The United States of America has been in a full-blown defensive crouch since CBS’s 60 Minutes II first aired photographs from Abu Ghraib prison on April 28. The subsequent and relentless press beating has made the U.S. resemble Rodney King with four time zones.
The body blows have been severe. As NBC’s Nightly News reported Monday, the front page of Paris’s Le Monde recently featured a cartoon showing a hooded prisoner standing on a box festooned with the American flag. Crosses blaze in the background, while several figures with pillow-cases over their heads gleefully jump up and down in white sheets. One of them holds a cross in his hand. His sheet reads, “Bush Klux Klan.”
One Egyptian newspaper published a cartoon showing Saddam Hussein flogging a pile of prisoners. In the next panel, President Bush also beats inmates with Hussein’s whip.
“That is not Jeffersonian democracy,” said NBC’s Fred Francis, quoting an Arab man’s reaction to photos of Iraqis threatened by barking dogs at Abu Ghraib. “It’s more like a lesson from Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf.”
At some point, preferably very soon, the Bush administration must abandon its institutional masochism, uncurl itself from the fetal position, stand up, and defend itself in the global court of public opinion. Beyond the endless official apologies that have filled airwaves and news columns in Earth’s every language, America has plenty to say for itself, if only this communications-challenged government would argue its case.
Here are six concrete steps that the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and U.S. embassies around the world can make to try heal the scars Abu Ghraib has left on America’s public face.
Fight photographs with photographs.
Americans and people overseas ought to compare the Abu Ghraib pictures with others that put them into perspective. The Bush administration should release perhaps two dozen carefully selected snap shots that would illustrate the true horrors that prevailed in Iraq before it was liberated.
“I would guess that these prisoners wake up every morning thanking Allah that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons,” Senator James Inhofe (R., Ok.) told the Armed Service Committee on Tuesday. “When he was in charge, they would take electric drills and drill holes through hands. They would cut their tongues out. They would cut their ears off. We’ve seen accounts of lowering their bodies into vats of acid.”
Other atrocities include branding, amputation, burning victims alive, and dropping them feet-first into wood chippers. According to an outfit called Talon News, one Iraqi man was tortured to death, his body then returned to his mother. Baathist officials handed her an invoice for the bullets that killed him. In another instance, Baathists poured gasoline down a prisoner’s throat. Then they taunted him with a lit match. As he began to experience gasoline poisoning, they set him ablaze and watched him burn from the inside out.
Saddam Hussein’s enforcers surely photographed some of these evils. Perhaps intrepid Iraqis captured such outrages on film. Viewing these images should remind most people–who have the attention spans of cicadas–that the regime America toppled went light years beyond anything the Abu Ghraib guards attempted, even on their grumpiest days.
And on most days, U.S. GIs work diligently to make Iraq a better place. It would be very easy to demonstrate this by regularly releasing photos of American soldiers in action.
The May 9 edition of Fox News Sunday illustrated the kinds of stories of accomplishment and sacrifice by American forces that the administrations should amplify visually.
U.S. troops recently handed out backpacks full of school supplies to young students in Samarra. Since Coalition forces entered Iraq, 2,500 schools have been renovated. Some 800 more soon will come on line.
Residents of one Mosul neighborhood endured raw sewage for 17 years under Baathism. One American liberation, 13 months, and $40,000 in Army funds later, and the problem is gone.
On May 2, five Navy Seabees were killed in the Sunni Triangle while rebuilding schools and medical centers for the Iraqi people.
There are thousands of stories like this, and Washington should use pictures to tell them to the world. These images would not erase those from Abu Ghraib, but they would help remind people that U.S. soldiers are not the modern equivalent of the Einsatzgruppen.
Beyond distributing photos, there is plenty more the Bush administration should do.
