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

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.

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."

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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.

"The photographs show how far we have to go in winning the battle of ideas" as part of the fight against terrorism, says Professor Wilkinson. "I am worried about the low priority given to human rights and the rule of law in the strategy against Al Qaeda. If we don't win the hearts and minds of young Muslims we are creating a production line of new suicide bombers."

In Europe, meanwhile, the pictures reinforce negative stereotypes of America that are common among young people, says Dr. May. "Kids are telling their teachers they always said America followed double standards, and here is the proof," he explains. "They see this as evidence of what they believed all along - that America is using force in the wrong way, that it doesn't respect its own value system, that it is simply pursuing its own interests."

US officials' insistence that only a few were responsible for the prisoner abuse is not generally believed. European newspapers have given wide publicity to the report of the Committee of the International Red Cross that such mistreatment was systematic in parts of Abu Ghraib.

In Poland, whose government and people are perhaps the most wholeheartedly pro-American on the Continent, "many people believed America represented the morally correct cause in the conflict," says Janusz Reiter, head of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. "Now they have very severe doubts.

"This case has damaged America's moral credibility, and undermined Poles' trust in the US as the political leader of the world," Mr. Reiter worries. "But it is not irreparable."

Signs of change

Signs that Washington may be seeking to make amends with its European allies have begun to sprout: the coalition has already given the UN the lead role in establishing Iraq's transitional government, due to take power June 30, for example.

Washington is also believed to have signed on to a French plan for a conference involving Iraq's neighbors, to draw them into reconstruction efforts, even though two of those neighbors are Iran, an "axis of evil" member, and Syria, against which Mr. Bush imposed a trade embargo Wednesday for allegedly supporting terrorism.

At the same time, the US State Department's policy planning chief, Mitchell Reiss, has been making soothing noises at public appearances in Europe. In a speech last week in Berlin, for instance, he talked at length about the need for transatlantic cooperation and dialogue.

"The speech had everything we wanted to hear, things we had not heard for two years," says May, who heard Reiss speak.

In the wake of Spain's troop withdrawal, however, Washington is facing an uphill struggle to convince other allies to keep their soldiers in Iraq, and its hopes of persuading new contributors to join the effort appear to have dropped to zero.

US officials had hoped to persuade NATO to take a formal role in Iraq after the transition to Iraqi rule, but no such decision is expected now at the alliance summit next month in Istanbul.

With European mistrust of the US administration running so high, "the last thing the Europeans want to do is come to the June summit and allow George W. Bush to preside over the alliance as a great leader," said Philip Gordon, a Brookings Institute scholar and coauthor of a new book on the transatlantic rift over Iraq, in a recent speech to the Transatlantic Center, a Brussels think tank.

The Abu Ghraib scandal "is a major blow to European support for action in Iraq to help the Americans," says May. "It is a disaster for Iraq, a disaster for America, and a disaster for transatlantic relations. It makes life a lot harder for America's friends in Europe."

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