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Rise of an 'Iraq generation' in Europe?

Disgust at prison photos probably rules out the chance that NATO will offer military support to secure Iraq.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2004



PARIS

While America's enemies flaunt photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib as evidence of US iniquity, her friends are expressing disbelief and disappointment. They are also wondering how far the images may loosen Washington's grip on its claim to global moral leadership.

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In the short term, European public disgust at the pictures probably rules out any chance that America's NATO allies will offer military help securing the transition to Iraqi rule in Baghdad. In the long run, some observers worry, the photographs could perpetuate a graver transatlantic rift.

"They might help create an 'Iraq generation' in Europe like the 'Vietnam generation,'" suggests Bernhard May, an expert on European relations with the US at the influential German Foreign Policy Society in Berlin. "If a whole generation comes to think of America in terms of the Iraq war, then we are in trouble for years to come."

The best way for the US to salvage the situation, European analysts tend to agree, is to hand over as much responsibility for Iraq as possible to the United Nations, so as to give international legitimacy to the authorities there. "We need to move to bring the UN center stage much more urgently, and make sure that the Security Council has true political authority" over events in Iraq, argues Paul Wilkinson, professor of International Relations at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

The prison photographs have so inflamed Iraqi and Arab opinion, however, that the UN's task of identifying and anointing a transitional Iraqi government is now even more complicated. "A solution has to be found [to the problems in Iraq] but it has been made immeasurably more difficult by the revelations about prisoner mistreatment," says Lord Carrington, a former British foreign secretary.

The damage in Europe, however, is to America's reputation and leadership, particularly galling to supporters of the war such as French author Pascal Bruckner, who bucked the French intellectual trend a year ago. "America ... is squandering a moral credit that was already eroded," Mr. Bruckner wrote in the conservative daily "Le Figaro" this week. "Whatever she does she has lost the image battle, and her current leaders will have achieved the exploit of making America hateful to the whole world, including her own friends, allies, and neighbors."

What the polls say

Not that the current US administration was very popular in the first place among European citizens, resentful of what they see as Washington's arrogance in world affairs. A poll published in March by the Pew Foundation found that President Bush's approval ratings were 39 percent in Britain (the highest of the seven countries surveyed), 15 percent in France, and 14 percent in Germany.

The Abu Ghraib photographs also emerged following several difficult weeks for the US-led occupation forces in Iraq, when a lot seemed to be going wrong for them, including a Shiite uprising and sustained resistance in Fallujah. Those events appeared to comfort most Europeans in their conviction that the war was wrong in the first place.

"Acting on a false pretext - the famous weapons of mass destruction - without United Nations support ... [the Americans] owed it to themselves to be irreproachable" in their handling of the war and its aftermath, Bruckner argued.

By falling short of that standard, the US authorities may have triggered repercussions that will be felt for many years, some analysts fear.

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