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May 12, 2005

Abu Ghraib and Its Aftermath
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

My latest posting on the Drezner blog deals with Abu Ghraib and the long-term implications it may have for American credibility and influence.  I make the point that incidents like Abu Ghraib, coupled with a fairly hollow effort to show that the abuses bore no link to wider policies and cultural factors within the military plays right into the hands of those trying to weaken American influence around the world.

Belgravia Dispatch (Joseph Britt) agrees with me, but points out that such debates will play out in the Londons and Ottawas of the world, not in the streets of Damascus or Ramadi.  I am not sure I understand his point.  He writes: 

What I'm suggesting is that Suzanne's view of the prisoner abuse scandal essentially as a series of policy errors damaging to America's image overseas most accurately reflects opinion in countries other than the ones we are now trying to spread freedom and liberty in. In many of these, America is distrusted not only because it seems we do not mean what we say but also because it seems that we do; not all the things they dislike or distrust about us are the things we think they might or ought to.

I am not sure if he is trying to say that the cultural lenses through which American actions are interpreted in the Muslim world are so thick and distorted that there's little we can do to control our image there.  If that's the point, I think there's some truth to it but that its becoming less true every day.

I don't have proof for this (and I haven't yet thought through whether or how it may have played out over Abu Ghraib) , but my intuition is that the Canadian-European-Australian etc. vantage point on American actions is emerging as a kind of filter through which other parts of the world are also evaluating us.  In other words, if the Europeans are behind something we do, the Arab world - even if predisposed against he particular policy - is almost forced to take another look at it.  They know that if the French haven't found anything to criticize, what we are doing is probably justifiable.

Likewise, if Canada et al decry something, that feeds into the sense in the Arab world that America, once again, is on a power trip or is acting at odds with the Western ideals it purports to uphold. 

In this way, the view of our "friends" (think of someone you went to high school with and still share a deep bond with, but who has irritated you a lot in recent years) may matter more than it used to - - they usually won't themselves act in overtly hostile ways toward us, but others who are listening to them might.

The filter works through debates in the UN corridors, diplomatic ties between all these countries and through the likes of CNN international, BBC, al Jazeera, and maybe even the blogosphere.

Anyway, I'm not sure I got Joseph's point right, but maybe he'll care to clarify.


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Per Suzanne Nossel's reply to yesterday's post about the impact of the prisoner abuse scandals, it appears that I was not wrong about what she was trying to say and she is mostly right about what I was trying to... [Read More]


I don't want to speak for JB, but I suspect what he means is that Abu Ghraib actually had more resonance in Western Europe than in the Middle East, where such behavior is, sadly, routine. After all, the Iraqi police and special police commandos are now widely reported to be beating the living daylights out of people.

This kind of opinion that U.S. decisions should be "filtered" by France is easily misunderstood, and was one of the downfalls of Kerry '04. The line between "submission" and careful reflection on the international sentiments is thin and too dangerous for anyone in Washington to walk along.

I think that in general when people see extreme behavior, if that behavior was perpetrated by someone in their own group they view that behavior as being exceptional and not reflective of their group as a whole. While on the other hand, if that extreme behavior was perpetrated by members of an outside group - and particularly if perpetrated against members of the group to which the person forming the judgement belongs - those behaviors are seen as part of the pathology of that outside group as a whole.

The general impression within the US to the My Lai massacre was that it was the work of small group of out of control soldiers.

Conversely, following September 11th (and in some circles continuing to this day) it was not unusual to hear Americans claiming that Islam is a religion of hate and all muslims bear some responsibility for the actions of the hijackers.

I'm not suggesting that these two mass killings are of equal consequence. I'm only comparing the way blame was apportioned to them within the US.

In the short term, I believe that Abu Ghraib (and to a much lesser extent Guantanamo) has swelled the ranks of the insurgents and as such has damaged the US ability to influence Iraq, not to mention increasing the danger to our servicemembers.

Beyond that however, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo I fear are likely to become the fulcrum upon which this generation of Arabs' opinion of the US pivots. Similar to the way in which the US backed coup against Musaddiq turned the opinion of the Iranian public against America.

The invasion of Iraq necessarily damaged the opinion many Arabs have of us. However, if a stable Iraq had soon emerged, that damaged view need not have been permanent. Once the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light though, it reenforced that negative opinion and - true or not - allows those who oppose us to claim that we are no better than Saddam and the Baathists.

Abu Ghraib abuses damaged US interests in Southeast Asia, where I live. Particularly in Muslim-majority provinces in southern Thailand, those abuses confirmed all the worst stereotypes about the US and fed the conspiracy theories that the US is determined to crush Islam. Muslims have their own struggle in southern Thailand, but Malay Muslims are cognizant of events elsewhere, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib become another point of reference in the discourse of Islam besieged. The day I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib, I felt distinctly less safe as an American abroad.

I make the point that incidents like Abu Ghraib, coupled with a fairly hollow effort to show that the abuses bore no link to wider policies and cultural factors within the military plays right into the hands of those trying to weaken American influence around the world.

Do you read the comment threads under your posts?

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