IMAGE AND REALITY IN IRAQ: THE
ASIAN STAKE AND THE NEGROPONTE MISTAKE
By Tom Plate
May 11, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- You don't have to
work too hard to convince people in Asia of the transcending power of a
misleading picture. Thus, the United States, if it wants to be successful in
Iraq, must avoid slips in imagery as well as reality.
The Chinese almost never overcame
the mind-blowing 1989 photograph of the Tiananmen protestor seeking to
stymie the entry of the army tank into the square. It was just too riveting.
Almost a decade later, Indonesians
in particular and Asians in general will find it hard to forget the scene of
an impatient International Monetary Fund Director Michel Camdessus glaring
at President Suharto. The desperate president reluctantly inked his name to
IMF loan documents that brought in billions in rescue funds but whose loan
conditions had the effect, critics say, of prolonging the misery.
And, today, it is doubtful that
Arabs in particular and Muslims in general will soon forget the sickening
photos and videos of gross Iraqi prisoner mistreatment at the hands of U.S.
But dramatic pictures -- even the
best of them -- do not always tell the whole story. Years after the 1989
Tiananmen tragedy, China was enmeshed in a profound social and economic
modernization while the West was still fixated on the picture of the tank
vs. human being. The image of a crippled Indonesia, on-its-knees desperate
for Western bailout, endures even as this country with the world's largest
Muslim population is to celebrate next month its progress toward democracy
with its first-ever direct elections for national leaders. Who said Islam is
utterly incompatible with democracy?
Even the stomach-churning videos of
Iraqi detainees suffering at the hands of abusive Americans are much less
than the true and complete picture of the U.S. mission there. Rebuilt
schools and refurbished hospitals do not provide the kinds of gripping
pictures that can dominate the evening news. But over time, the reality of
all this good and hard work can overcome the tawdry and immoral… if -- and
it's a big if -- we don't slip up on the image front again.
This is why the Bush
administration's nomination and the Senate's confirmation of John D.
Negroponte to become the first U.S. ambassador to postwar Iraq is
mind-boggling and risk-taking. Let me make a personal and professional
disclaimer. I not only like the outgoing U.S ambassador to the UN, I admire
his decades of dedication to the U.S. Foreign Service -- which, after all,
is not the most highly compensated of careers and yet so vital. In one
sense, he is the iconic opposite to Richard Clarke, the tell-all former
administration terrorism expert. All Americans, whatever their political
persuasions, owe such public servants an immense ocean of gratitude.
But the dedicated Negroponte is as
wrong for the Baghdad post as the combative Clarke would be for a diplomatic
job requiring, let us say, tact. The Negroponte problem is this: What if
evidence of fresh U.S. abuse of Iraqis surfaces when he is in place in
Baghdad? Aljazeera, the Arab television network, and others would then be
certain to remind the world that it was on Negroponte's watch as U.S.
ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s that death squads roamed the country
killing opponents of the right-wing regime, including a Catholic priest.
It’s true that the ambassador has
been no more conclusively fingered as directing those Honduran operations --
or knowing about them or covering them up -- than has Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld in the case of Iraqi abuses. But they happened on John's
watch -- just as sordid things have happened on Rummy's. With people
increasingly calling for the latter's resignation, is it wise to add
possible insult to injury in Iraq by appointing a diplomat who starts on Day
One with the image of dirty hands?
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) thundered
during the confirmation hearings: "Ambassador Negroponte turned a blind eye
and a deaf ear to the human rights abuses in Honduras. To send Mr.
Negroponte to Iraq would send the wrong message at this time."
The appointment also risks sending
a worrisome message to our allies, especially in Asia, relatively close to
Iraq, that have provided troops, civilian personnel and serious aid to
stabilize and rebuild that Muslim country.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi,
for example, put his career on the line by shattering Japan's pacifist
prohibitions against overseas troop deployments. Roh Moo Hyun, the embattled
(and currently neutralized) elected head of South Korea, flew in his core
constituency's face when he dispatched hundreds of Korean troops. In their
own special way, Singapore and others have also chipped in, in high-profile
ways. The current scandal is an embarrassment to all of them, not to mention
to the United States, whose commanders and military police should have known
But over the long run, this, too, shall pass; the opprobrium can be
overcome. But a journey of a thousand miles should not begin with a misstep.
The Negroponte image is just that: yet another misstep.