Across the Bay

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Pics and Hypocrites

The publication of the scandalous photos of some American (and now also British) soldiers posing with Iraqi prisoners in explicit and revulsing positions has rightly drawn wide condemnation and criticism.

Some of the criticism however necessitates a couple of remarks.

1) The reaction of Arabic papers and Arab officials.

For a sample, check out the following snippets collected by Juan Cole (also see here). I frankly decided not to go out myself and collect the reactions from Arabic newspapers, as I am watching my blood pressure. Why, you ask? Well because like everything else in the Arab world, it's soaked in pathological hypocrisy.

Don't misunderstand me, I was furious over the pictures, and the Iraqi reactions are warranted because you're trying to show them a different type of behavior than the one they're accustomed to under Saddam. So it was just unbelievably terrible for thoses stupid soldiers to do that. However, the last people on the planet that should cry wolf are the Arabs. The reason is quite simple. Just see the Lebanese prisoners and "missing persons" in Syria that have been missing for years and years (you think Guantanamo Bay is bad?). Torture in prison is the norm in Syria, Egypt et al. (which accentuates the heinousness of the US soldiers' crime and stupidity by making them equal with barbarians like Syrian and Egyptian prison guards). Yet, I would like to see ONE outrage in the international and Arab papers about that. You see, this is the typical Arab pathology playing out again, in a different form. That's why I have to watch my blood pressure.
In the US case at least, matters were investigated, people got arrested, and they will be punished. I would like to see that in the Arab papers, not just concerning the US soldiers, but also when dealing with their own dismal human rights track, especially in jails. But of course, only American shit stinks.

It was criminal, stupid and inexcusable for the US (and British) soldiers to do what they've done, and they will pay. However, let's face it, did the Arabs really need this to start to hate Americans!? Spare me.

2) The reaction of pessimists, like Juan Cole or Shibley Telhami.

Juan Cole's reaction to the pictures was made in no uncertain terms: "the Iraqis were f**ked."

I wonder why it escapes people that while this is a criminal incident that will be eliminated, this in fact was the daily life of Iraqis under Saddam! Iraqis were fucked everyday, and would have continued to be fucked for quite a long time had it not been for the intervention. To blow this out of proportion is disingenuous at best, despite its moral and political scandalous ramifications. Now the Iraqis will see that this is not a way of life, that this is an exceptional criminal incident that will be treated as a crime. They will know that the army (no matter what army) is not above the law, and that crimes against their human rights will be punished. That's hardly an adequate analogy with the Saddam days.

Juan Cole has more:

"I really wonder whether, with the emergence of these photos, the game isn't over for the Americans in Iraq. Is it realistic, after the bloody siege of Fallujah and the Shiite uprising of early April, and in the wake of these revelations, to think that the US can still win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi Arab public?"

Again, spare me! Cole is careful though to stress the "Arab" side, as opposed to the Kurdish. With regards to the Sunni minds, such an endeavour was likely doomed to fail anyway. The issue really is whether the Shiites will take this incident as the straw that broke the camel's back. I doubt that it will have the long term effect that Cole thinks it might. There are other things going on, and once the Iraqis start to deal with shaping their own future with the transfer of power, these issues will take priority as opposed to whether they are enamored with Americans. Besides, it's quite nefarious to imply that the only picture of the Americans is the one with naked Iraqi prisoners (despite what devious Arab media outlets, and the Arab dictators might do to milk those pictures dry).

To suggest that with all these setbacks, that life under Saddam would have been better (i.e. a daily dose of those pictures with no light at the end of the tunnel) is quite perverted. That's why I don't think that in the long run, when it's time for Iraqis to seize their present and future, that this will be of any significance in Iraq (the sewer known as the Arab world is another issue). As a Lebanese I can say this. Despite the horrors of the war, I still feel that life then meant more than it does now in Lebanon. We felt far more attached to Lebanon then. We felt that at least we had some sort of a stake in it despite the carnage and the chaos. There was some hope. Now, the carnage has stopped somewhat (it's replaced with other types of brutality), but now we're under the boot (although not nearly as suffocating as the boot the Iraqis were under). Now we have no stake in Lebanon. Look at the emigration rates of young Lebanese. This is no longer "our" country. So my point is, despite all the terrible things, the Iraqis will be more concerned with shaping their future and building a better life for themselves. And despite what all pundits say, the Americans will not make it hell for them the way Saddam did and would have continued to do. So let's keep things in perspective.

Shibley Telhami didn't do that. In a piece in the Washington Post, Telhami made the following categorical predictions:

"Events in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have dealt a fatal blow to the Bush administration's plans for Middle East reform even before they are formally unveiled. These events may come to symbolize the end of democracy as a serious policy objective in the Middle East."

Telhami's piece lays out in a nutshell the pathologies of the Arabs and the manipulations thereof in the Arab world. People don't realize that no matter what the Americans do it will still be viewed negatively and perverted and manipulated in the Arab world. Unless of course, the US decides that it is going to destroy Israel. Then maybe they'll get a cheer!

This doesn't address the legitimate problem that Telhami raises (but doesn't solve):

"But the challenge for the administration's reform plans is far greater than the pictures in Iraq convey. A year after major combat was declared over, the administration is in greater need than before of help from the very governments it seeks to reform.
...
Because our strategic and political objectives are now urgent, they outweigh our desire for reform, even if we continue to pay lip service to it. In the history of U.S. foreign policy, such concessions are always portrayed as necessary short-term measures. Too often, however, long-term U.S. behavior in the region simply looks like a series of short-term concessions
."

I don't think the use of Brahimi or some former Baathists is equivalent to "governments." But herein lies the paradox. "Neocons" are criticized because they wanted to exclude Arab governments, as well as those who cuddle up to them, from the Iraq project, namely for the sake of that integrity that Telhami is now addressing. The State Department and the CIA say we should use an approach that would satisfy the Arab sensibility, i.e. Iraq's neighbors. That approach is lauded in the Arab world and Europe, but then criticized by people like Telhami (and, of all people, by Muqtada As-Sadr!) You're damned if you do damned if you don't.

What is the solution!? A series of compromises might be inevitable (as we are seeing). Yet Telhami warns that we should be careful that it doesn't become policy. Well, Prof. Telhami, welcome to neo-conservatism! It's funny how Arabs are in fact stuck in between neo-conservatism and old US foreign policy! In order to be true to themselves, they have to agree with the Neocon position of a consistent and ethical foreign policy (that is afterall what Arabs mean by "justice"). On the other hand, in order to satisfy their Occidentalism and the "resistance syndrome" and the little post-colonial Edward Said that lives in their media and their conscience collective, they have to attack it! Pathology 101.

Telhami's concern is legitimate. But this has to be addressed to the DoS and the CIA (not to mention the UN), not the Neocons! The Neocons agree with you Mr. Telhami!

For a view from the CIA corner, check out this guest commentary on Juan Cole's site by former CIA Station Chief for Saudi Arabi, Ray Close. Close is already drumming the "resistance syndrome" drum predicting an American withdrawal similar to the Israeli one from Lebanon, as well as an imminent civil war!

Despite Close's condescending remarks about the president's naïveté (ironically, that "black and white" view is exactly what Telhami seems to be calling for!), I think the administration is well aware of the fervors of nationalism, and that's why it's holding on to the June 30th deadline. My reading is that the hope of the administration is that this nationalist fervor could be channeled towards elections and an active role (for all groups) in rebuilding their state, as opposed to the destructive model (called for by the Arabs) -- the resistance syndrome -- that Close alludes to, which would only exacerbate their problems and lead them nowhere. The question is, will the Iraqis have the rationality and the patience to bank on the Coalition's intervention or will they stick to the failed Arab model?