'Not What Bush Said, But What the Arabs Heard'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - In the emotional atmosphere of the Middle East, it doesn't matter so much what President Bush said in interviews to Arabic television stations; it matters only what the Arabic listeners heard, an Arabic expert here said on Thursday.

In two interviews on Wednesday with State Department-funded Alhurra television and Dubai-based Al Arabiya television, President Bush expressed his disgust over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, but he stopped short of making an apology.

Over the last two weeks, more and more details have emerged about humiliating interrogation methods used on Iraqi prisoners, which have stunned and angered both Americans and Arabs.

Israeli Arabic expert Dr. Mordechai Kedar of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv said that the interviews President Bush granted to Arab stations were "stained" before they were ever shown -- because Bush slighted the Qatari-based Al-Jazeera television network and chose instead to be interviewed by Al Arabiya and Alhurra. The latter station was started to counter anti-American bias.

If someone wants to speak to the Arab world he does so through Al-Jazeera, Kedar said. Bush undermined the American message by discriminating against the Arab press, he added.

From an Arab or Middle Eastern perspective, Bush should have made a much stronger statement, and much sooner, Kedar said.

Bush told Alhurra that he viewed the American treatment of Iraqi prisoners as "abhorrent." And he said what took place in the prison "does not represent the America that I know."

That implied to the Arabic listener that there is some other America that Bush doesn't know about or isn't in control of, Kedar said. "The message was very suspicious," he said.

"He should have come out on the first day, [saying] they are criminals, I condemn it...it's a violation of human rights. It's not our way. It's against our policy [and] message," Kedar said.

Instead, Bush was seen giving a "pale" message, too late and through the wrong channels, he said.

In general, Kedar said, Arabic society is one of exaggeration. "Everything here is driven by emotions. Emotions are always exaggerated."

In this atmosphere, the mistreatment of prisoners erodes the message of American democracy, he said. "It pours kerosene on the flame of anti-Americanism."

If America wants to turn the situation around, Kedar said, it needs to start listening to the Iraqis. "They know what they want. They are not with their rulers. The people in the Middle East want freedom," he said.

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