Friday, May 13, 2005

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Toilet Flushing

I've been doing a bit of to-and-fro on Democracy Arsenal discussing Abu Ghraib with Joseph Britt who is a kind of standing stand-in for my friend Greg Djerejian at Belgravia Dispatch (I believe Greg considers himself a conservative but we met collaborating on a task force report on UN reform).

A bizarre incident this week may help sharpen how we look at the impact of anti-Americanism. Newsweek magazine reported that American interrogators at Guantanamo bay goaded a suspect by flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet. The revelation triggered a rash of deadly anti-American protests in 17 Afghan provinces and the violence has now spread to Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia, and the Palestinian territories, resulting in at least 14 deaths.

The thing is, as far as the Pentagon can tell, the offending incident may never have happened. Newsweek did not disclose its sources. It's clear that the alleged desecration of the Koran was not the only cause of the anti-US unrest.

In Afghanistan, some rabble-rousers have cited a recent agreement between Presidents Bush and Karzai that would provide for permanent US military bases in country, and others have complained about the treatment of Afghan detainees at Gitmo. While there's no question deeper issues were at play, it seems equally clear that the toilet report was the proximate cause of the riots.

This reminds me of the Philip Roth novel, The Human Stain, in which an innocent remark provokes a racial furor that sets in motion events including a woman's death and the unraveling of several other lives. As may have happened this week, Roth's novel details how an incident that does not even occur (or barely occurs) winds up igniting simmering fury and unleashing mayhem.

Its hard to know how to react to this week's upset in the Muslim world. On the one hand, given that the trigger may literally have been a non-event, there's some temptation to to question how America or the Administration could be in any way to blame.

The argument goes something like this: if these people are so rabidly anti-US that they will rush to judgment and take to the streets at any provocation, they are beyond reason and there's little or nothing the US can do. This form of anti-Americanism thus gets classed in the category of "unaddressable." Its a sort of irremediable layer of anti-US attitudes that come with the superpower territory and that we cannot do anything about.

Secretary Rice can go on record stating the obvious about US policy toward the Koran, but that's about it.

After a week together it probably won't surprise you that I am not so quick to discuss the significance of what's happening in Kabul and elsewhere. The psychology of countries is in many ways like the psychology of people, marked by jealousies, insecurities, and resentments that lie just under the surface.

The situation the US faces now fits a pattern that can bedevil powerful people. Two prominent recent examples are Howell Raines, the ousted former Editor of the New York Times and Larry Summers, the embattled President of Harvard. Both men are highly talented, forceful and by at least some standards effective. Both have also attracted widespread dislike within the institutions they led.

Because of their strengths both men seemed anything but vulnerable. Yet it took just one slip for Raines to be fired and Summers to lose a faculty vote of no confidence. For Raines it was a scandal involving a flagrantly dishonest reporter, and for Summers it was an ill-advised comment on the place of women in science.

Neither incident was serious enough to have threatened a leader who enjoyed stronger support among underlings and colleagues. But in both cases people from all quarters of the organizations smelled blood and came after leaders who they had long disliked.

About two months ago I wrote this:

There's reason to fear that the Bush Administration may be similarly vulnerable. The rest of the world for the most part dislikes Bush; anti-Americanism is at an all time high. Yet the U.S. is powerful enough and Bush has racked up sufficient accomplishments that he seems invulnerable. The question is what happens if a bad mistake gets made - a more serious version of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade or the shoot-out involving the Italian journalist and her bodyguard. Would the U.S.'s detractors all pounce, with the result of an outsized blow to America's image and influence? If there's any analogy to Summers and Raines, the signs are ominous.

See here for the rest of the post.

This toilet flushing meshugas is a case in point. Whether it happened or not, the report itself energized throngs of anti-American activists to trot out their grievances and urge others to do the same. The ground was fertile to breed the worst possible conclusions based on even the muddiest facts.

It would be nice to think the outburst was orchestrated by one small faction, but there's apparently no political movement with the capability of mounting street action across such a wide swath of Afghanistan. That suggests that each and every province lying in wait for some kind of American misstep, or even an unsubstantiated report thereof.

Both Raines and Summers could claim to have been swept up in events - and surrounding media scrutiny - outside their control. But in both cases it was less the incidents that occurred than the underlying attitudes toward those leaders that caused the controversies to spiral. Likewise this week, we need to face that it is because of the backdrop of anti-American attitudes that the Newsweek report lit such a firestorm.

