The United States faces the prospect of a severe and enduring backlash not just in the Middle East but also among strategic allies, putting in question the Bush administration's ability to make serious headway on a range of foreign policy goals for the rest of this presidential term, according to U.S. officials and foreign policy experts.
The White House damage-control campaign, including the long-awaited apology from President Bush yesterday, is likely to have only limited, if any, success in the near term, administration officials said yesterday.
The White House is so gloomy about the repercussions that senior adviser Karl Rove suggested this week that the consequences of the graphic photographs documenting the U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees are so enormous that it will take decades for the United States to recover, according to a Bush adviser.
"It's a blinding glimpse of the obvious to say we're in a hole," conceded Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. 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 yesterday on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" show. "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."
Public and private criticism
In public and private communications, European officials have become critical or disdainful of the United States. France's foreign ministry said in a statement that the abuse is "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 chronic abuse of Iraqi detainees, analysts note.
As a result, the United States has lost the moral high ground in Iraq, putting its credibility on the line. Now, 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 -- are in jeopardy, foreign policy and Middle East analysts say.
"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."
The pictures -- and the global reaction -- will also complicate efforts by U.S. institutions, including private humanitarian and human rights groups, to promote greater respect for democratic reforms, added Mark Schneider, vice president of International Crisis Group.
Bush's attempt to invoke historic U.S. values to counter the international fallout is unlikely to ameliorate the foreign backlash. "Bush's moral confidence in the ultimate goodness of American culture and justice will not convince people who are hopping mad today, and who are chronically cynical about the words of politicians and leaders," said Ellen Laipson, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council and now president of the Stimson Center, a foreign policy think tank.
The tragic irony, Arab and foreign policy analysts note, is that the third justification for the intervention in Iraq was the war on terrorism -- which they say the pictures of the abuse of Iraqi detainees will instead fuel.
"If you want recruitment tools, these are the best anyone could imagine. They are a big blow and a stimulant to spur people to act against the United States. The real kicker for terrorism is indignity and humiliation, and that's what these pictures are about," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
The haunting pictures will serve as "manna from heaven" for al Qaeda and other extremist groups, increasing the dangers to U.S. national security, said Hisham Melham, Washington correspondent for al-Arabiya, an Arab television network.
The United States, for now, may also find allies reluctant to engage on other priorities.
"There are a slew of issues -- from drug trafficking and the environment -- that the United States won't make much progress on by acting alone. It needs the help of international countries, and it's going to be very hard for many politicians, not only Muslims, to be a friend of the United States," Naim said.
State Department officials are sanguine about the need for additional and dramatic overtures. "We know there is outrage and it's going to be around for a long time -- until it's clear we've cleaned it up and it will never happen again. We have to make sure we meet our promises to do that," said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Yet Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, who once worked for Vice President Dan Quayle, suggested that Washington will be able to turn around global public opinion by showing that abuse is not tolerated.
"It's terrible and it's made life difficult for awhile," Kristol said. "But if it becomes clear that this is the exception and [the troops involved] are held accountable, it could end up being an impressive demonstration to countries where torture is routine."
Staff writers Dan Balz and Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.