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In Shameful Photos, the Specter of Failure

By Jefferson Morley Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; 7:00 AM

The latest photographs of the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison are being greeted with a chorus of "shame" in the international online media. In the infamous images, online commentators see racism, imperialism and sadism. Even supporters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq sense a profound defeat looming for the United States and its ambitions in the region.

"The images that shamed America," announces the Guardian of London in presenting a gallery of 15 photos that have appeared in The Post, CBS News and the New Yorker magazine.

"Shame on them," proclaims the banner headline in the Times of Oman, a nonpartisan newspaper in the remote Persian Gulf oil emirate.

"Dogs of War a picture of U.S. shame," says the Advertiser, an Australian tabloid, describing the just-published photo of a naked Iraqi prisoner cowering from a prison guard dog.

"The US project in Iraq will live forever with the image of the wired-up, hooded Iraqi prisoner. It is a folly, a tragedy and a challenge to [President] Bush's moral leadership," says the Australian, a national daily that supported the war and is owned by conservative billionaire Rupert Murdoch. "This event is not just about Iraq...It concerns America's ability to persuade people around the world to follow its light and its example. This is where great damage has been done."

The cartoonist for Le Monde, the leftist Parisian daily, is less sorrowful. He transforms the wired-up, hooded prisoner into a representative of all Iraq. Standing atop a box featuring the American flag, he is guarded by grinning hooded figures who dance around a flaming cross in white sheets labeled "Bush Klux Klan."

Americans, says John Maxwell, columnist for the Jamaica Observer, hope that a few enlisted personnel will be convicted for "a peculiar and isolated depravity."

"Unfortunately, the Arab and brown-skinned world, and much of the world, brown-skinned or not, do not quite see things that way. They believe that the torture is a predictable expression of American culture."

In both Iraq and Haiti, he writes "the US has accomplished its primary objective, gaining control or the appearance of control." Afterwards, he says, "the rest of the world is invited to repair the damage."

Imperial ambition, writes scholar Adel Safty in the Gulf News, brings out the worst in a country.

"The occupation and forcible subjugation of a people carry with them the seeds of degradation and de-humanisation. In matters of imperial occupation, all instincts of domination are equally low, and necessarily humiliating," Safty says.

"The Spanish-American war of 1898 was fought in the name of bringing freedom to Cuba from Spanish occupation. Liberation turned to inevitably brutal American occupation of Cuba and the Philippines.

"Mark Twain lamented the enormous contradictions between American statements of benevolent foreign policy and the realities of its oppressive occupation. A hundred years later, the occupation of Iraq shows that there are the same contradictions in the latest imperial venture."

The notion that the abuses were the work of a small group of enlisted personnel is almost universally rejected.

David Haines, a former U.S. Army officer writing for Mehr News Agency, an Iranian news site, says, "These are not furtive, blurred shots taken by folks who knew they were doing a bad thing. They were exuberant life stills that reflected a great deal of enthusiasm for the work at hand."

"The troops who appear in the pictures are obviously not the sharpest tools in the shed, but stupidity alone doesn't account for the egregious quality of the album. The events at Abu Ghraib reveal a 'situational ethic' by the prison staff, in which a basic tenet of military operations – humane and respectful treatment of prisoners, has been deferred in favor of a policy more conducive to extraction of useful information."

One key question, notes the BBC is "to what extent the breaking of prisoner morale is still part of American policy."

But the larger question, writes a columnist for the Asia Times who used the pen name Spengler, is "What will happen next?"

Those who think the photographs from Abu Ghraib will undermine America's resolve "underestimate American stubbornness," he says. "America will not fold its tents and silently steal away."

Spengler predicts Washington will soon "jettison the goal of Iraqi democracy" and "embrace the next best thing, namely Iraqi chaos."

"Rather than make itself the common enemy of all Iraqi factions by raising its profile, the coalition will allow the Iraqis to settle their differences by the usual means of lowering its profile. The 'usual means' bespeak unpleasantness unimaginably worse than anything that occurred at Abu Ghraib but, like the Sudanese civil war, barely will disturb the slumber of Americans."

But Philip Stephens, Washington correspondent for the Financial Times (by subscription), suggests that the Abu Ghraib photos have effectively deprived the U.S. government of its ability to pursue its goals in Iraq. "As George W. Bush's administration is held hapless prisoner to the insurgency in Iraq,...the time is fast approaching when America may have to head for the exits," he wrote Saturday.

Stephens, a sympathetic biographer of Tony Blair, says the administration's "public resolve hides deepening private doubt. There is no strategy. Just the chaos that comes with the belated realization that the U.S. has lost control."

"No one can predict the next piece of bad news," Stephens concludes. "Everyone knows it is coming."