Release a list of the reasons for which the high-value prisoners at Abu Ghraib were incarcerated. For security reasons, it may be inappropriate to name that facility’s occupants. But it would be helpful for the world to know why they are there. As even the International Committee of the Red Cross understands, those who were subject to alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib were not standard delinquents but “persons arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have ‘intelligence’ value.”
If those whose genitalia made Private first class Lynndie England laugh detonated bombs in mosques and under supply convoys, this might not excuse the circumstances of their confinement, but it would help erase the notion that the Iraqis seen in these world-famous photographs were sweet, helpless gentlemen who stumbled into Abu Ghraib while walking home from the hummus shop.
Present the evidence connecting Abu Musab Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein. The al-Qaeda butcher who is believed to have sawed off the head of 26-year-old Pennsylvania businessman Nick Berg quickly is becoming almost as reviled as Osama bin Laden. Americans enraged over Berg’s gruesome execution should be intrigued to know that the man thought to have killed him with a knife ran an Afghan al-Qaeda camp and later spent two months in a Baghdad hospital receiving medical care and recuperating. He did this while Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. He then opened an Ansar al-Islam camp in northern Iraq and arranged the October 2002 shooting death of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman, Jordan. All of this happened on Hussein’s watch. Some of the evidence tying Hussein and Zarqawi should be declassified so the world will understand the cozy alliance between the Butcher of Baghdad and Nick Berg’s probable assassin.
Strengthen Iraq’s media by using them to reach Iraqis.
As Johns Hopkins University’s Fouad Ajami explained in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, “It is odd, and defective in the extreme, that President Bush chose the official daily of the Egyptian regime, Al-Ahram for yet another interview, another expression of contrition over Abu Ghraib.” Ajami continued: “Cairo has no standing in Iraq. Why not take representatives of a budding Iraqi publication into the sanctuary of the Oval Office and offer a statement of contrition by our leader?”
This gaffe was akin to having President Bush communicate U.S policy to Venezuelans by granting an exclusive sit-down with El Mercurio of Santiago, Chile. The Al-Ahram misstep suggests that the United States government cannot distinguish among “the little brown people” of the Middle East.
At home, give helpful stories to friendly journalists and sympathetic news outlets. Many of us in the commentariat want Operation Iraqi Freedom to succeed. We do not share the satisfaction that too many liberal journalists seem to take in seeing America mired in Iraq. And yet, rather than help us make arguments that, more or less, would advance administration policies, we beg for facts and figures that never materialize or find exclusives handed to the New York Times and other organizations that aim carefully before kicking each tooth down the administration’s collective throat. Team Bush has potential friends in the press corps, yet it has done little in four years to cultivate them.
Assuming the White House can correct its generalized failure to communicate, as much of this information as possible should emanate from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Furthermore, President Bush should release this material himself in the White House press room. Appearing fully engaged on this front will boost Bush’s standing. By presenting such items personally, America’s commander-in-chief will make it impossible for the liberal media to spike the news he brings to light.
To its credit, the Agency for International Development released on March 17 an excellent, well-illustrated report on Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, which I wrote about for NRO. Unfortunately, this volume quickly slid beneath the sands, thanks to a press corps that doesn’t give a damn about the 400,000 skeletons who would speak eloquently about Saddam Hussein’s crimes if only their larynxes had not turned to dust. If President Bush had introduced this document at a West Wing ceremony, rather than having AID administrator Andrew Natsios unveil it at the State Department, “Iraq’s Legacy of Terror: Mass Graves” would have appeared on evening news broadcasts and in the next day’s headlines. Instead, this fine booklet has received just 22 English-language citations worldwide since its release, according to a Nexis database search. Compare that to the 219 such mentions of “Abu Ghraib” in the first 48 hours after 60 Minutes II added that phrase to our lexicon.
The war on terror–like its most active battlefield, Iraq–is more a contest of ideas than a quest for territory. In that respect, the United States is floundering. Information and images will help America win this war, as soon as the Bush administration stops sitting on relevant data and instead deploys them as weapons of mass persuasion.
–Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a Senior Fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.