Published on Sunday, May 9, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
Official US Reaction Compounds the Rage
by Abbas Kadhim
BERKELEY — From the first moment of the Iraq war, President Bush and his advisors have failed to recognize that there are two Iraqs — one imagined in his postwar plan, the other real. The former was shaped by flawed intelligence, hollow Orientalists, cunning Iraqi exiles and wishful thinking. The latter remains a mystery to the U.S. occupiers.
After every dreadful event in Iraq, the administration's reaction reveals its dangerous attitude: It's all about the United States. Already, we have a pile of news articles and commentary on the effects the prisoner abuse scandal will have on the future of the occupation, U.S. credibility, Bush's chances for reelection and the reputation of the Army. What's missing is anything about the scandal's effect on the hearts and souls of the Iraqis. They are the ones who will carry the scars of this sad episode for generations to come.
The U.S.' self-absorbed angst plays well at home. But where it matters, in Iraq and in the Middle East, it only adds fuel to the raging fire. Arabs have a favorite expression for such behavior: "He slapped me and cried." The U.S. reaction to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib has reinforced the prevailing view among Arabs that the life and dignity of an Iraqi — or any Arab, for that matter — is beside the point.
Equally damaging to the U.S.' standing was the spiritless language initially used by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in trying to dilute the seriousness of the misconduct. "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe, technically, is different from torture," he told reporters after news of the scandal broke, as if this distinction would make all the difference in Arab minds. Such a technicality might impress an Army judge. But for a proud nation shocked by photos depicting the sexual abuse of its men, it represents callousness and insensitive rationalization in the face of a moral quagmire.
Most Iraqis feel their country has been raped twice, once by the U.S. military guards at Abu Ghraib and once by the indifference of their bosses. The recently resigned, handpicked Iraqi human rights minister was quoted as saying that he notified L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, in November about possible prisoner abuse, "but there was no answer." The minister was not even allowed to visit the prisons.
The apparent incuriosity of the top military officer in the U.S., Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, equally stands out. During his damage-control appearances on Sunday news shows last weekend, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted that he hadn't read the Army's latest internal report on the abuses, claiming that it was working its way up to him. At the time, Rumsfeld said he'd read only a summary of the report. Yet both seemed at ease in theorizing about its contents.
U.S. officials' pretentious displays of disgust over the abuse photos have frustrated and angered Iraqis. They know that steps taken in early days of the U.S.-led occupation made it inevitable that such atrocities would occur. Most notorious was Bremer's Order No. 17, which immunized all foreign soldiers in Iraq against any local Iraqi scrutiny; practically speaking, coalition authorities recognized a complaint against a soldier only if it was filed by a fellow soldier.
On those rare occasions when an Iraqi's complaint is addressed, insult is often added to injury. According to the New York Times, one Iraqi man was given $5,000 in compensation for the accidental killing of his wife and three children by a U.S. missile. Iraqis say that a gallon of gas is more precious than a gallon of blood these days. Yes, Iraqis have not tasted freedom and have not practiced true democracy. But they are masters at detecting oppression and contempt.
Bush often patronizes Iraqis by calling them "a proud people." Yet he fails to recognize that the photos of U.S. soldiers abusing and humiliating naked Iraqis are a direct blow to the essence of their pride. There is no room for rape counseling in Iraqi culture. Cruel as it is, this is the reality of their culture, and it cannot be ignored. It is also a cruel reality that all the approximately 10,000 Iraqi detainees have been stigmatized by the shame at Abu Ghraib, no matter what these detainees claim. This helps explain why many released prisoners don't return to their neighborhoods and why many of them may join the resistance against the occupation as a means to reclaim their pride and dignity.
This cultural divide is the main contributor to the crisis in Iraq. Iraqis expect Americans to do no less than translate their democratic rhetoric into reality, to respect local culture and adhere to the rule of law. The Americans, in turn, expect Iraqis to show gratefulness for the removal of Saddam Hussein and the opportunity to build a democratic society.
But Americans and their allies must understand that Iraq is not a pragmatic society when it comes to religion, culture and sexual mores. It is never acceptable to touch a woman and then come back later to express regret or, worse, offer money. In their culture, Iraqis would accept money and a public apology for the killing of a family member. But in matters of honor — sexual assault, for example — an apology is accepted only when it comes with the head of the perpetrator. Those who are unable to pay such a price had better not commit the offense in the first place. This is why Bush's appearance on Arab TV last week was insulting and meaningless. He can never have enough money to cleanse the shame that his soldiers inflicted upon the Iraqi prisoners, and no words can do this either.
The magnitude of this scandal is increasing so rapidly because there are no statesmen in charge of the situation. Bush had a golden opportunity to come clean and apologize to the Iraqis, but he didn't. When he did offer an apology, he seemed to direct it to Jordan's King Abdullah II, not the Iraqi people.
Talking points, creative definitions and legal jargon will not heal the wounded pride of the Iraqis. The prisoner abuse crisis is too overwhelming to simply go away. Therefore, prudence cries out for doing the right thing: The administration should stop treating the scandal as a political crisis or a public relations setback.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times