In the many surveys over recent months showing perceptions of the United States souring in the Arab and Muslim worlds, one bright spot has shone through: People in these regions continue to admire the American democratic system and say they aspire to something like it for their countries.
It is that last reservoir of admiration and goodwill that the US hopes to tap into as it holds courts-martial resulting from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal starting Wednesday. By holding the trials, beginning with that of Spc. Jeremy Sivits, in public and in Iraq, the US is hoping to demonstrate that American justice is swift, transparent, and intolerant of the kinds of acts that took place in Abu Ghraib prison.
The US is initiating the judicial process with one very good example by starting the trials soon after the scandal broke, experts say. But at the same time, they caution that the expected complexity of the legal road ahead could also weaken the trials' exemplary role.
The process threatens as many pitfalls for the US as it offers moments to shine, some observers say, citing the still-unanswered question of how far up the chain of command the authorization for the abuses reached. Another potential twist: Some of the seven soldiers so far charged are consulting private lawyers who reportedly plan to defend their clients as scapegoats who were simply following orders.
"Holding these trials now and in public holds the promise of some good effect, but at the same time the situation is rife for misunderstandings, misinterpretations - or interpreting correctly and disliking the implications of it," says William Martin, a specialist in Islam and public policy at Rice University in Houston.
Referring to reports that Specialist Sivits will offer testimony incriminating other soldiers in exchange for a light sentence, Mr. Martin says, "A plea bargain is one example. It may be the way cases in the US are handled on a regular basis, but to Muslims it may look like a trick or a dodge."
Sivits - who is the only accused soldier not visible in the pictures that set off the scandal - is charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment of detainees, and conspiracy to maltreat. Possible penalties range from up to a year's confinement to a reduction in grade and lost pay. By pleading guilty and turning witness, Sivits could receive a reduced sentence.
Other defendants in the case may seek a change of venue, with their lawyers suggesting that stateside juries might be more sympathetic to the argument that these were low-ranking soldiers following orders and doing their duty under trying conditions. But military law experts say such cases are normally tried at the site of the alleged crimes because that is where evidence and witnesses are.
Thomas McShane, a professor of national-security legal studies at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., says the My Lai trial was held in the US because most of those involved had left Vietnam by the time the case broke. But he says most courts-martial stemming from the conflict took place in Vietnam.
Colonel McShane also advises the defense in the Abu Ghraib case against assuming a jury in the US would be more sympathetic to the accused soldiers, noting that debate over the scandal continues to rage in the US - and that a jury of peers in Iraq "could cut two ways on this."
On the one hand "soldiers on the ground are feeling the fallout of Abu Ghraib, and that might influence them one way," McShane says. "But then again they are living and experiencing the same conditions [as the accused], so they might be more sympathetic because they know the situation."
Such unknowns suggest to some observers the broader disappointments that the US faces if world opinion - and even US public opinion - does not respond immediately and positively to the judicial proceedings. "I'm just afraid that there's this idea that by holding a military show trial where someone cops a plea we can solve our problems, and we can't," says Judy Milestone, an Atlanta media consultant who serves on the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World, named by Congress last year.
With a number of prominent US senators including Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina insisting the scandal will not be contained simply by holding a few trials, Ms. Milestone says, "The reality is that we won't get just a positive impact out of this. It's going to be a mixed message."
One example of that may come in the arguments that defense lawyers make in their attempts to shift blame from their clients to either higher authorities or to the training they received. According to several reports, lawyers will argue that the treatment used by the defendants was condoned as a way to humiliate the Iraqi prisoners and thus get more valuable information out of them. But any suggestion that humiliation - and especially sexual humiliation - was an approved tool will get special attention among Arab audiences.
As part of US efforts to respond to the situation, Secretary of State Colin Powell took assurances of America's moral leadership overseas over the weekend. He told Arab business leaders assembled in Jordan that the US would demonstrate through the prisoner case the justice the world admires: "You will see in the weeks ahead that we are a nation of justice."
Yet while Milestone calls the public trials "necessary," she also believes they will do little to quell the global controversy over American actions in Iraq - or to reverse perceptions of the US.
"We shouldn't expect to pick up the Arab press [following the Sivits trial] and find them saying, 'Oh, America is just after all, and the system we have seen is wonderful and transparent,' " she says.
Milestone says her experience on the public diplomacy commission tells her that the US government does not have anyone thinking through how different decisions and events influence global opinion of the US. Echoing a key recommendation of the advisory group, she says, "We need someone in the White House focused on thinking strategically about how we want to present ourselves and about the broader implications of our actions."
While that alone won't solve America's image problem, Milestone says, "We need someone thinking long-term about the fallout of an Abu Ghraib, because it's the kind of story that will resonate for a long time."