Worst episode in PR nightmare

May 06, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Can it be a coincidence that Margaret D. Tutwiler quit as the top PR agent for America the same week photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse were beamed across the world? In one year, the president's "mission accomplished" had become her mission impossible.

The respected veteran of four administrations was the third to give up the State Department post that is charged with improving America's image. It's going to be easier to put the bloom back on the rose of her next client, the New York Stock Exchange.

Imagine, just a week earlier, the Pentagon was worried about showing coffins of American soldiers coming through Dover Air Force Base. Then there was a controversy about whether Nightline should read the names and show photographs of dead American soldiers.

Now this. A propagandist couldn't have done us more harm. Al-Jazeera couldn't have made it worse. What more symbolic place to show Americans abusing Iraqis than in the notorious prison where Saddam Hussein held, tortured and murdered thousands of his citizens?

Last December, a now-suspended Army Reserve brigadier general blithely told a reporter that the living conditions in this prison were so good that "at one point we were concerned that they wouldn't want to leave." Now, in 60 Minutes II and in The New Yorker, we learn about "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses." We've seen pictures taken by soldiers who were so unconcerned that they brought them to be processed as if they were souvenirs - "Here's what I did in the war, kids." And we know about acts as devastating for our country as they were horrifying to the victims.

It's hard enough just to deconstruct the sexual content of many abuses meant to break the prisoners. What do you say of a "torture" that requires men to simulate homosexual acts or wear women's underwear? What do you say about the fact that three of the seven soldiers arrested so far are women? Was the smiling woman giving the thumbs-up over the genitals of a masturbating detainee just one of the boys? Before, that is, she went home on maternity leave. We don't know yet who came up with the idea that humiliation would make these Iraqis talk. We don't know where the system broke down, when or even if the order came, as one of the accused claims, to "make sure he has a bad night."

But we know this is the worst moment - so far - in the struggle to make the world believe President Bush's words that "life for the Iraqi people is a world away from the cruelty and corruption of Saddam's regime."

Across the great divide of pro-war and anti-war opinions, Americans agree on one thing: the enormous task given to the men and women trained to be soldiers and expected to be ambassadors. Today they are trapped between trying to figure out which of the civilians are enemies and which, mishandled, might turn into enemies. As a 27-year-old Marine lieutenant told The Boston Globe, "You're trying to maintain the facade, waving at everyone, and all you're thinking is, `Are you the [expletive] that shot at us?'"

In all the endless and polarizing arguments over Iraq, we share something else: the sorrow that comes when our country is viewed darkly by the world. There is no "I told you so" joy, even among the most rabid opponents, when our country is shamed by these soldiers.

Polls show how the view of America has plummeted, although not the view of Americans. We are treated to tales of the love-hate relationship between people who are angry at the United States and eager to watch its movies, wear its jeans, emigrate to its shores. But increasingly, as one European woman said in one report, "We love to hate America. We hate to love America."

The scandals at Abu Ghraib do not slander every soldier, though they must dismay every soldier. But they leave an incredible imprint among those who love to hate us and hate to love us. Throughout this war, the president has regarded world opinion the way a father regards the opinion of his adolescent children. I have to do what's right; someday you'll be grateful. But we have to ask whether we are creating terrorists, not raising teen-agers.

The administration that launched a war in pre-emptive self-defense now defends it as a war bringing liberty to Iraqis. Well, it was not a good week for liberty.

Someday a case study in international public relations will ask how we lost, step by step, photo by photo, the sympathy of the world after 9/11. In the meantime, I am told, Ms. Tutwiler's job will be open for many, many months.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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