May 11, 2005

Questions About Prisoner Abuse

Suzanne Nossel is blogsitting on Dan Drezner's site this week, and has interesting questions about the long term impact of the prisoner abuse scandal:


"Do you believe that in order to effectively promote goals like democratization and human rights around the world, the U.S. must itself be seen as an exemplar of these values? Do you believe that our status as a standard-bearer of justice and liberty is so well-entrenched that revelations like the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo won’t negatively affect it?

...One of the most serious consequences of the U.S.'s lapses in upholding the human rights and related standards that we purport to represent is that we play into the hands of those who claim that our ideals are empty or hypocritical. We allow them to call into question the promise that our principles signify in the minds of their populations. We sow doubts in the minds of people that would otherwise tend to cleave in the values the U.S. stands for, rather than listening to the promises of corrupt leaders.

We can write off Abu Ghraib as the work of a few misfits. But in the eyes of much of the rest of the world the abuses were linked to a pattern of disregard for international norms governing the treatment of detainees.

Particularly given our under-investment in public diplomacy, we have limited ability to shape how our actions are seen from the outside. When we are seen as not taking the problem seriously, that adds further fuel to the fire of those trying to fan skepticism about American motives.

Though we may not always see the link, I suspect we will be living with the consequences of Abu Ghraib for a long time to come in the form of charges of hypocrisy, doubts about American sincerity, and a sense around the world that America does not hold itself to the standards it would impose on others."


I've written before about one discouraging aspect of the prisoner abuse issue, the Army's failure to hold more than a few junior personnel responsible for the Abu Ghraib disgrace and other instances of prisoner abuse. To expect the message that sends to be received positively anywhere would be to expect a lot. More broadly, though, I share Suzanne's point of view, with a caveat I'm not quite sure how to express.

Let's start with an obvious point -- by "much of the rest of the world", the nations up in arms over a pattern of disregard for international norms concerning the treatment of prisoners, Suzanne is referring mostly to nations with which the United States is highly unlikely ever to be in armed conflict, primarily European countries, Canada and a few others. Few of these countries have to attend to prisoners of war in large numbers; few of the countries that do would not accord prisoners much worse treatment than was the norm at Abu Ghraib. Arguments for following the Geneva Convention in this country often begin with the assertion that we need to do this to assure good treatment of American prisoners, but the sad fact is that the last American enemies to even make an effort to observe Geneva with respect to our prisoners were the Nazis.

None of this argues against Suzanne's case about prisoner abuse: it was wrong (the main reason it should not have happened) and inexpedient (a secondary but still very important reason). I think it is useful, though, to distinguish between what we or the foreigners we are most familiar with think is hypocrisy, lack of sincerity and so forth, and what the rest of the world thinks.

Take Abu Ghraib and the infamous photographs. Humiliating, degrading, an example of American hypocrisy -- I can see Arabs in particular calling it all these things. What about typical of Americans, not that different from the kinds of things they put in their movies, especially those generated by America's enormous pornography industry? We would say that is ridiculous; people who know us only by the products of our entertainment industry might doubt that.

It is a bitter thing to say, but the specific things done at Abu Ghraib, and many of the things said to have been done at Guantanamo and elsewhere, would probably not have been done by American soldiers of the World War II period. Direct brutality might have been more likely then, especially to Japanese prisoners or prisoners taken in the heat of battle; but sexual humiliations of various kinds and sustained torture to no purpose is pretty clearly repugnant to Christian beliefs much more pervasive in our culture then than now. It's absurd, to us, to suggest that American culture produced something like Abu Ghraib. But if some Iraqi or other Arab were to charge that American culture contributed to it I would not know how to respond.

What I'm suggesting is that Suzanne's view of the prisoner abuse scandal essentially as a series of policy errors damaging to America's image overseas most accurately reflects opinion in countries other than the ones we are now trying to spread freedom and liberty in. In many of these, America is distrusted not only because it seems we do not mean what we say but also because it seems that we do; not all the things they dislike or distrust about us are the things we think they might or ought to.

I've already made clear my rather limited enthusiasm for the President's great democratization binge, or campaign, or whatever. I believe in focused effort on fights we can win; I believe in taking on tasks we can afford to pay for, in not making promises we won't be able to keep, and in exercising some common sense about priorities. I'm not sure President Bush, or his liberal critics, even think about these things. I don't want to hit this point too hard, because I disagree with little Suzanne Nossel has to say about the damage the prisoner abuse scandal has done to American credibility in all sorts of ways, damage we will be repairing for years to come. It's just that if we're looking for the main reason democratizing the Arab world proceeds slowly or seems to grind to a halt we won't find it here.

