Juan Cole: Obama Reversal on Torture Photos ... Is He Afraid they would Destabilize Iraq?





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

President Obama has reversed himself on his earlier determination not to oppose a ruling by a Federal judge that remaining photos of the torture and abuse of prisoners by the US military in Iraq. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of US troops in Iraq, appears to have made the decisive intervention with Obama on this issue.

I share Joan Walsh's dismay at this reversal.

I'm trying to think what is behind it from Obama's point of view, and I have a hypothesis. You could imagine a conversation going this way between Odierno and Obama (am rubbing my chin and that hokey wavy dream special effect is coming up on the screen):

' Odierno: Sir, with all due respect, the release of these photos will endanger US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. You must oppose the judge's ruling.

Obama: I've already made my decision on that issue.

Odierno: I thought you wanted a clean withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.

Obama: Yes. And . . ?

Odierno: If we get a new wave of JAM and al-Qaeda attacks coming off outrage at those photos, Iraq could become unstable enough to delay the withdrawal timetable.

Obama: You're saying you might not be able to get out of the cities by July 1 of this year, or might not be able to get combat troops out by September 1 of next, if these photos are released?

Odierno: It is a real possibility.

Obama: I want our combat troops out of Iraq on the current timetable.

Odierno: I'm not sure it is realistic, sir. It sure as hell isn't if those pictures rile the Iraqis up. '


If that is the way the conversation went, and this is pure speculation, it would make some sense of Obama's reversal. That is, he really doesn't want to do anything to send Iraq back into insurgency and tie down US troops there.

If this consideration did drive the reversal of position, I think it is unfortunate. The US is more likely to get past the mistakes it made 5 years ago if it comes clean and seeks reconciliation than if it goes on trying to cover up the past even though everyone knows what happened.



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More Comments:


Per Fagereng - 5/16/2009

As long as we're speculating, here's another one.

The US intends to keep a large force in Iraq to guard the oil. To do this,it needs to convince ordinary Iraqis that they still need our protection against the designated enemies. Stirring up the torture issue might show the Iraqis that they need to protect themselves, and their oil, against us.


Vernon Clayson - 5/15/2009

The media is so caught up in this issue they haven't taken into consideration that Obama's declining release of the photographs may just be to keep the issue alive longer than if they were released. Another factor may be that they are less graphic than the informal silliness at abu Ghraib, chances are views of any formal interrogations would be dull in comparison, the difference being that jerks abused captives at abu Ghraib while formal interrogations would show measured and controlled techniques by trained and qualified professionals under the guidance of persons with legal expertise. If the photographs are just more of the same from abu Ghraib there's no shock value left, the jerks tormenting captives there were not conducting formal interrogations, they were merely cruel pranksters. Only the naive believe the two situations are examples of all, while the purposeful want to portray them as true examples.

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