Published on Saturday, May 21, 2005 by the Guardian/UK
Tarnished Image Abroad Fails to Register with Americans at Home
by Jonathan Steele
The US faces an uphill struggle to win a positive image for its foreign policy after the disclosures of torture and other atrocities at Bagram air base, according to senior American and international analysts.
"The Abu Ghraib pictures have become an icon of the occupation of Iraq. It's difficult to erase them from people's minds. Bagram only adds to the problem," Nadim Shehadi, acting director of Chatham House's Middle East program, said yesterday.
The Bagram revelations - described by the New York Times as "a narrative counterpart to the images from Abu Ghraib" - are the latest in a string of episodes which started soon after President George Bush launched his so-called war on terror.
They began with pictures of hooded prisoners being flown to the US base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba in 2002. The first detainees released spoke of torture, sleep deprivation and other forms of ill-treatment.
The scandal over the US-run prison at Abu Ghraib a year later was more dramatic and shocking, both because the torture was caught on camera, but also because of the strong element of sexual humiliation. Reporters found evidence that torture was not just the action of a few soldiers, but had the consent of officers and was systematic.
Policy statements emerged to show that Mr Bush and the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had authorized US interrogators and military prison officials to ignore the statutory rights of detainees. In February 2002, Mr Bush ruled that the Geneva convention did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaida, and that Taliban fighters would not be accorded the rights of prisoners of war.
More recently, it was disclosed that the US has sent detainees to be interrogated in countries which practice torture. The aim, apparently, is to avoid leaks from witnesses and whistleblowers about the prisoners' treatment, although US officials deny that the practice (known as rendition) amounts to outsourcing torture.
According to Professor Richard Sennett, a US sociologist at the London School of Economics, pressure on the Bush administration from US public opinion is weak because most Americans do not believe that the atrocities are systematic.
"With all due respect to my countrymen, I don't think they realize how bad the US image is. It's still the 'rotten apple theory' when this stuff happens. This is an administration which has practiced a lot of denial. Criticism is swept under the carpet by being treated as anti-Americanism," he said yesterday.
A new survey shows widespread anger at the US among Muslims. "Many Muslims are so alienated that they claim they would not like to visit the United States, nor would they mind if the US withdrew, politically, economically, and militarily, from the Muslim world", says the report based on focus groups in Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco.
The report was carried out for the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations by Charney research, a New York polling firm.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited