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Iraq: Analysts Say Bush Interviews On Arab TV Are Too Little, Too Late

  • Andrew Tully --> A full week after the publication of photographs of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military police, U.S. President George W. Bush finally mounted a full-scale effort to control the damage to his administration's Middle East policy by giving interviews to two Arab television networks. And his two top foreign affairs aides -- Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- also stepped forward to make strong statements on the issue. But observers tell RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully that Bush's effort probably is not enough to dispel Arab disgust.

Washington, 6 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In yesterday's interviews with Arab television networks, Bush did not apologize, but he again called the abuse "abhorrent" and said it did not represent the vast majority of American military personnel.

Bush made his comments in interviews at the White House with Al-Arabiya, a television network with financial ties to the Saudi royal family and based in the United Arab Emirates, and with Alhurra, a network funded by the U.S. government.

The very fact that American men and women documented themselves sexually humiliating Muslim prisoners at the Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad cannot be reasonably explained to members of Islamic society.
In response to a question by the Alhurra correspondent, Bush said his government will bring all those involved to justice: "We will do to ourselves what we expect of others. And when we say, 'You've got human rights abuses, take care of the problem,' we will do the same thing. We're taking care of the problem."

Powell made much the same point while speaking with reporters at the State Department: "We want to get all the information out so that the American people understand what has happened and also to make sure that our friends in the Arab world, especially, know that we're a nation of laws, we're a nation of justice, and this kind of action and this behavior will not be tolerated and will be dealt with in the firmest possible manner."

But such assertions by Bush and his aides is not likely to lend credibility to U.S. Middle East policy among Arabs, according to observers of the region. In interviews with RFE/RL, they cite the week's delay in giving a strong response, and the Bush administration's missteps in the region over the past two years.

The very fact that American men and women documented themselves sexually humiliating Muslim prisoners at the Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad cannot be reasonably explained to members of Islamic society, according to Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

Therefore, Brown says, to practice damage control is inherently fruitless: "Only time can get the job done, and hoping that people will eventually forget. But asking -- 'Is there any way we can minimize the damage?' -- is in a sense the wrong question. Because, if there hadn't been so much damage already, this would not have been interpreted so darkly."

Bush's effort is seen less negatively by the Syrian-born Murhaf Jouejati, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington. He says he is glad that Bush finally addressed the issue on Arab television.

Jouejati says he was particularly impressed by the president's contrasting of the treatment of prisoners by Americans' and by Hussein -- that abuses were the exception among Americans but the rule with Hussein.

Still, Jouejati says that for Bush to wait a full week after the photos of the abusive behavior were made public did not help America's image: "During this delay, the anger of [Arab] people was only increasing, and they had no good response from any senior U.S. official. By the time the president did get on TV and addressed the situation, the level of frustration and indignation throughout the Arab world became very high. In the final analysis, I don't think this is what it's going to take to fix the damage. I think that the damage is almost irreparable."

Brown agrees that the delay did not help Bush's cause. But he said he did not think it reflected arrogance on Bush's part, as some critics say. Instead, Brown says it shows the slowness of information moving up the military chain of command, from those investigating the reports of abuse at Abu Ghurayb to the highest levels of the Pentagon.

According to Brown, the delay probably also shows some complicity in the abuse at the lower levels of this chain of command, and what he called "obliviousness" at the higher levels.

Bush yesterday chastised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for failing to inform him in a timely manner of the prisoner-abuse scandal, White House officials said.

Both analysts agree that the issue of prisoner abuse is only the latest, if the ugliest, problem to disrupt the U.S. effort to stabilize Iraq and hand over sovereignty to an indigenous government on 30 June.

Other mistakes include the failure to protect Iraqis from suicide bombers, and the protracted standoffs with insurgents in Al-Fallujah and followers of militant Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Al-Najaf.

Asked if the prisoner scandal alone was enough to deal the United States a severe setback in the Arab world, Brown said no: "If this were the only thing that had gone wrong, no. In a sense, the American plan started unraveling a couple months ago. This [the prisoner abuse scandal] is another nail in the coffin -- which isn't to say that there can't be a good outcome in Iraq, but that the United States has partly lost control of the process."

For his part, Jouejati says the ravaging of their country in war, the poor security, and now the abuse of prisoners has left many, if not most, Iraqis angry at the Americans -- even those Iraqis who hated Saddam Hussein and welcomed his ouster.

Further, Jouejati sees the series of negative events in Iraq as demonstrating to Arabs the failure of the broader U.S. policy in the Middle East. He cites Bush's support of the Israeli effort to keep some settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and to reject outright some Palestinians' claim of a right to return to homes in Israel: "The perception in the [Arab world] is that, once again, the Americans have blown it, and in a major way. And these things are accumulating so that even the friends of America in the region cannot now, I don't think, have much to say any more in the defense of Washington. It's a very, very bad time for the United States in the Middle East, and unfortunately it's mostly of America's doing."

Jouejati says he cannot see anything changing the Arab perception of American foreign policy, at least as long as Bush is president.