Lert's hope we wind up like Summers - with the hostility palpable but ultimately under control - rather than like Raines, who wound up getting sucked under.

posted by on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM


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posted by: Tom Holsinger on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Because of their strengths both men seemed anything but vulnerable. Yet it took just one slip for...Summers to lose a faculty vote of no confidence.

If you think that vote was about his comments, and not his managerial style, you're delusional. Summers runs Harvard like a business, not a university. This pissed off the faculty, and they needed an excuse to get rid of him.

Summers offered just such an excuse with his comments, and the professors seized the opportunity with the no-confidence vote.

Your analogy would still hold true, to some extent. The rest of the world is looking for an excuse to bash the US.. while a flushed Koran won't do it, something eventually will, all else equal.

posted by: rdg on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Fine, Suzanne. Does that mean, then, that you feel it's important not to exaggerate what was done at abu Ghraib by comparison, say, to other powers who have held that prison? Since it's desirable not to have the US get "sucked down" by exaggerated sensitivities of other groups?

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Who was the flagrantly dishonest reporter - Raines? I wonder if I can last until Drezner returns?

posted by: John J. Perulfi on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]


My term for this is "ritual denunciation", and it is evoked by pressing the subject's "hot buttons".

You can elicit a remarkable response from a gun nut merely by saying the word, "Horuchi" (note - try a Google search using the words, "Horuchi" and "Weaver"). At various points in the ensuing monologue (sometimes flecked with spittle) you will learn how many grains of powder were in the bullet Horuchi fired, the name of the court reporter at the trial and what color dress Vicki Weaver was wearing.

Similar responses can be elicted from lefties with the phrase "Abu Ghraib", but you knew that.

In terms of the Koran riots in Kabul, I refer you to Winston Spencer Churchill's Malakand Field Force, particularly his comments on Muslim clergy. Not much has changed.

There are considerable differences between ethnic groups here. Ask any acquaintences who have been in Egypt what the Egyptians probably think of this. Derision towards barbarians would be putting it mildly.

Raines' leadership problem, from what little I've heard, was that he did not have an open door, played favorites, was anything but even-handed, and so had no friends or supporters when trouble came. I.e., his situation is, for purposes of this discussion, sui generis. My limited understanding is that he was basically a poor manager. A better one would have survived, and possibly not have put so much trust & confidence into the wrong person in the first place.

OTOH, Summers clearly experienced classic "ritual denunciations" by my definition. IMO he erred by by engaging in "ritual self-criticism" but here I quite lack experience, as I'll never be in any danger of being president of anything. Well, I was president of the local parents of twins club, but that was my wife's fault.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Re: the comment that the protestors "rushed to judgement"

There was nothing particularly striking about the article to suggest that the bit about the Koran was inaccurate. It struck me as consistent with other information about Gitmo. In fact, Patrick Tyson points out that a very similar allegation was made in paragraphs 78 and 205 of a lawsuit filed last year.

Given past history, Muslims had no reason to doubt the story. And that's a problem.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Would the U.S.'s detractors all pounce, with the result of an outsized blow to America's image and influence?

An important factor to consider is the consequences of pouncing. In Raines' case, pouncing was low-risk- the worst thing that could happen was that he'd stay on and keep doing what he was doing. Ditto Summers.

Pouncing on the US has different consequences depending on who's doing it.

For the guys in the streets, there's a low risk of getting shot if they don't disperse, but the US isn't going to take any direct action against them- that risk is the same as any other riot.

For governments, it is a completely different calculation. For them, the consequences of 'pouncing' are significant- if they fail, the US remains the sole superpower, and will have both the ability and inclination to make life harder for them via many, many means. If they suceed, the US will still be extremely powerful economic and militarily, even if it is less popular diplomatically... and have almost as much ability, and even more inclination, to do them harm. On top of that, the international order would be upset, security arrangements once thought ironclad would be in doubt, and economic matters would become quite voliatile.

Exactly what benefit do the 'pouncers' hope to achieve that is worth all of these risks?

posted by: rosignol on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

All you have to do is say that it was performance art and it was NEA approved and if someone has a problem with then they are the bigots. Piss Christ ring a bell??

I'd think the Lefties would be more upset about a toilet that uses so much water that a Koran can be flushed down it!

posted by: MKL on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

One: the real issue behind the small becoming big is not how it reflects on the love/hate of America but rather how it reflects on Bush 'freedom' rhetoric : is naivety really a foreign policy?

