NEAL CONAN, host:
Yesterday, President Obama reversed himself and decided not to release photographs that show abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers at military detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President BARACK OBAMA: The most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflamed anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.
CONAN: The pictures may become public anyway as the results of a court case argued by Amrit Singh of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ms. AMRIT SINGH (Staffa attorney, American Civil Liberties Union): All of the groups that have been pushing for the release of this information have been pushing for accountability for the widespread and systemic abuse of prisoners that was conducted under the Bush administration. All of these groups would be sorely disappointed in the breaking of the promise of transparency and accountability that President Obama issued.
CONAN: In his debate, the safety of American troops is weighed against the benefits of accountability and transparency, but we thought it might be useful to consider what happened after the first set of pictures became public, after Abu Ghraib. Did that make you fear for the safety of American troops in the field, about the image of America abroad and about accountability for actions carried out in our name? Give us a call: 800-989-8250; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at an npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Shibley Telhami studies public opinion and the effect of U.S. policy in the Middle East. He's Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, and joins us here in Studio 3A. It's always nice to have you on the program.
Dr. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Professor of Peace and Development, University of Maryland): My pleasure.
CONAN: And is there anyway to know if the release of the photographs of the abuse at Abu Ghraib made American troops less safe?
Dr. TELHAMI: It's very hard to know because - there's no question that it made people more angry. And if you put it in context, it wasn't just about the safety of the troops then. It was really about the credibility of the United States.
The Bush administration was justifying the Iraq war as bringing freedom and democracy and human rights and here we were. And that was huge because the public in the Middle East didn't support the war to begin with. They didn't buy into the original argument. This argument was brought in. And then you have this horrible episode that clearly, not only inflamed people, but also contributed to the lack of credibility of the Bush administration.
There was also the humiliation aspect of it because part of the drive in the region in confronting the U.S. is a sense of humiliation in the relationship. And some of those pictures were utterly humiliating. And so both of these were psychologically important.
But besides that - and we picked up, of course, in the numbers in the polls, you know, no question that the favorable ratings for U.S. went down, the credibility of the Bush administration went down. All of that, that's true. But it's very, very hard to know how effective the recruiters were in using those pictures. Clearly recruiters were trying to use these pictures. And at some levels, they have an impact.
CONAN: They are a permanent feature at this point of Jihadist videos that you see on Web sites.
Dr. TELHAMI: Absolutely. And there's no question that, you know, in the end, Jihadists in Iraq succeeded in recruiting a lot of people because people were flooding in, and they didn't exist in Iraq before. We know what happened.
But a lot of that happened to be as a function of the Iraq war itself. And so it's hard to know. I think it would contribute in (unintelligible). I think if the administration has any argument at all now, it is really about the troops. It's not so much about inflaming public opinion for the following reason: I think public opinion in the Arab world now associates those events with the previous administration.
President Obama's started - it is making it so important that on day one, he closes Guantanamo and says no more torture because he's now starting with the different - so he cannot be associated with this. And I think that's going to give him a way to deal with it.
But in addition to the troop issue, which probably is the one, I think, I don't know for sure, but I assume when the commanders or secretary of Defense comes to you and says, look, this is going to jeopardize safety of my troops, very hard for president to say I'm going to do it.
But there's also something else going on here that we can't ignore, even if it has no consequence in terms of public opinion towards the Obama administration. Undoubtedly, if those photos were to be released now, there will be a conversation changer in the region. And the conversation right now is focused on Middle East peace process with Middle Eastern leaders - first the prime minister of Israel, president of Palestinian Authority, the president of Egypt coming in succession, the president of the United States going to Cairo, June 4th and delivering an important speech.
And it would seem that those - that story would be a huge distraction from all of the other efforts that they are aiming to do. That's a political argument. I don't know how much that was part of the calculation. I suspect it was primarily a recommendation from the military commanders.
CONAN: And as we've mentioned, due to a court order, they may come out anyway. That remains to be seen. Obviously, that would affect the timing. The president could just release them today if he wanted to. And the court order is going to take some time to work through. But I wondered if there was any way to see any measurable positive effect when people abroad, and again, especially in the Middle East, see an administration condemn those previous actions and take steps against those who did them.
Dr. TELHAMI: No doubt. And that was noticeable and it was clear in my business to the region over the past few months. And I've just - I'm just analyzing - I just received the 2009 Arab public opinion poll that I conduct annually. This is the first major poll that we do in the Arab world since Obama has become president. I don't have all the results analyzed yet. We're going to release it next Tuesday at an event at the Brookings Institution.
