17 issue - A few years ago, I traveled to Vietnam.
Without intending to do so, I found myself visiting
the scenes of iconic photographs I remembered
seeing when I was a kid: the Saigon street corner
where Eddie Adams took the shot of a Viet Cong
suspect being executed at point-blank range; the
stretch of road the naked little girl ran down;
the roof of the building near the U.S. Embassy
where the last helicopter lifted off. For many
of us, these images were the Vietnam War.
same will be true of the Iraq war. Someday, when
Iraq is peaceful again (and that day will come),
tourists will want to see the square where the
Saddam statue toppled, the spider hole he hid
in and, of course, Abu Ghraib Prison. It's too
early to know exactly which of the unspeakable
pictures from the torture sessions will come to
represent this sickening chapter in the book of
superpower superembarrassments. Will it be that
prisoner wearing the hood with electrical wires
attached? Those stacked naked bodies with smiling
guards above? Lynndie England leading around a
naked man on a leash?
assumption last week in Washington was that the
damage from this fiasco in the Arab world will
last for 50 years, as Sen. Jack Reed put it. For
all the power of the humiliating images to confirm
the worst assumptions about the United States
and strip away its moral authority, this seems
exaggerated. Pictures play powerfully on emotions,
but emotions--when they don't involve immediate
family--are not often enduring. They can change
depending on the next pictures and the next sequence
of decisions and events. The images from Vietnam--searing
as they were--were ultimately a reflection of
the policy failures, not the cause of them, and
the hatred expressed by Vietnamese toward the
Americans who bombed them lasted only a few years.
The same goes for Iraq and the Middle East. Just
because the damage is done doesn't mean that it
cannot, over time, be undone. The problem is whether
we have the right leadership to undo it.
one Donald Rumsfeld. First, he and President Bush
and the rest of the war cabinet ignored Colin
Powell's presentation of the Red Cross's evidence
of abuses in Iraqi prisons. Then Rumsfeld went
on the "Today" show to say he didn't have time
to read the long report on Abu Ghraib (what else
was so important?) but that "anyone who sees the
photographs does, in fact, apologize." Anyone?
Who is "anyone"? It wasn't until his job was on
the line and he bothered to finally view the pictures
that he delivered a proper apology before Congress.
Rumsfeld said that it was the pictures that made
him realize the seriousness of the reported behavior--the
"words [in Pentagon reports] don't do it." But
high-level government officials should be capable
of responding to horrible abuses under their authority
without audio-visual aids. They're paid to make
decisions on words and facts and right and wrong,
not just on the emotional punch of pictures--or
how something might look if it came out. Character,
we know, is what you do when you think no one
course, some people didn't even mind the pictures.
Rush Limbaugh told his audience last week that
the whole thing reminded him of a "Skull and Bones
initiation." He argued that the torturers should
be cut a little slack: "You ever heard of emotional
release? You heard of need to blow some steam
off?" Limbaugh's peculiar rationalization didn't
get traction, but he's right about one thing:
when it comes to pictures, context still counts.
Sympathy for the prisoners developed in this case
because few were suspected terrorists. Some were
resisting Coalition forces--which is terrible
but not terrorism, unless you think every civilian
who ever resisted an occupying army in human history
was a terrorist. Others were simply in the wrong
place at the wrong time. None had anything to
do with 9/11.
imagine if these images had been of, say, Al Qaeda
terrorists in captivity in Afghanistan in late
2001. There would have been no uproar at all.
In fact, at that time, too many people (including
me) were complacent about the use of psychological
interrogation techniques that end up loosening
the bonds of civilized behavior and making Americans
look like hypocrites.
there any way forward after this excruciation?
Any way to rebuild the bridges (remember that
overworked Clinton metaphor?) the Bush administration
is burning? For all the talk in John Kerry's campaign
about America's tarnished image in the rest of
the world, most U.S. voters aren't interested.
In the broadest sense, they're correct. Being
respected and popular again is not an end in itself;
sometimes we need to do the right, unpopular thing.
at this particular historical moment, the United
States can be safer only when it is respected
abroad. The only way we'll get the cooperation
we need to win either the war in Iraq or the wider
war on terrorism is by persuading other nations
to begin looking to us again for leadership. No
respect, no victory. In that sense, restoring
America's prestige is a means to an end, and the
presidential election, a referendum on which man
can best change the picture that the whole world
sees. © 2004 Newsweek, Inc.
Posted: May 14, 2004