The image war over US detainees

Debate over the word 'gulag' and treatment of the Koran in US detention facilities symbolizes a broader challenge for US.

The Bush administration appears to have opened a whole new front in its war on terror: a forceful, full-scale defense of the morality of its detention-camp policies.

First came harsh criticism of Newsweek magazine for its since-retracted charge of Koran abuse at the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. More recently top officials have pushed back - hard - against Amnesty International's use of "gulag" to describe Guantánamo's conditions.

The intensity and coordination of administration remarks on this issue may reflect a belated recognition of the stakes involved. Rightly or not, to much of the world the abuse of prisoners in US custody may now be emblematic of American foreign policy as a whole.

Problems at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere "raise profoundly the US valuation on justice," says George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In its latest attempt to minimize the impact of revelations about detention conditions, Bush officials over the weekend played down a new military report on mishandling of the Koran at Guantánamo.

The report, released June 3, detailed five incidents during which the Islamic holy book was either kicked, stepped on, or soaked in water.

The military said that the incidents were unusual, considering that interrogators have conducted over 28,000 interviews at the prison, and that official policy emphasizes sensitivity towards detainees' religious faith.

On Saturday, White House officials reiterated this theme.

"There were three times as many confirmed incidents of [Koran] abuse by detainees, a number of which were far worse than the few isolated incidents of mishandling by a few individuals that violated military policies and practices," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

McClellan blamed the press for emphasizing a few "isolated incidents" at the prison. This was only the most recent blast against the media. Last month, the White House went so far as to ask Newsweek to help repair the damage to America's image following its unconfirmed report that a Koran had been flushed down a Guantánamo toilet.

Yet it is Amnesty International for which the administration has reserved its most forceful complaints on the subject.

In releasing its annual report on human rights around the world last week, the group's London head charged that Guantánamo has become "the gulag of our times."

President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took turns bashing this characterization. Clearly, the administration as a whole had decided that the comparison of US practices with those of the totalitarian Soviet Union was something it could not allow to pass unchallenged.

"I can't imagine anyone who has any understanding of what a gulag is ... using that," said Secretary Rumsfeld.

Yet beneath this struggle over spin, the two sides appeared to be making different points. The word "gulag" is ugly on several levels - harsh on the ear, harsher in meaning. The administration focused on the Soviet gulag's human cost, making the point that whatever abuses have occurred at US detention centers are a grain of sand compared with the hundreds of thousands of casualties suffered by those who disappeared into Soviet prisons. Amnesty International was trying to make a point about the mystery and injustice it believes is inherent in the US approach to detainees - that many are being held indefinitely without trial, in unknown locations.

Leaders of the human rights group have conceded that their language may have overreached: On Sunday William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a broadcast interview that the gulag comparison "is not an exact or literal analogy."

But he noted that his group is far from alone in criticizing the underlying tenets of the US detention system. US courts have ruled against certain aspects; internal military investigations have found disturbing incidents of abuse, even murder, from Abu Ghraib to Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld offered to resign in April 2004, when pictures of Abu Ghraib practices first surfaced. The US government has undertaken some 370 military investigations into the charges, with some 130 personnel facing some degree of punishment.

While the Bush administration has trumpeted the cause of freedom around the world, it has said much less about the corresponding value of justice, says George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment. Yet to advance its interests, mollify its friends, and quiet its adversaries, it must be concerned not only that justice be done, but be seen to be done, in its actions.

If nothing else, Amnesty International's use of "gulag" in relation to US actions may bring home to the administration just how much other nations' perceptions of US morality have declined.

"They're trying to jar the [US] system and say, 'You're doing what the Soviets did, remember them?' " says Perkovich.

In responding so quickly, the administration may have shown that it understands the damage already done to the US reputation. After all, geopolitical power, if it is to be sustained, requires not just hard military might but the absence of hostile resistance, notes Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis in a recent Foreign Affairs article on the Bush administration's grand strategy.

"This is what was missing during the first Bush administration: a proper amount of attention to the equivalent of lubrication in strategy, which is persuasion," writes Gaddis.

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