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伊拉克的表像和事實

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. captors.

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 better.

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.

 
 

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