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Arab Reaction to Iraqi Prisoner Photos

May 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis of all this by Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, author of the recent book “The Stakes” about Arab and Muslim perceptions of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

First, Professor Telhami, what was your own reaction to what the president said specifically about the prisoner abuse situation in Iraq?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that he appeared there. I think it certainly would have been worse if he didn’t do it. It’s a good thing for America to have the president say it. But in the end, hearing the content I think there will be a lot of skepticism in the Middle East. The credibility gap is so huge. It’s not just related to this one episode that is horrific and that we watch graphically.

It is that this episode reconfirms in people’s minds the pre-existing notion about the U.S. And so therefore it’s considerably harder because you don’t only have to overcome this horrific episode but you have to overcome everything else that comes. And when he gets into the other issues like democracy and Arab- Israeli issue, in many ways he reinforces people’s fears rather than help overcome them.

So deviating from just stating the problem on the prisoner issue I think was a problem for him because in a way he states the issues in ways that reinforce people’s furor in the region.

JIM LEHRER: Fouad Ajami, what was your reaction?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, Jim, we were not loved in the Arab world the day before yesterday, the day before these pictures were made available, and we saw these horrific scenes. This just simply plays into the stereotypes people have. This has become for many of these Arabs watching us and watching our war in Iraq, it’s a referendum for them on the war on Iraq.

We should distinguish between people who really genuinely embarrass and genuinely horrified by these pictures and people who are just ready to beat up on us.

I have something here for you to just show you. Here is a newspaper, [inaudible] which is Saudi owned and there is an article by a man named, [inaudible] who is a very popular columnist in the Arab world. He says that the… it’s an evil policy in Iraq , not evil soldiers. Here’s another radical Pan-Arab paper published again in London.

Most of these papers are published in London . For them what happened in Abu Ghraib, in fact, it renders naked the American position in the Arab world. It plays. There’s a kind of the pun on the word naked. Here’s another and my final exhibit.

It’s al Hayat, a Saudi-owned paper again in London . It speaks poorly of America and poorly at what happened at Abu Ghraib but it speaks poorly of America everyday. And the same is true of the press of Hosni Mubarak so people are waiting for us. We just simply played into their hands. For our few friends, we’ve made them embarrassed, genuinely embarrassed. For our many, many enemies, well, this is just simply more fuel to a raging fire.

JIM LEHRER: So what President Bush said and did today is irrelevant.

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I actually have always thought this whole public diplomacy is irrelevant. I know my colleague Dr. Telhami feels otherwise. I just think this anti-Americanism is a road rage in the Arab world. It’s a force in its own right; it’s willful; it’s indifferent to reason.

I mean, there are people in these papers who will tell you that there’s 100,000 prisoners, that we have prosecution to Iraq. There are people casting aspersion on our mission in Iraq. It’s interesting. There are probably more anger, more simulated contrived anger outside Iraq than inside Iraq.

Some of the people angry at Abu Ghraib never uttered a word, never uttered a word in Cairo or Nablus or Amman about anything that Saddam did to the people of Iraq , to the Shia, to the Kurds. They have nothing to say about the massacres and the horrors in the southern Sudan that are committed by the Arab Muslims towards the Christians. It’s selective rage. It’s really selective rage. They were waiting for us. We simply played into their hands with this episode.

JIM LEHRER: Selective rage, professor?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: No question that it is. Obviously it is going to be used by militants as a useful tool. But the reality of it is, you know, it is rage — even if it’s selective. The difference is this. Look, we are explaining the war in Iraq on the basis of bringing about democracy and human rights. That has become our primary explanation for what we’re doing. So there’s a huge difference in explaining what we’re doing in those terms and then what we’re doing in fact on the ground. That’s the problem.

I think when you see these pictures, it reinforces the assumption that people had that this has always been a… an occupation of an Arab land for different strategic purposes. It’s not just the content of the sexual symbols that are in there. So I think there’s a difference between, you know, when we are doing it and when Mubarak is doing it.

JIM LEHRER: So when the president says, as he said in all these interviews and the one we just showed, hey, this is not the America I know. The American people do not support in any way condone this. They’re just as upset as you are — Arab world — the Arab world says forget it, they don’t believe it.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Some people will believe it. Most will not. Let me tell you why. There’s a credibility gap. The credibility gap is real. We tell Arab leaders all the time, look, don’t just do it for public relations reasons and tell us what you want to hear. Tell that to your people and do the thing that you need to do. We’re treating this as a public relations thing.

I think Fouad is actually right. I don’t think public diplomacy is the issue. I think it’s what we do that matters in the end. Look, we have said to them that we’re investigating a General Boykin who made all these statements about the Muslim god is an idol….

JIM LEHRER: That was a long time ago.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Back in October. He’s still being investigated. Nothing has happened. We have been accused of violating human rights in Guantanamo, at least not subjecting ourselves to international norms. Human rights issues are brought up.

We haven’t done a thing about it. So we don’t… the president is not talking to our people saying, look, this is an outrageous problem for us let alone the Middle East . This is an outrageous problem for us. We need to go to the bottom of it. We need to take some action for us. Then other people will believe it.

JIM LEHRER: Fouad Ajami, do you just reject the idea that Professor Telhami is saying that we have a real credibility problem in the Arab world, that it’s real. It isn’t just from our enemies. It’s more general than that?

FOUAD AJAMI: No, I think there are two schools of thought here. There are people who say they hate us. What’s wrong with us? I actually have another view which is they hate us, what’s wrong with them. Why do they have such anti-Americanism infecting their societies? And Jim, there’s something very interesting which I have dubbed the swap. This is the way this story of Abu Ghraib is being played.

