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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 military personnel 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 sorry.

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.

This 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.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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May 7, 2004

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