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Commentary: Why Obama should release photos

  • Story Highlights
  • Fawaz Gerges: President Obama said release of photos would endanger troops
  • He says Obama's reversal could do more harm than good
  • Poll says Muslims approve of Obama more than they do the U.S.
  • Gerges says release of photos would send positive signal of change in U.S. policy
By Fawaz A. Gerges
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy."

Fawaz Gerges says release of detainee photos would signal that U.S. is "reclaiming its high moral compass."

Fawaz Gerges says release of detainee photos would signal that U.S. is "reclaiming its high moral compass."

(CNN) -- Justifying his dramatic reversal of the decision to release photos showing abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama argued publication would "further inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in greater danger."

In fact, world opinion, particularly that of Muslims, would likely view the release of these horror images as representing a rupture for the better in American politics and foreign policy. America would be seen as reclaiming its high moral compass and affirming its respect for human dignity.

Taking ownership of and responsibility for the Bush administration's actions, horrible and painful as they are, will reinforce Obama's break with his predecessor and his new message to the U.S. public and international community: The United States is a good citizen of the world, a nation of laws that fully complies with the laws of war. In the eyes of friends and foes, the president's new message would gain more traction and credibility.

There is no denying that in the short term the release of these horror images would provide more ammunition to extremists like al Qaeda and like-minded groups at war with the United States. Other hardliners would use and abuse the detainee photos to portray the United States as waging a war against Islam and Muslims. But there is little the United States could do to appease al Qaeda and similar militants. Most are beyond redemption.

The primary target audience is mainstream Muslim public opinion. There is plenty of evidence indicating that Obama's overtures to Muslims have begun to pay off. In polls and my own interviews, more and more Arabs and Muslims say they think very highly of the young president and believe he will have a positive impact on the Middle East and relations between the United States and the region.

The findings of a recent McClatchy/Ipsos poll show a reservoir of good will toward Obama, while negative attitudes towards American foreign policy persist. In Jordan, 58 percent of citizens have a favorable opinion of him, followed by 53 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 52 percent in the United Arab Emirates. Obama's popularity dips to 47 percent in Kuwait and 43 percent in Lebanon -- but in none of these countries, was Obama's unfavorable rating higher than his favorable one.

In contrast, only 38 percent of Saudis have a favorable view of the United States, followed by 36 percent of Jordanians, 34 percent of UAE residents, 31 percent of Lebanese and 22 percent of Egyptians.

The critical goodwill gap between Arabs' view of Obama and the United States has to do with the credibility of the messenger, President Obama. While former President Bush is loathed and mistrusted in the greater Middle East, Obama is seen as a breath of fresh air reflecting what they see as America's new humane face. The credibility of the messenger is critical and any decision, like blocking the release of the abuse photos, that undermines trust could easily shatter the reservoir of international good will built by Obama so far.

The argument that the publication of the photos would inflame anti-American opinion does not carry much weight because these contested photos are reportedly less disturbing than the 2004 Abu Ghraib images that stoked anti-American sentiment worldwide.

In fact, Obama said the photos in this case are not "particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib." Fair enough, why not then comply with the appeals court decision, and release the images?

There is a danger that Obama's new decision to oppose release of the photos could have the opposite of its intended effect by spreading rumors and conspiracy theories about what the photos reveal -- causing more harm than good. In the age of the new media, transparency is a powerful weapon in domestic politics and foreign policy as well.

"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," according to Obama's own January 21 memorandum on honoring Freedom of Information Act.

The 2008 ruling by the three-judge appeals court panel, which rejected the Bush administration's major assertion that release of the photos adds little of value to the public understanding of the issue, was on the same page with Obama's. "This contention disregards FOIA's central purpose of furthering governmental accountability," concluded the appeals panel.

Yes, Mr. President, you, as a former professor of constitutional law, and the appeals court agree that open government, transparency and accountability matter and matter greatly. U.S. citizens have the right to know the full scale of horror perpetrated in their name.

There is an urgent need to come clean; to release not only these disputed photos but also the few thousand others allegedly in the Pentagon's possession. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was right when he said he once held the view that it might be best to "go through the pain once" and release a large batch of images now, since so many are at issue in multiple lawsuits.

But he and the president changed their minds when the top U.S. generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, the senior commander for both wars, expressed "very great worry that release of these photographs will cost American lives," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee.

"That's all it took for me," Gates said. iReport.com: Did Obama do the right thing?

The generals rightly fear releasing the photos could further undermine the standing of the U.S. military at home and abroad, though it is difficult to say that publication would cost American lives.

The commander in chief must seriously weigh the fears of his generals against broader concerns of public and national interests and open government. The latter are not a luxury but a necessity in light of what transpired in the last eight years. Coming clean would go a long way to repair any symbolic damage inflicted on the military and prevent a repeat of those crimes in the future.

Fortunately, the courts might save the Obama administration from itself. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president instructed administration lawyers to challenge release of the photos on national security grounds. He said the argument was not used before.

Well, the Bush administration already argued against the release on national security implications -- and lost. The appeals court wrote in September, 2008: "It is plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," wrote the "people's lawyer," and later, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis in a series of articles on the doctrine of New Freedom. It is hoped the Obama administration will embrace sunshine and transparency and lift the veil of secrecy that has, more often than not, damaged U.S. national interests.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fawaz A. Gerges.

All About Al QaedaAbu GhraibBarack Obama

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