JIM LEHRER: Say that again.

FOUAD AJAMI: The swap.

JIM LEHRER: The swap.

FOUAD AJAMI: Swapping. So the swap is that Abu Ghraib for Sept. 11, 2001 . Many many Arab pundits have stepped forth to say, look, we’ve been under your gaze since Sept. 11, 2001 . You’ve been judging us. And now you can see that you have deviance in your midst.

There are perpetrators of these terrible deeds at Abu Ghraib so we’re equal. It’s not the same. These perpetrators of the deed in Abu Ghraib were a shameless group of men and women who need to be brought to justice and they will. But the Arab story, the Arab rage, the Arab anger and the Arab radicalism, that’s much more of a mainstream phenomenon.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Telhami you talk about that it’s different with — Mubarak does something — it’s different than if President Bush does it, something else happens. To pick up on what Fouad Ajami said at the very beginning, that a lot of people in the Arab world were silent when worse things than this were happening Arab on Arab. Why is that? Why is it if when America does it, it’s considered a terrible thing, when other people do it, it is not?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: First of all it’s shameful that they don’t say anything about it when Arabs do it. I think there is a lot of need for criticism. They ought to be ashamed of themselves when that happens in their own societies.

The problem here is that we’re saying we’re doing it in the name of freeing them from that, that we are doing it for the purpose exactly of making sure that this doesn’t happen.

It is, you know, aside from the militants who are extremely happy at seeing these pictures because they’re tools and instruments a lot of governments in the Middle East are happy today and they’re happy because it is very hard for us here in America, including us who are on boards of human rights organizations, to go out there and say, clean up your act because when the messenger has got a problem, it’s harder to sell the message.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that the Arab world will not accept the president’s vow that we will in fact clean up our act on this, that there will be an investigation, heads will roll, et cetera, under our system?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I think people will be watching. Frankly, the credibility gap is so pervasive that it touches not only on issues of this sort. This is only one part of the problem.

It has to do with the broader policy toward Iraq , the Arab-Israeli issue, support of authoritarian regimes. All of that is linked. The U.S. is seen to be an anchor of that system. This is only a symptom of the problem not the center of the problem.

JIM LEHRER: You would agree with that, right, Fouad Ajami?

FOUAD AJAMI: I agree. I also want to add to something that Shibley said about the Arab governments. Many Arab governments including some allied governments of ours such as the Tunisians or the Egyptians — they’re relieved because we’ve come to them and said to them, we have this project for reforming the Middle East . We want to bring you liberty. We want to have transparent government.

And now they can have us in the middle of this storm. They have a reprieve. They have a reprieve. I think fundamentally they are not sympathetic to what we’re doing in Iraq . They wouldn’t be sympathetic with Abu Ghraib. They wouldn’t be sympathetic without Abu Ghraib.

JIM LEHRER: So our investigation, the U.S. investigation of what happened in that prison isn’t going to change any minds or change anything, right? I mean, the idea that… go ahead.

FOUAD AJAMI: You’re right. It’s not going to change anything. I mean are the people who edit and publish, just to step aside from the Arab world for just a second, are the people in Le Monde, in France, are they going to think of us any differently? Of course not.

Our enemies were waiting for us. They were waiting for us to stumble. They were watching our deeds in Iraq. We’ve done tremendous good in Iraq. I’ve visited military headquarters in Iraq and Baghdad in Mosul and Kirkuk , we have terrific people there.

We can’t tell the Arabs this. We can’t convince them of this. They have the knowledge they need that we are doing evil deed, that we have brought prostitution and ruin to Iraq. This is what they believe about us that we’ve come to plunder the Iraqi people.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: May I disagree with this a little bit. When you look at the impact of these pictures, they’re affecting us in America. They’re certainly affecting people in Paris. They’re affecting people in London. These are pictures that are going to undermine our global… frankly we don’t have al Jazeera and al Arabia in Europe and Latin America and look at the public opinion polls. Anti-Americanism is at the highest level ever.

One can’t argue that the level of resentment has been the same. In the year 2000 the State Department did surveys in places like Saudi Arabia. Almost two-thirds of Saudis expressed, quote, confidence in the U.S. Today, that’s in the single digits. We can’t lump it together.

It’s obviously a function of events that have taken place, a function of policies. Certainly public diplomacy is only a small part of it. And I agree it’s not a one-sided blame issue. But it is a fluid situation. It isn’t they just hate us. That’s not the reality out there.

JIM LEHRER: Fouad Ajami, Joe Biden, the senator, a Democrat from Delaware said today or yesterday he said, quote, this is… the prison thing is, quote, the single most damaging act to our interests in the region in the last decade, end quote. Is he right?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, I think I have tremendous affection and respect for Joe Biden. He’s a good man and a great senator and a great public figure. I’m not sure I would go this far. It’s not our finest moment. It’s a terrible moment for us. It has become a referendum on our war.

It has given ammunition to our enemies. We will work our way out of it. We’ll walk our way out of it with transparency, with the kind of statements that General Kimmitt made in Baghdad. He’s ashamed for his army and for his forces and with the kinds of statements that our president has made and with the kind of effort that we’re making to bring the perpetrators of these deeds to justice. I think we’ll make our way out of it. For our enemies, we are guilty. No proof and no deed will acquit us.

For our friends, they will understand that errors happen in war, terrible things happen. You have a vast force in Iraq — 135,000 people — under constant attack. These things can happen.

JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.