It would be a surprise if President Bush's Arab TV interviews today went over well with Iraqi viewers. It would also be a surprise if he much cared.
His remarks seemed geared, for the most part, to American voters, who he knew would watch replays and excerpts a few hours later. For this audience, he pushed all the right buttons. For the other, Arab audience, he pushed a few of the right buttons, brushed up against some of the wrong ones, and deliberately avoided the crucial ones.
He scheduled the interviews—with Al Arabiya, a popular and independent Arabic network, and Al Hurra, a much-derided station owned by the U.S. government (but, pointedly, not with Al Jazeera)—to defuse the uproar over news of American soldiers torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. As everyone acknowledges, these revelations could irreversibly harm America's already-tarnished reputation in the Middle East.
Before Bush went on the air, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, profusely apologized on Arabic television, as did Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander in charge of detainee operations.
But one of several things that Bush did not do, when his turn came, was to apologize. He used the words "abhorrent," "appalled," "horrible," and said, "What took place does not represent the America that I know"—all good words, as far as they go. But he did not say, "I'm sorry."
It seems the president is allergic not just to the words but to the concept of responsibility that underlies them. To apologize would be to admit he'd made a mistake. And mistakes are forbidden in the Bush White House.
His resistance is particularly unfortunate here. An Iraqi who watched the two American generals apologize, and then watched the American president fail to, would certainly notice the difference—and might, understandably, wonder about the officers' significance and sincerity.
It is not just the press that's hung up on the S word. It has been claimed that Arabs like to hear it from those who have done wrong, but my guess is this would be true of any people who had been senselessly humiliated by the world's superpower. Adnan Pachachi, a leading member of the Iraqi governing council, politely hemmed and hawed when CNN asked him this afternoon about Bush's silence on the matter, but finally he replied, "An apology would have been useful."
Some of the president's comments were oddly dissonant. When the Al Hurra correspondent asked him if anyone would resign because of the prison horrors and if he still had confidence in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush replied, "Of course, I've got confidence in the secretary of defense and in the commanders on the ground because they're doing great work on behalf of the Iraqi people."
Avoiding the question of whether anyone would lose their job was standard Bush practice—he never answers questions he can sidestep. But the reply he did give was strangely arrogant. It is not Bush's place, especially when speaking humbly on Iraqi television, to claim that American soldiers are doing "great work on behalf of the Iraqi people." That's for Iraqis to decide.
Similarly, this was not the forum for him to say, "America is a country of justice and law and freedom and treating people with respect." That's for Americans in Iraq to demonstrate, not for the president to assert.
Too often, the president began a sentence with the words, "People in Iraq must understand ..." or "The Iraqi people must understand …" or "People in the Middle East must understand … ." He probably didn't mean it but, to an Iraqi audience, these phrases may seem insistent, overbearing, even autocratic, coming from the man who is currently occupying their country.
Finally, some of his statements were false—appallingly so—and one can only hope not too many Iraqis noticed. For instance, he told Al Arabiya that the official investigation into the prison tortures would be "full" and "transparent." To Al Hurra, he added that even conducting an investigation "stands in stark contrast to life under Saddam Hussein. His trained torturers were not brought to justice under his regime."
And yet there was nothing "transparent" about this probe until the photographs and Gen. Taguba's report were leaked to CBS and The New Yorker. The report, though available on the Internet, is still classified Secret, even though, as Steven Aftergood reveals in today's edition of his Secrecy News newsletter, it is a violation of federal law to classify official probes of illegal conduct. There are many legitimate ways Bush might have contrasted America's open government with Saddam's dictatorship—but, alas, this was not one of them.
All this is a shame because some of Bush's comments were salutary. "American people are just as appalled as Iraqi people"—this strikes just the right chord, emphasizing our common humanity. When asked if the Marine pullback from Fallujah marked a U.S. defeat, he replied, "The strategy in Fallujah is to empower Iraqis to step up and take control of their security"—an excellent answer. Asked what he plans to do about the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Bush said, "I think he ought to be dealt with by Iraqi citizens, who are getting tired of his occupying the holiest of holy sites"—another bull's eye. Some Iraqis who fear the return of colonialism may also have taken some comfort when Bush said, "Freedom does not have to look like America. Free societies will develop according to the cultures of the people in the regions and the Middle East."
But these topics were not what Bush went on Iraqi television to discuss, nor were they what Iraqis turned on their sets to hear. On the topic of the day and of many days to come, Bush—deliberately—stopped short.