Two: Bush has already made the big mistake: not the misguided strategy that governed Operation Iraqi Freedom which allowed the present chaos but rather the failure to move to correct this mistake when they had the chance in order to 'look good' in the run up to the election. Insurgents will win this war and America will come out of it looking like shit: I'd call that a big mistake.

posted by: Salmon the Fish on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

If you are really concerned about the image of America in the eyes of Muslims around the world you may wish to take into consideration the fact that we are shelling mosques with tank and artillery fire in the heart of the Muslim world in a country we invaded and occupied under false pretenses. As can be seen by the ongoing jihad in Iraq, this issue, in comparison to the recent reports of the Koran being flushed down a toilet at GITMO, has been source of negative publicity and violence for some time now. Iraq really makes the debate about whether or not the toilet-flushing incident actually ocurred debate irrelevant. Even if this incident did not happen, the larger Muslim world does not remain ignorant of similar acts abuse as described in Eric Saar's book "Inside the Wire." If you don't consider our actions in Iraq to be as inflammatory as the smaller issue of prisoner abuse I think you are suffering from some analytical shortcomings.

posted by: Dan (NYC) on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Everybody hates us until they need our money or our blood.

Out here in the red states we used to refer to American diploma as "Uncle Chump," as in give them our money and they will continue to hate us.

Bush should pull out of Iraq and get back to the task at hand, hunting down and killing terrorists who want to fly airplanes in to buildings full of civilians, wherever they are, whatever religion they proclaim.

posted by: Tom E on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

"Pounce" in what way?

posted by: Tom T. on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Suzanne, maybe you're living in another world than the rest of us, but given the pattern of deceit and lack-of-anyone being held accountable for anything ; I'm not sure on what basis you believe this administration should be given the benefit of the doubt. The analogy with Summers is terrifically strained. It would only be appropriate if Summers had repeatedly made remarks slighting women, consorted with prostitutes openly, then allowed subordinates who permitted professors to sexually abuse female students to retain their positions, and finally decided that an administrator who thought punishing female students by making them read Schopenhaur's "On Women", was acceptable.

I think what's scary and/or sad, is that you don't realize the complete lack of credibility this administration has with half the american population and the entire rest of the world.

posted by: Jor on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Suzanne, Newsweek has effectively retracted the story and apologised to the dead people. Now what do you think?

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

Newsweek has effectively retracted the story and apologised to the dead people. Now what do you think?

I'm still waiting for Bush & Cheney to retract their story about WMD and apologise to the dead people. At least Newsweek did the right thing...

posted by: Stu on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

"Given past history, Muslims had no reason to doubt the story. And that's a problem."

The problem is people are killing others over a book!

posted by: Cutler on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

As a first time visitor to this site, I am very uncomfortable with the way you repeatedly use the term "anti-Americanism". I understand that it is a kind of shorthand to describe a highly diverse group of people and ideas (which I believe will include a lot of patriotic Americans and their views), but it is so loaded with negative connotations of irrationality and vindictiveness, that it disparages more than it describes. You will never be able to understand the legitimate opposition to the US and some of its policies and actions, if you insist on using a loaded, unenlightening word like this.

posted by: Terry Greenberg on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

This nonsense has made a huge blow to my hope that the violence can ever be taken out of that culture. Even among the muslims that have recently been given more freedom than they've ever had, news that someone did not treat a BOOK the way they think it should be treated caused violent outrage.

I guess there never has been any hope for the current generations of such people though... violent intolerance is so deeply ingrained into their core beliefs, it is almost impossible to change.

posted by: Justin on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

As a first time visitor to this site, I am very uncomfortable with the way you repeatedly use the term "anti-Americanism".

Ah, Terry, Dan, the usual host, was in Hawaii for the week, a couple of self-described Progressives were guest-blogging (variety and all that)...

You will never be able to understand the legitimate opposition to the US and some of its policies and actions, if you insist on using a loaded, unenlightening word like this.

...which makes this comment a candidate for the 'Unintentional Irony' award.

posted by: rosignol on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

"...but it is so loaded with negative connotations..."

Um, yeah, Terry - Hence the word "anti" in "anti-Americanism".


posted by: Tommy G on 05.13.05 at 09:09 PM [permalink]

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