The Magazine

Who's Afraid of Abu Ghraib?

From the May 24, 2004 issue: The scandal won't determine the fate of democracy in the Middle East.

May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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ACCORDING TO Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, "the humiliating scenes of abused Iraqi prisoners" and the war in general "have turned that country [Iraq] into a model to be feared and avoided in the eyes of many in the Middle East, and a tool in the hands of governments reluctant to change." Telhami, who was a driving force behind a recent major Muslim-targeted public-diplomacy project chaired by former assistant secretary of state Edward Djerejian and paid for by Uncle Sam, sees American-occupied Iraq as "a far cry from the anticipated model of inspiration that the administration promised would spur demands for democracy in the Arab world." In the eyes of Jackson Diehl, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post who regularly lends his voice to Arabs struggling against dictatorship, "the photos from Abu Ghraib prison may have destroyed what was left of the Bush administration's credibility with Arab popular opinion," which--combined with the administration's recent actions backing Israel's Ariel Sharon and Libya's unreformed dictator Muammar Qaddafi--have surely undermined the promotion of democracy, supposedly the administration's top priority in the Middle East.

Echoing the same themes in the Financial Times, former senior Clinton administration officials Ivo Daalder and Anthony Lake see the Abu Ghraib scandal as a significant factor undermining "whatever credibility or legitimacy the U.S. presence in Iraq may once have had." They are certain that "in Iraq today, America no longer offers a solution," rather "it has become part of the problem." Also panicked and shamed by the images of Abu Ghraib, Secretary of State Colin Powell has been telephoning all over the Middle East and listening to Arab rulers and foreign ministers express their dismay at what transpired. "They are disappointed in us," Powell commented. The rulers and the ruled are "outraged and there's a serious backlash. . . . We have presented ourselves as a value-based country--and we are. And so when they see this kind of activity taking place--this horrible, horrible series of pictures that we've witnessed--it causes a tremendous response out in the region." To try to stem the tide of ill will, the secretary is soon traveling to Jordan to "have a chance to talk with many, many Arab leaders and try to put this in some context and perspective, and to convey to them what we are doing to help the Iraqi people."

In the battle for Muslim hearts and minds--which many on the left and right believe is the only solution to Islamic terrorism aimed at the United States--things have just gone to hell thanks to a perverse, kinky group of American soldiers and their military-intelligence overlords who seem to have mixed the U.S. armed forces' manuals on interrogation with S&M techniques. Even a viewer of the Fox News Channel who never hops to CNN might now conclude that our goose is cooked in Iraq and the greater Middle East. With such American depravity and Arab hatred, the Bush administration has dug a hole that we may never get out of.

But is our situation in Iraq really in any way compromised by Abu Ghraib? Have the chances of democracy in the Middle East really been set back because sexually sensitive Muslims are so revolted that they won't embrace representative government? Or to put it more broadly, is America's standing in the Muslim world a popularity contest where our chances of success--whatever the mission may be--are directly proportional to how much an American president and his officials or the American people and their values are liked and esteemed?

LET US LOOK at Iraq post-Abu Ghraib. As disgusting as the tactics of the 800th Military Police Brigade may have been, they have not elicited much condemnation from Iraq's Arab Shiites and Sunni Kurds, who represent about 80 percent of the country's population. Most critically, the senior clergy of Najaf, in particular Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent Shiite divine who virtually has a de facto veto over American actions, has hardly mentioned the matter, let alone aroused the faithful against the moral pollution of the American occupation.