When Iraq Abuses Fail to Shock

If the investigation of American soldiers accused of killing more than a dozen civilians in cold blood in Haditha, Iraq, proves their guilt, the episode will turn out to be the ugliest documented case of the behavior of the American military since the Iraq war began.

For many Americans, the historical comparison may be Vietnam’s My Lai massacre. The Haditha episode could well become a shocker. The unprovoked killings very much stand at odds with the American sense of self; this is not how America behaves.

Even among those who see tragic behavior of this sort as sometimes inevitable given the difficult and hostile environment in which young and often unprepared American soldiers operate, many are appalled by what war can do not only to victims, but inevitably to oneself. Thus, Haditha will undoubtedly increase the size of the anti-war movement in the United States.

But for most in the Arab world, it is highly unlikely that this will constitute a new turning point in the regional perception of the United States. This fact is hardly a cause for celebration, as it indicates instead just how low opinion of the United States has fallen.

Public opinion in the Arab world, and arguably in some other parts of the world, is not shocked by the accusations. To be sure, the atmosphere is in part a function of the casual ways in which the term “massacre” has been employed in the regional press.

Just this week, the death of Afghani civilians, apparently at the hands of American troops who fired following a lethal traffic incident involving American military vehicles, was termed a “massacre” by some of the regional media. But for most people, including the few who have been rooting for the United States to succeed, at least in its advocacy of democracy in the region, the view of American behavior has been very much been the opposite of the American sense of self.

To begin with, public opinion surveys in the Arab world have continuously showed grave doubts about stated American motivations in connection with the Iraq war. Substantial majorities before and since the war have continued to believe that the advocacy of human rights and democracy are not serious motivations in American policy and that protecting oil, helping Israel and weakening the Muslim world are the true intentions. In the regional narrative, the deaths of tens of thousands Iraqi civilians are blamed directly on the United States.

If there was a single episode that has stuck in the public image, it is the case of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, although the bloody battles in the town of Falluja come close. In part, Abu Ghraib’s hold on the imagination emanates from the power of graphic pictures. Its timing was also central, as it served to undermine the core American campaign to celebrate and advocate the spread of human rights and democracy in the Middle East after Saddam Hussein’s fall.

In the region, the general public has never accepted the Pentagon’s explanation that these cases represented isolated incidents and not a deliberate policy. Abu Ghraib is seen as merely the most graphic case reported in Iraq. Ironically, even in the United States a plurality of Americans doubted that these cases constituted unique incidents, bolstered by accusations by human rights organizations that, at least on matters of torture, behavior may be in part a function of a deliberate policy.

If proven true, the accusations against American soldiers in Haditha will undoubtedly receive plenty of coverage in the regional press. But the painful incident would only serve to reinforce the existing image of the role of the American military in Iraq, rather than create a new one. The important subtlety that most American soldiers do not behave as the ones allegedly did in Haditha will be missed by most.

Part of the problem for the United States is the absence of serious accountability, even in the face of a series of major abuses of human rights. In the end, the measure will not simply be whether a few individual soldiers are sentenced to prison terms, but whether some high-level officials will be held accountable for the failure to stop them as they publicly proclaimed they would after every reported case of abuse.

Notably, one place where Haditha could be important is Iraq itself. The new Iraqi government is struggling to take charge of Saddam’s trial as it winds down. In the shadow of new and visible abuses by American and Iraqi forces, it will be that much harder to make a credible case against the former Iraqi ruler as a major violator of human rights.

This week Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared that “his patience was running out” with American excuses for the death of civilians in Iraq. While al-Maliki’s comments were primarily rhetorical, they were indicative of the sort of pressures the Iraqi government faces, especially as it attempts to project itself as a unity government with Sunni Arab partners.

Although the behavior of the American military may be a problem for the Iraqi government, it is far less significant than the other challenges that it will continue to face. Even as Iraq’s prime minister politely complained about American behavior, nearly five dozen civilians were reported killed in Iraq, most of them civilians. Al-Maliki has little chance to confront this daily pattern of destruction in the short term without the help of the American military – which is largely why most Arabs see the United States as the ultimate authority in Iraq and blame it for most of Iraq’s ills.

The reported killings in Haditha may shock Americans and further exacerbate a sharp divide on matters of foreign policy and Iraq in particular. But Arab reaction to Haditha will not be a story of utter shock for which the United States must brace itself, even though there will inevitably be those who will seek to exploit it.

The story, in a sense, is far worse: an absence of shock that is indicative of a troubling perception of the United States, something that is difficult to combat through any single act. There is little trust in what we say and what we do.

In a public opinion survey I conducted last October in five Arab countries, people were asked which of the major countries, if they had to choose, they would like to be the sole superpower. The United States was near the bottom, superseded not only by European countries like France, but also by China and Pakistan. When asked to name two countries that are the most threatening to them, most cited the United States and Israel; the percentage of those citing Iran was in the single digits.

In short, the Iraq war and its consequences have become a powerful prism through which Arabs view American foreign policy negatively. The disturbing reports from Haditha are only part of a far bigger picture.