Posted by at May 11, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack (3)
Comments

Joe --

WSJ has run a number of stories on the events at Abu Ghraib. Digital photos from the unit involved, not just the ones shown the public, tell the whole story. First the two people involved, Grainer and England, started taking degrading photos of themselves. Then of others in the unit. Finally of the prisoners, who they abuse for "fun."

Note that the other unit, the day shift, was not involved in ANY abuse.

There's a lot of a bad leadership here. Superiors should have known what was going on, particularly the bad behavior in all terms of military discipline of the unit involved. However this is not some massive evil plot by the Pentagon.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at May 12, 2005 06:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Is the quantity anti-American propaganda like Abu Graib, Guatanamo, Fallujah shooting incidents, civilian casualties, etc. reported by the press supply driven or demand driven?

When the US makes a significant effort to reduce such incidents does the amount of reporting about such incidents actually decline or if we had prevented Abu Graib would stories about it just have been replaced by some other incident?

Posted by: Kevin at May 12, 2005 07:44 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I must take issue with the contention that the "Abu Ghraib" factor merely represents "a series of policy errors damaging to America's image overseas most accurately reflects opinion in countries other than the ones we are now trying to spread freedom and liberty in." Precisely the opposite is the case.

Thedetention/abuse scandals are far more important where we are "trying to spread freedom and liberty" because they substantially undermine that campaign. People who live under oppressive regimes will see "liberty and freedom" as the same old laundry detergent in a different box. The promise of "democratization" is the promise of freedom from "political" detention, abuse, and torture, and when the proponent of "democracy" engages in abuses, it becomes a much harder sell.

"Democracy" represents a radical shift in the cultural paradigm of the nations that we are supposedly trying to "democratize"; it is a cultural shift that took centuries for "the West" to accomodate, and there numerous examples of how easily the populations of Western nations slide back to acceptance of authoritarian rule.

Neither has "democracy" and "freedom" been all that successful in advancing the standards of living in nations that have gone from authoritarian to democratic systems over the last half century. Unfortunately, "democracy" usually only means that a different oligarchy receives the fruits of power and corruption. (And one need only look at Latin America to see the evidence --- and to see how the primary proponent of "democracy" has a history of interfering when nations make "democratic" decisions based on "socialist" promises of a more equal distribution of wealth in emerging democracies.)

In asking people to accept democracy, it is essential to have something to "sell" them. Convincing people that they will be better off economically in a democracy is going to be a hard sell --- and "democracy" becomes an even harder sell when democracy and the denial of basic human rights are presented as compatible.

In asking people to accept democracy, we are asking them to step out into a great unknown, and to abandon authoritarian systems to which they have adapted. People will consider the "benefits" of democracy in conjunction with the "risk" represented by change --- and "Abu Ghraib" represents a serious reduction in the theoretical benefits of democracy.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 12, 2005 12:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

While Abu Ghraib is certainly perhaps a black eye to US prestige I submit that it is a mere footnote magnified to grotesque proportions by the MSM. Or is it that the hundreds of positive contibutions made by this Democracy to the reconstruction of Iraq are minimized by the MSM? Yes there are mistakes being made and there are individual miscreants who F up and Abu Ghraib was certainly an ugly affair. However these individuals are being prosecuted and events like this get investigated.

Was there media frenzy, political handwringing and public outcry during Saddams regime when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, imprisoned and tortured? Where were the legal proceedings when Nick Berg had his head separated from his body? Do the hundreds of Iraqis killed by suicide bombers have any legal recourse?

The Moral Relativety posited by the MSM is sickening. We live in a world governed by human nature and human frailties. Sht happens and in a democratic nation there are consequences. That is the message that counts. That it happened is one thing, how we deal with it is what really counts in promoting democratic ideals.

By the way, despite the obvious humiliation of the prisoners, I dont believe anyone died or lost an appendage. I am not excusing the behaviour of those responsible its just that showing this scandal for what it is relative to real torture and murder is useful.

The issue is that the MSM has played this up and played down anything positive about our efforts and our society, when real murderers exist. I would have no problem with exhaustive investigative reporting if there was a level playing field.

Posted by: Oded Greenberg at May 12, 2005 05:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Abu Ghraib in some ways can be compared to going through a divorce. Any attempt at being honest and forthright is seen as weakness and will be exploited to its furthest extent by the opposing attorney.