But I can tell you that there is no question that the attitudes toward the president have been differentiated from attitudes toward broader American foreign policy. And that's clear in the results. There is also no question that the issue of human rights itself as an issue is emerging in the perception of the public in the region towards the United States.
In the past, I didn't really see that identified as an issue by the public in the region specifically. It is more talked about in terms of projected American aims, that people see us trying to weaken the Muslim world or serve particular political interests. But in this particular case, a number of the early results indicate heightened interest in the issue of human rights.
CONAN: I wonder also whether this was one of the questions you asked on your poll and we'll be interested to see the answers when they come out next week. But the United States has now signed an agreement with the government of Iraq to withdraw forces starting with withdrawing from cities this coming summer and all troops out - all combat troops out soon, within more or less the timetable that Barack Obama spoke about as a candidate. Is that process being watched carefully and would that change public opinion?
Dr. TELHAMI: No doubt. You know, in 2008, I did the last poll that I did, which was a year ago. When you asked people, you know, name the two issues that matter most to you in your attitudes toward the U.S., they - historically, the Arab-Israel issue is the number one issue, and then typically, last year and 2007, withdrawal from Iraq.
Clearly, the Iraq issue is big and most of the public in the Arab world wants to see an American withdrawal. That's not necessarily the position of governments, you know? There are some governments who want to see an American presence. But the public wants to see an American withdrawal. I haven't fully analyzed this year's results, but I would be surprised if it's not even more important this year than last year by virtue of the fact that the president has started with it. He has announced it. They'll be watching whether or not he will keep his word implemented as he promised.
CONAN: We're talking today about the debate about the release of additional photographs said to be less graphic, less incendiary, but nevertheless fearful, about photographs of abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. And again, the ones we saw before were from Iraq, not Afghanistan, as well.
But the - there is an argument the president of the United States made yesterday when he said he had decided not to release them because he feared for the safety of American troops in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is -there are those who say, no, for the purposes of transparency and accountability, we need to know what happened, what was done in our name. We need to see these pictures released.
Given the examples of what happened after Abu Ghraib, let's put that into the context as well. 800-989-8255, email us: email@example.com. Mark is on the line, calling from Live Oak in Texas.
MARK (Caller): Hello. I have a question, and that is, given that everybody knows that these pictures exist, if they're not released, doesn't that kind of let people give them license to let their imaginations run wild and assume the worst?
CONAN: Yeah. Shibley Telhami, people might think, well, if they're not released, they must be really bad.
Dr. TELHAMI: Yeah. Well, I think there is that fear, no question. And some people will let their imagination run wild. But I do think that the story is not as big as when you release them and you have the pictures. And it might not be a long - a story that will survive for long. And I - as I said, if I had to do it in an ideal world, I think releasing is always better, and transparency is always better. I suspect that the military recommendation has been that this might harm the troops. And it's always very difficult for a president to go against that kind of recommendation.
CONAN: Mark, do you worry about the safety of American troops if these are released?
MARK: Yeah. But I don't think I'm as much worried about that as they're already in harm's way. And I think that I would be more concerned about other types of attacks, terrorist or otherwise.
CONAN: All right. Mark, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MARK: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to George(ph). George, calling from San Francisco.
GEORGE (Caller): You know, some - thank you. Some of us feel that the damage was done a long time ago when the people were tortured. And they already know that they were injured, or their family members or friends know that they were injured already. So who are we protecting? The people in the hot seat were the ones who suffered already. So, what we're doing now is creating a situation where it looks like we're changing the subject.
CONAN: George, I don't mean to put words in your mouth. But are you saying we're trying to protect those who carried out these activities?
GEORGE: Well, it's known - pretty well-established everywhere, isn't it, that the people who actually conducted the torture that we saw pictures of were taking orders from somebody. And it looks a lot more like what's happening here is that somebody's trying to get off the hook of having to prosecute the criminal treatment of torture victims.
CONAN: Well, there's that perception, Shibley Telhami, for sure.
Dr. TELHAMI: Yeah. Well, I mean, certainly, I think, domestically, it's a big issue for us. And I think we have to figure out how we're going to deal with it, separate from the consequences for the Muslim world. I mean, that's a big issue obviously that we have to think about.
But this is - I mean, the president did the right thing initially when he closed Guantanamo and basically changed the rules on this one. And I think the public, you know, wants to see what happened, the full story, what transpired. There are a lot of things that we still don't know, and I think there needs to be accountability. And I think it's a good thing for America to have accountability. These domestic debates separate from the consequences from foreign policy should be had.
GEORGE: We do hope that we can go forward with a clean slate. And how can we do that if we can't figure out what happened?
CONAN: George, thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call. Our guess is Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Peggy(ph). Peggy with us from Ice Lake in Wisconsin.
PEGGY (Caller): Hi. I think that the safety of the troops should come first. And we've already seen damaging photos. Why do we need to see more? It's the same thing. And it already happened. And it's done. And I think the safety of the troops should come first.
CONAN: The safety of the troop comes first. And, Shibley Telhami, as you suggest, the president of the United States, the commander in chief, has to be very sensitive to that.
Dr. TELHAMI: Well, you know, that's thing. It's like we can all have opinion on this, on whether the safety - even whether the troops will be hurt more by the release. I mean, that's a debatable issue in and of itself. But when you are sitting there and - in a president's position trying - getting a recommendation from military officers who tell you otherwise, you can't ignore it, but you have to weigh it against a number of other things. I don't think it's the only issue.
Dr. TELHAMI: You have to make an assessment. But it's a tough one. It's a tough one for the president. I'm all for - I favor transparency, personally.
PEGGY: But if they aren't being punished, if the people who did it aren't being punished, or if they haven't done, you know, that needs to be focused on, not the pictures. But what happened when it happened?
CONAN: Well, sometimes the pictures are evidence and then they get published. So these things can happen. I was just wondering, do you - are you in uniform? Do you have family in uniform?
PEGGY: No. No, I don't.
CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, Peggy.
PEGGY: Thank you.
CONAN: This is from Jacqueline(ph) in Anchorage. I think one thing missing from this discussion is the extra humiliation that those who have been abused would suffer by making these pictures public. I would not want to see abusive and humiliating photographs of myself all over the news and the internet. It would likely - it would be like being abused all over again. It's one thing to introduce photos as evidence in court, quite another to make them public as part of the media.
Dr. TELHAMI: Yeah. That's a powerful argument, actually, I mean, certainly, for those victims. But I think there's also - what you have to keep in mind is what I suggested earlier, that there is a sense of collective humiliation in the region. And part of the impact of the Abu Ghraib prison, because of the nature of the things that were done, were - it's just aggravating that the deep sense of humiliation in the region, even beyond those who actually suffered directly.
CONAN: Let's go to Gary, Gary calling from Sacramento.
GARY (Caller): Well, I thought all along the whole torture issue, everything from these photos to whether to prosecute those that said it was okay to do it or not should be handled from the standpoint of no double standards. Let's first figure out what we would expect, what we would be most happy with as Americans. If it had been done to American troops, what kind of response we would want and most be - be most happy with. And then let's go ahead and do that way.
CONAN: So you would urge, in that case, publication?
GARY: I think most Americans would want those pictures published if it was Americans in the pictures.
CONAN: That question that we just had about, though, of being abused or humiliated again by the publication, this is a military that also opposed - and I think probably continues to oppose publication of images of sealed coffins coming back to Dover Air Force Base.
GARY: Well, I think that's - they have ulterior motives. I don't think it's the respect for the deceased. I think it's the fact that coffins are a bad - what would you want to call it? They give - they leave a bad impression with Americans because it's Americans in those coffins.
CONAN: Gary, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
GARY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can go to, very quickly, Nancy(ph). Nancy with us from Des Moines. We just have a few seconds, Nancy.
NANCY (Caller): Yes. Am I on the line?
CONAN: Yes, you are, but very quickly, please.
NANCY: Okay. My feeling is that transparency is what is necessary now. Transparency and change is what's necessary now to come from Obama. And to say one day, he's going to do something, and to say the next day, he's not going to. And for people to not - this is being done in my name, as well as the whole country. And I think you either have to be on drugs or you have to be - your head's submerged in sand like an ostrich not to take offense at this. And I think they should be released. I think…
CONAN: Nancy, I'm afraid we're going to have to cut it off there. But thank you so much for the call. We appreciate it. And, Shibley Telhami, thank you for your participation today, as always.
Dr. TELHAMI: My pleasure.
CONAN: Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, here with us today in Studio 3A.
Tomorrow, Mike Pesca, guest host on the next SCIENCE FRIDAY. He'll have an update on repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope, plus a look at how the modern dog evolved with human help. Also tomorrow, we send out our best of the week e-mail newsletter. You can sign up for that and get an early look at what's coming up on the show every day next week at npr.org/email.
Have a great weekend, everybody. We'll talk to you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.