President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on June 13. (AP photo)
The Economist, others say Bush just doesn't get it
COMMENTARY | June 19, 2006
The handling of suicides at Guantanamo, the killing of Zarqawi and Bush’s trip to Baghdad are linked by foreign news organizations and widely seen as gross PR efforts
By John Burke
What looks good to Americans doesn’t always play well in the rest of the world.
This was strikingly true over the past week concerning three events that some foreign press tied together: the suicides at Guantanamo, the assassination of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, and Bush’s impromptu call on the new Iraqi prime minister.
Among international publications, the overwhelming underlying theme behind the incidents was simple: PR.
Whereas some Americans may have bought a deputy assistant secretary of state's assertion that the suicides “were a good publicity stunt to attract attention,” those outside the U.S. seized on the statement and ridiculed it as government PR.
If Americans found Zarqawi’s death a victory in the “War on Terror”, U.S. sympathizers and antagonists alike saw it only as a victory for the Republican re-election machine.
And although U.S. citizens may have seen Bush’s visit to Baghdad as extending the hand of fraternity between two nations, foreign pens saw it as nothing more than a quest to ameliorate approval ratings at home:
The British weekly The Economist writes that Bush’s midnight trip to Mesopotamia bodes badly for the newly installed Iraqi government:
“…in some ways the president still doesn't get it. Take something that went down well in America—Mr Bush's surprise call this week on the new prime minister of Iraq. Nuri al-Maliki had been building up the elected government's credibility by putting a careful distance between himself and the Americans. The last thing he needs is to look like the superpower's stooge. But he seems to have been given no advance notice of the visit. After Mr Bush was choppered into Baghdad, a bemused Mr Maliki was obliged to stand squirming alongside his beaming visitor, as pictures of president and stooge were flashed unhelpfully to Muslims in Iraq and around the world. It is sometimes bad manners to drop in uninvited.
The Saudi-based Arab News condemns Bush’s Baghdad visit as yet another arrogant gesture by an administration that remains clueless as to the sensibilities of the emerging Iraqi regime:
“On paper it probably struck the president as being a heavy-impact gesture to boost the new Iraqi administration, along with the sagging morale of many US military units… Bush no doubt imagined that he would win nothing but praise for his triumphant dash in and out of Baghdad…
“In the event Iraqis are less than impressed by the US leader’s antics and many feel strongly what they interpret as an insult to Prime Minister Maliki — who was only told about Bush’s arrival five minutes before he landed... Maybe US officials believed that however safe it might be to tell Maliki about the Bush trip, there might be others, perhaps close to him, who could not be trusted with the secret…
“The fact is that this whole incident epitomizes the way in which Washington has insisted purblindly on its own priorities while refusing to recognize any of the subtle cultural differences of a country in which it has interfered so calamitously. To have appeared suddenly in the night at the side of an Arab leader was an insult, not a triumph.”
Russia’s Novosti echoed other international papers referring to “Bush’s Iraqi Farce”, but added that the he won’t be able to give the American public the end of the war, which is what it really desires:
“When the fourth year of war shows no more chance of success than the first, it is often necessary to resort to a theatrical gesture…
“Bush is trying to catch the wave created by two events that are favorable from the point of view of U.S. interests - the creation of Iraq's first permanent government, and the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…
“But in fact, Bush's visit was a farce, and in the final analysis may turn out to be counterproductive…
“The "top secret" aura of the trip speaks eloquently not only of the elusiveness of success in the war on terror, but also, although presidential speechwriters never tire of saying the contrary, the sad state of U.S. relations with Iraq. At best, Iraq is the horse that can throw the U.S. at any time…
“Contrary to the aspirations of the visit's organizers, this will damage the prestige of the new (Iraqi) government.
“The positive effect back home of Bush's visit will be short-lived…in fact, the visit is nothing more than a press-savvy afterthought.
“For the majority of Americans, the only unquestioned proof of Bush's success in Iraq will be the withdrawal of U.S. forces, even if it's partial a merely symbolic.
“As much as Bush would love to pull this miracle out of his sleeve, he cannot do so in time for the midterm Congressional elections.”
The death of Zarqawi is a positive development in the war, according to the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram. But the manner in which he was killed merely demonstrates the Bush administration’s craving for good publicity:
“The death of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in a U.S. raid on a village near Baquba in northern Iraq should have been a reason to celebrate, but it wasn't. The reason is that Zarqawi should have been killed by the Iraqi national resistance and not by the U.S. occupation forces…
“The timing of Zarqawi's assassination was chosen carefully to maximise US gain, to make Washington look good in its global campaign against terror…
“With the death of Zarqawi, Washington has lost a major propaganda asset. The man's brutal tactics gave the Americans a unique opportunity to sully the image of national resistance in Iraq and elsewhere.
“So why would the Americans give up such a valuable asset and at this time? The answer is twofold. On the one hand, sectarian strife in the country has already achieved its objectives. The Sunnis have made important concessions and the Shias have become more pliant to US demands. On the other hand, President Bush needed a victory to shore up his declining popularity and avert Republican defeat in congressional elections in November. You may have noticed lately the fascination of US media with Zarqawi. The media played and replayed that tape in which Zarqawi holds a machine-gun and fires, Rambo-style, into the distance. Zarqawi was being portrayed as the face of Iraqi resistance. His killing gave the administration the big victory it needed…
“Within hours of Zarqawi's death, President Bush was on television, speaking in the arrogant tones he used in the early days of the invasion. He described the killing as a major achievement, commending the performance of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In death as in life, Zarqawi helped the US cause…
“Zarqawi was the fig leaf that covered US crimes in Iraq. Now that the Americans had to sacrifice that leaf, one wonders if they'll be looking around for someone to fill his shoes.”