I say this because we know for fact that the military criminal investigation section had been looking into this issue for 6 months before the photo's were released. We also know the photos were offical relased by the pentagon itself and not "leaked". We also has witnessed first hand the US placing both enlisted & officer personel before a military court for their involvement, and we have seen sentences passed down. Furthermore we have seen our own president offer an apology before the US and Arab media, condemning these actions.

Is there no acknowledgement of our efforts to be transparent and honest? Why is there no acknowledgement of our efforts to discipline the responsible parties and our apologies? I would think in a part of the world where kidnapping, torture, rape, & murder is standard fare among the established goverment, a public apology and action taken to come clean on act of humilation would at least show people what is different about us. When was the last time you seen ANY goverment offer an apology on misteps it has taken durning a wartime situation. Or how about that bastion of morality the United Nations, has anyone seen them apologize, discpline personel, and modify policy for any of its many examples of immoral behavior?

While we have made a serious mistake and we must answer for it, have we not gone above and beyond what any other nation or organization would have done in the same place? How many here would place a bet that another country in our place would'nt have swept the matter under the rug, as if it never existed?

The media, be it US or other wise is that opposing attorney. They have zero interest in your good intent, any gesture of goodwill is an weakness to exploit, and any good action is zero value, as they are simply interested in painting you as a monster.

Posted by: m.harn at May 12, 2005 06:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We also know the photos were offical relased by the pentagon itself and not "leaked".

I'm afraid that this statement is categorically false. The photographs were leaked to 60 Minutes II by the family of someone who was being "investigated" by the Pentagon, and were not released to CBS by the government.

Is there no acknowledgement of our efforts to be transparent and honest? Why is there no acknowledgement of our efforts to discipline the responsible parties and our apologies?

because, unfortunately, the facts indicate that Abu Ghraib was not just "a few bad apples", but that the policy of abuse and torture had its origins in the White House, and continues to this day. Abu Ghraib is really just a symbol of what is perceived as US's arrogance and lawlessness when it comes to international law.

For instance, the policy of "extraordinary rendition" of detainees to nations known to exgage in the most monstrous forms of torture results in the perception that the US is a literal partner in the torture inflicted by regimes in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Eqypt, etc. etc....

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 12, 2005 11:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"because, unfortunately, the facts indicate that Abu Ghraib was not just "a few bad apples", but that the policy of abuse and torture had its origins in the White House, and continues to this day. Abu Ghraib is really just a symbol of what is perceived as US's arrogance and lawlessness when it comes to international law."

Can you provide proof for your statement. Caus otherwise its just a little more hearsay. Also throw in where the U.S. broke International law.

Posted by: Oded Greenberg at May 13, 2005 12:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"I'm afraid that this statement is categorically false. The photographs were leaked to 60 Minutes II by the family of someone who was being "investigated" by the Pentagon, and were not released to CBS by the government."

"because, unfortunately, the facts indicate that Abu Ghraib was not just "a few bad apples", but that the policy of abuse and torture had its origins in the White House, and continues to this day. Abu Ghraib is really just a symbol of what is perceived as US's arrogance and lawlessness when it comes to international law."

Really?

Name the family (shouldnt be too hard as we have record of the service members involved)

Name the other bad apples, the location of these bad apples, and how these bad apples are being investigated (or not investigated for that matter).

Also point to the "orgins" of this policy that came from the White House. And do better then pointing to Alberto Gonzales council on application of the Geneva Convention. Also provide the origins of "extraordinary rendition", and a name of one person sent to any of these places would also be nice too.

Name the arrogance & lawlessness in concerns to international law. Also point out exactly what international law that we broke, when we became party to the law in question, and when the American public voted the US constitution secondary in the execution of US law after international law.

Proof is required or else "I'm afraid that this statement is categorically" called boilerplate.

Posted by: m.harn at May 13, 2005 05:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Name the family (shouldnt be too hard as we have record of the service members involved)

Why? So the right wing can attack those people?

Proof is required or else "I'm afraid that this statement is categorically" called boilerplate.

I'm not going to waste my time finding the necessary references to prove someone wrong who categorically asserts that the Pentagon released the Abu Ghraib pictures to the media. The sheer ridiculousness of the assertion (given the means by which those picture found their way into the public sphere) tells me that there is no point in providing you with facts, because you cannot process them appropriately.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 13, 2005 11:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Why? So the right wing can attack those people? "

Oh, you mean you didnt have the actual details to back up your statements?

"there is no point in providing you with facts, because you cannot process them appropriately."

Feel free to point out what facts you provided that were supposed to be processed.

Oh thats right you didnt provide them...

Posted by: m.harn at May 13, 2005 02:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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