Losing the public relations war in Iraq

May 05, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's lofty crusade for freedom and democracy in Iraq, and indeed the whole Middle East, is being sabotaged by a few graphic photos from one of Saddam Hussein's old torture chambers near Baghdad.

At precisely a time when the occupation of Iraq has been turning more bloody and troublesome, the surfacing of those snapshots of shocking prisoner abuses at the hands of U.S. captors is delivering a devastating blow to America's dwindling image as a moral force.

Global airwaves are full of condemnations that the U.S.-led force that went into Iraq to free its people of the barbarities of Mr. Hussein is now guilty of the same kinds of brutalities -- in, no less, the same place.

It took the publication of the photos to unmask the terrible abuses, but it turns out a U.S. military report written in February told of them, leading to criminal charges against at least six soldiers and possibly more, and to administrative action against seven officers.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confessed in Sunday television interview shows that he hadn't read the report, and a Pentagon spokesman said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had not been briefed on it, either.

That, however, didn't stop General Myers from first observing on CBS News' Face the Nation that "a handful of people can sully the reputation of hundreds of thousands of people that are over there trying to give a better life to 50 million people." But he did acknowledge that "it's a big deal, because we take this very seriously."

The classified Army report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison was first disclosed in The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh, who 35 years ago first reported on the infamous My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1968.

That story dealt a severe public relations blow to the U.S. effort in Vietnam, in which the American government, as in this latest case, justified its use of overwhelming military force on grounds of saving the local populace from a brutal indigenous regime.

The My Lai story had a huge psychological effect on American morale at home and support for the Vietnam War because it clashed with the self-perception of Americans regarding their nation's conduct of war. The latest photos and reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq threaten a similar reaction, not only on the home front but around the world, where America's image is already besmirched because of the Iraq invasion and bloody aftermath.

General Myers initially singled out the perpetrators of the abuses, observing that Iraqis, once "they know the character and the compassion of our forces ... probably understand this is an aberration ... not that it won't be used against the United States of America. It certainly will."

But Mr. Hersh, in an interview on National Public Radio, criticized similar observations from other American generals in Iraq. They seemed to characterize the military guards involved as "bad seeds" when the responsibility, Mr. Hersh suggested, rested with their superior officers, who obliged them without proper training to interrogate prisoners for information with methods opposed by human rights guidelines.

The prison abuse has also uncovered that some interrogation in pursuit of military intelligence, like other functions of the U.S. involvement in Iraq -- such as providing security -- is being contracted out to civilians. The result is a scandal that appreciably adds to the picture of the wheels coming off the steamroller of President Bush's ill-advised war of choice.

April was the worst month for American deaths in Iraq since the war began. With a fumbled move to put a former Iraqi Republican Guard general in charge of a new brigade in embattled Fallujah, with the president's impetuous support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, which was rejected by Mr. Sharon's own party, and with this public relations fiasco over prisoner abuse, what else can go wrong?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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