Argentina’s Clarin accuses the Bush administration not only of using Zarqawi’s assassination as a PR stunt (however belated), but as setting up the event to maximize impact on the homefront with images of the terrorist’s mysteriously preserved corpse:
“Maybe George W. Bush should accept the fact that the apparent triumph he gleaned by the recent death of guerrilla commander Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi arrived too far behind schedule to make any significant improvement in Iraq. Nor will it substantially improve perceptions of America's entanglement in the Persian Gulf…
“…there are questions about the cause of Zarqawi's death. This is an especially good example of how a political triumph can quickly turn sour. The Jordanian who fought in Iraq was easily one of the most detestable of the figures that have resisted to the occupation - and nevertheless, since the war is today filtered for public opinion through a dark prism, the idea that Zarqawi could have been executed in cold blood has removed almost any glory from the development.
“Not even the work of three forensic pathologists brought to Baghdad specifically for the autopsy seemed to convince the public that Al-Zarqawi died in consequence of two bombs dropped on the house where he was staying by an F-16 aircraft. The idea that the guerrilla-warrior's face and the rest of his body survived the attack in their entirety when everything around him was blown to smithereens, as has been shown, will continue generate questions.”
The Guardian compared the attack on Zarqawi and secretivestate visit to another of Bush’s PR moments towards the beginning of the war, warning of “The risks of raising hopes”:
“If Zarqawi's killing was a new version of Saddam Hussein's capture ("We got him!"), Bush's surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday was "Mission Accomplished" in a business suit. Six months after the Iraqi election, with the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, at last having appointed defence and interior ministers amid sectarian civil war, Bush said: "They themselves have to get some things accomplished." One thing Bush was trying to accomplish was a reversal of his own fortunes. Zarqawi's death had provided a convenient platform for the unfolding of his scripted theatre featuring the midnight flight to Baghdad and repeated references to September 11 - but no new initiatives for a political solution…
“Bush's latest effort to foster belief in a ‘turning point’ may trap him within his own (psychological warfare). Until he successfully includes the Sunnis in the political process and creates a new internationalised diplomacy, he remains narrowly circumscribed by the consequences of his accumulated failures. Burdened by years of misjudgment, disinformation and delusion, he has again raised expectations, which may lead to deeper disillusionment within the "US home audience".
This column from The Australian continues allegations of Bush administration PR saying that Zarqawi’s assassination is a weak ray of light in a war gone wrong:
“(Zarqawi), the monster that tortured and decapitated hostages, probably deserves to have his head mounted on a plaque for triumphant display in the Oval Office. But the gruesome photograph of his corpse released by an exultant U.S. military tells us little of the truth in Iraq…
“At best, it briefly deflects attention from a deteriorating situation…
“…to celebrate his killing with such backslapping shows how desperate the Bushites are for any hint of success…
“Zarqawi's death will not reduce terrorism in Iraq. It will, however, briefly endorse one of Bush's dubious justifications of his war - that alleged link between 9/11, Saddam and bin Laden. Al-Qa'ida arrived in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. The coalition gave them a red carpet. But despite disenchantment with Bush and his war, most U.S. voters still believe their President's bizarre allegations that 9/11 was a double-act involving Saddam and bin Laden. And here's a trophy head to prove it….
“What if they had been able to display the corpse of bin Laden as they have Zarqawi's? His battered head and shattered body? What would that change? Would it end or exacerbate the war on terror? His death (to millions, his martyrdom) would guarantee an escalation of horrors.”
Another opinion from The Australian drips with irony about Washington’s Guantanamo policies, declaring that the “U.S. gets itself in a noose with its core democratic values:
“This week the U.S. responded by revealing the intricacies of how it determines the guilt and innocence of enemy combatants. Thanks to the aggressive terrorist suicide strikes at Guantanamo Bay at the weekend, we now know that the U.S. is not operating in a judicial black hole.
“The leader of the free world does, in fact, have a bold new approach to due process - an approach that draws heavily on the acclaimed standards of proof involved in the witch-drowning trials of 17th-century Europe...
“…despite the endless whining and hand-wringing, the U.S. approach to enemy combatant justice has been revealed as being perfectly straightforward: if you're in Guantanamo and you top yourself, you're guilty. This is because it proves that you're a one-eyed jihadist who's prepared to stop at nothing to besmirch America's good name by making it look like the great nation has treated you so badly you've lost your will to live. You evil bastard.
“If, on the other hand, you're in Guantanamo and you try to top yourself and fail (the official number of such attempts is 41, though defence lawyers claim the figure is much higher), you're also guilty. This is because it proves you weren't really serious about doing yourself in and you were just trying to draw attention to your vile, axis of Osama cause.
“You evil bastard.
“Oh, and don't forget that if you're being held in Guantanamo and you're both alive and unsuicidal, you're really, really guilty. This is because it proves you just can't wait to get out and start pissing on the right to liberty, the rule of law, the checks and balances on absolute government power and all the other core democratic values America holds so dear.
“Once again: You evil, evil bastard. Of course, if you do wish to prove your innocence, the solution is simple: just make sure you aren't captured and designated a US enemy combatant in the first place. Not that this guarantees you won't suddenly be blown to smithereens and have your swollen corpse flashed across the world by a gloating US, a la Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (PR move, anyone?).
“But any citizen who can't see that defending core democratic values is too important to bother upholding core democratic values is clearly an infidel and deserves what's coming to them.”
John Burke is editor of the Editors Weblog, a
trade publication for the global newspaper industry published by the World Editors Forum, an organization within the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers.