Karen Hughes Indonesia Visit Underscores Bush Administrations PR Problems

It is doubtful that the Bush administration will be very successful advancing America’s image in the Islamic world as long as its representatives have such trouble telling the truth.

A case in point took place on October 21, when U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes was talking before a group of university students in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. As she has found elsewhere in her visits in the Islamic world, there is enormous popular opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ongoing U.S. counter-insurgency war.

To justify the U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country, recognized in most of the world as a flagrant violation of international law, Ms. Hughes falsely claimed that “The consensus of the world intelligence community was that Saddam was a very dangerous threat.” In reality, however, the vast majority of the world’s intelligence community recognized that the government of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been severely weakened and successfully contained through the UN-supervised destruction of its weapons of mass destruction and offensive delivery systems during the 1990s and the UN-imposed sanctions which prevented Iraq from rebuilding such an arsenal.

Ms. Hughes also noted that Saddam Hussein “had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people,” neglecting to mention that the Iraqi regime’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq took place back in 1988, before the UN disarmament program eliminated these weapons and a full fifteen years prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.

She continued by claiming Saddam Hussein “murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people using poison gas,” and, when later asked by foreign journalists about that claim, she stated that the figure was “close to 300,000.” While the use of chemical agents to massacre civilians is a serious war crime in any case, this is about sixty times the figure most observers give for the civilian death toll from such attacks by Saddam’s regime.

The total number of violent deaths inflicted on behalf of Saddam Hussein over his quarter century in power may indeed come close to 300,000. Virtually all those killings, however, took place more than a dozen years prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003. Thanks to unprecedented restrictions imposed by the United Nations Security Council which prevented the Baghdad government from deploying its armed forces over most of the country, combined with the UN-supervised disarmament program, Saddam Hussein’s ability to inflict such terror on the Iraqi population subsequent to 1991 was severely limited.

While a strong case could have been made for military intervention in Iraq under the genocide convention during Saddam’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s, this is no justification for an invasion fifteen years after the fact. Ironically, the United States was actively supporting Saddam Hussein’s government during this period, supplying his regime with military aid and generous loans.

As a result, the Bush administration’s justification of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds is as disingenuous as the claims that it was an act of self-defense. Indeed, the number of violent civilian deaths in Iraq in the two and a half years since the U.S. invasion is much greater than in the two and a half years prior to the invasion and is a major source of anti-American sentiment in Iraq and throughout the Islamic world.

It is ironic that Ms. Hughes attempted to justify the invasion on the brutality of the Iraqi regime while she was in Indonesia, a country which suffered for more than three decades under an even more brutal dictatorship. General Suharto, who was ousted in a largely nonviolent popular uprising in 1998, was responsible for a far greater number of civilian deaths than was Saddam Hussein.

Soon after seizing power in 1965, Suharto slaughtered over half a million alleged supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party. His invasion of East Timor in 1975 resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 civilians, nearly one-third of that island nation’s population. Many hundreds more died in massacres in Tanjung Priok in Jakarta’s port area in 1984, in Lampung on the southern tip of Sumatra in 1989, and in Dili, East Timor in 1991.

Throughout this period, rather than threatening an invasion or even sanctions, both Republican and Democratic administrations sent billions of dollars worth of U.S. taxpayer-funded armaments to prop up this bloody dictatorship.

Unlike Saddam, who went on trial the same week of Hughes’ visit to Indonesia, Suharto lives comfortably in retirement and remains active behind the scenes. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has visited the ex-dictator at his Jakarta residence to pay his respects and Suharto continues to appear at major functions. The Bush administration has never expressed any objections to Suharto’s impunity nor have they called for bringing this mass murderer to justice.

As long as the U.S. government continues to display such a lack of integrity, no amount of public relations spin by Karen Hughes or anyone else can improve America’s image in Indonesia or anywhere else in the Islamic world.

Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus, a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco, and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).