May 12, 2005

DA on BD on DA

Per Suzanne Nossel's reply on the Democracy Arsenal site to yesterday's post about the impact of the prisoner abuse scandals, it appears that I was not wrong about what she was trying to say and she is mostly right about what I was trying to say.

I say mostly only because I'm not sure Suzanne fully appreciates that the American ideals we celebrate will be set in the minds of others against some aspects of our culture that may not appear all that attractive; that the ugly sexual behavior by guards at Abu Ghraib, for example, may be seen not as a betrayal of American values but as confirmation of what some people already think they are.

They won't get this impression from Europe or Canada, and this is just one example of why we need to make a greater effort to assess opinion in the countries we are trying to liberalize (or democratize, or whatever one wishes to call it), rather than just assume that the opinions of foreigners we know will be reflected elsewhere. Here's another: if Newsweek had run a story about an Afghan prisoner being beaten up at Guantanamo because he mouthed off to a guard, would that have sparked a riot in Jalalabad? Probably not, but a story about a Koran being flushed down the toilet seems to have had that effect. To a Canadian or a Swede, just as to an American, this is bound to seem pretty goofy; to many Afghans it makes perfect sense.

This certainly doesn't mean there is nothing we can do to influence perceptions of America in Iraq, Afghanistan or other Muslim countries. It doesn't mean that "respectable" Western opinion can't be influential there either, especially on perceptions of events in which Americans and Muslims don't interact with one another directly (the leading example here, obviously, involves Israel, European hostility to which, however feckless and ineffectual, is bound to be seen by many Arabs as a vindication for their own hatred of the Jewish state and resentment of its American ally). Finally -- and this should go without saying -- it doesn't mean Abu Ghraib and other prisoner abuse scandals haven't done terrible damage to American purposes abroad.

What it does mean is that we need to be careful of assessing that damage too quickly in terms of the things that matter most to us and the foreigners we are most familiar with. Such an assessment is too easy to be reliable.

Posted by at May 12, 2005 03:13 PM | TrackBack (4)
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