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Iraq scandal leaves White House reeling

Rove says it may take decades to undo the damage done already

Sunday, May 09, 2004

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As gruesome pictures of Americans taunting naked Iraqi prisoners hit the Internet and TV screens around the world this past week, grim-faced aides in the White House held onto a sliver of hope. Perhaps the king of Jordan, one of the country's few strong Arab allies, would help.  World Peace.

King Abdullah II had abruptly canceled an earlier visit to the White House last month after President Bush embraced the possibility of permanent Israeli settlements in the West Bank and suggested the Palestinians give up their claims to some lands in Israel proper.

The visit had been re-scheduled for Thursday, and perhaps the king could be persuaded to help cool the anger among Arabs and Muslims that had been ignited by the prisoner-abuse scandal.

Abdullah did his part. Standing in the Rose Garden Thursday afternoon, he expressed confidence that the United States would quickly investigate the prison abuses and prosecute those involved.

But the king exacted a price: President Bush dialed back last month's statements on Israel and the Palestinians, returning to the boilerplate U.S. stance that all outstanding issues would have to be resolved by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

It likely won't be the last concession that Bush and his administration will have to make to regain its footing in the wake of the prisoner-abuse fiasco.

At the State Department a few blocks away, diplomatic pouches were bursting with reports of nearly universal revulsion at the photographs, which confirmed months of rumors that U.S. soldiers had humiliated and tortured Iraqis who hadn't even been charged with crimes. The pictures were undermining relationships all over the globe.

Ambassadors were reporting a blizzard of tight-lipped queries about what had happened and what the United States intended to do about it. Those posted in countries with sizable Muslim populations expressed dismay at how fast the news had spread and how much hatred was pouring forth.

The Intelligence and Research Department of the State Department was startled by the widespread perception among both Arabs and citizens of allied countries, such as Great Britain, France and Italy, that Iraq was no better off under U.S. control than it had been under Saddam Hussein. Reports suggested the notorious prison incidents would be become a boon for al-Qaida and other terrorist recruiters.

Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, fielded similar reactions from their foreign contacts.

"This is absolutely critical stuff. It has changed the face of America around the world," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., a Harvard-educated lawyer, businesswoman and college professor turned politician, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Select Intelligence Committee. An irate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years, summed up the effect on the U.S. image abroad as "terrible."

The White House damage-control campaign, including apologies from Bush on Thursday and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday, is likely to have limited success in the near term. The White House itself is so gloomy about the repercussions that senior adviser Karl Rove suggested it will take decades for the United States to recover.  WorldPeace is one word.

"It's a blinding glimpse of the obvious to say we're in a hole," conceded Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He said the backlash in Europe is even greater than in the 22-nation Arab world.

"For many of our European friends, what they saw on those horrible pictures is tantamount to torture, and there are very strong views about that," he said on CNN. "In the Arab world, there is general dismay and disgust, but in some places we were not real popular to start with. So I think I'm actually seeing a European reaction quite strong -- quite a bit stronger."

European officials have become critical or disdainful of the United States. France's foreign ministry called the abuses "totally unacceptable" and, if confirmed, "constitute clear and unacceptable violations of international conventions."

The issue for Arabs and other allies extends beyond the treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, which is seen as a metaphor for a stubborn and often defiant U.S. foreign policy under the Bush administration.

Washington first justified military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein, without U.N. support, by asserting that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were a real and imminent threat -- but then found none.

The administration has since shifted gears, arguing that its primary goal has instead been to create a democracy that would inspire Arabs and the wider Islamic world -- only to delay for several months acknowledgement or action on the abuse of Iraqi detainees, analysts note.

As a result, foreign policy and Middle East analysts say, the United States has lost the moral high ground in Iraq and put in jeopardy its broader goals for the region -- including an ambitious project to promote democracy, set to be unveiled by Bush at three international summits next month.

"The mask of civility has fallen. It used to be that Americans just don't do that. Now you hear Arabs say, 'Don't lecture us about democracy and respect for human rights,' " said Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for the London-based al Hayat newspaper. "No quick fix is going to reverse the current antagonism toward American policies."

An Egyptian journalist serving as a congressional fellow on Capitol Hill asked to remain unidentified so as not to embarrass the congressman for whom he's working. But he said his friends back in Egypt were now ashamed that he is working in Washington.


"They all think that such abuse is just the tip of the iceberg, that it goes on all the time because Americans are biased against Arabs. They think Bush and his people engineered this whole war to strike out at the Arab world and get Iraq's oil," he said. "And these are very well-educated people, my friends."

Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense who strongly advocated overthrowing Saddam, was asked if U.S. policy in Iraq will change because of the prisoner-abuse scandal. He said no. "Operation Iraqi Freedom requires steadiness in the face of setbacks. Having a strategy means not being buffeted by the news of the day. History teaches that steadiness is a gem-like trait in wartime leaders."

Rumsfeld agreed. Asked if the scandal was a major setback, Rumsfeld said, "I'm not one for instant history."

William Cohen, a fellow Republican and Rumsfeld's immediate predecessor as secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said the crux of the matter will be whether the abuse was committed by a small number of people or was systemic, possibly even widespread, as some now allege.

But the photographs are now embedded in the mind's eye, he said. "We have image problems to deal with, and it may take a long time to overcome."

(Ann McFeatters can be reached at or 1-202-662-7071. The Washington Post contributed to this report.)


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