the prisoners. Who is
to say now as to who was at fault: the pooh-bahs at the
top of the Pentagon, lowly officers and soldiers at the
bottom, or even the Central Intelligence Agency
functionaries whose job it was to extract the "right"
information, even by abusing Iraqi prisoners? It will be
interesting to see where that trails leads.
Bureaucracies are notorious about creating
firewalls of protection around the "big enchiladas",
while the "minions" at the lower level are highly
dispensable. They are easily identified and sacrificed.
Those in the higher echelons, more often than not, are
given the benefit of doubt, or forgiven in the absence
of a "smoking gun".
As a remarkable exercise of
damage control, a quick decision was made for National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to appear on Arab
television. Then, Bush made himself available to
al-Hurra - a US-funded television station - and
al-Arabiyya - a Saudi one. It was interesting that Bush
missed the opportunity, perhaps willfully, to directly
apologize to the Arab world about the abuse of Iraqi
prisoners. As an afterthought, his press secretary told
White House-based journalists that the president was
Why such a high level campaign of damage
control? Does this mean the end of this controversy
right here and now? The Bush administration is clearly
worried over the fallout from this debacle in the US
domestic arena. The American support of war in Iraq is
slipping steadily, while worldwide condemnation and Arab
anger continue to surge. It is hoped that an indirect
presidential apology would soothe the matters on both
fronts. At the same time, it is worth noting that Bush
has refrained from mentioning the Abu Gharib fiasco
during his campaign appearances. Given the fragility of
the entire affair for domestic politics, Democratic
presidential candidate John Kerry has also refrained
from getting stridently critical of Bush.
is not the end to this controversy by any means. On the
civilian side, Rumsfeld's job is in jeopardy. It is
possible that even the chairman of Joint Chiefs of
Staff, General Dick Meyer, will also be forced to
resign, especially since he was so cavalier in his
initial response to this debacle. If the US inquiry were
to focus inside Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez's job may
still come under jeopardy.
Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based
independent strategic analyst.
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