The ‘Big Picture’ Doesn’t Show Pain

In Spite of Guantanamo and Secret Prisons, the U.S. Ambassador Insists that “We do not condone torture.”

News | Anca Lucian, Alexandra Ruths | October 2006

The two muscular men in black, one bald, the other one with dark short hair, walked around the black, shiny limo, checking the street once again, before holding the car’s back door open for the diplomat to leave the car.

Susan McCaw, no longer hidden by the tinted windows, stepped onto the street and from this very moment, an aura of diplomatic intangibility surrounded her; nothing in her classic features would betray her inner thoughts for the next two hours at Webster University Vienna where she was to give an interview with this newspaper and later a speech on "U.S Foreign Policy Challenges," in her role as the U.S ambassador to Austria.

She was greeted at the university’s main entrance by Webster director Dr. Arthur Hirsh, and a small entourage. Brief small talk, laughter and ‘thank yous’ were exchanged on the way up to the conference room.

Ambasador McCaw took a seat at the table, while the security guards watched by the door. Elegantly dressed, she seemed comfortable, although not exactly relaxed; sitting very erect with her hands folded, she leaned slightly forward and smiled politely.

The ambassador avoided giving details about any difficulties she had as a businesswoman taking on a diplomatic post. She was there to represent the White House – the public face and voice in Austria for one of the least popular U.S. administrations ever.

"Whatever minor differences we have, [we need to] focus on the big picture of working together," Ambassador

McCaw said. Throughout the rest of the interview, she emphasized the common problems and global issues that are shared by Europeans and Americans since September 2001.

"There is no question that 9/11 had an impact on the American psyche and the way we looked at the world," she said.

McCaw sees Iraq as "the low point" of the Europe-America relationship; however she was convinced that "at least on the political level, we have moved beyond Iraq," she said, referring to Austrian President Heinz Fischer statement that "Austria itself could play an instrumental role [and] help bringing democracy to this important region.

"I think people realize that it is important that we succeed in Iraq," she said, although recent polls show that only 14% of Austrians in fact believe that current US foreign policy is good for world peace.

The recent leak of the National Intelligence Estimate revealing that the Iraq war has worsened the global terrorist threat has further deteriorated the trust of Americans as well in a successful ending for Iraq.  A Lew Harris poll conducted in September revealed that  61% of Americans were not confident that US policies in Iraq would be successful.

However, the ambassador suggested that the timing of the leak was a political maneuver intended to influence the upcoming elections in US, and discounted its validity because the material was "incomplete."

"There was no leak of the entire findings; in fact they were selective to the tune of giving a coloration for what really was in the national intelligence estimate," she said [and it] turned into more of a political issue than what the actual report had summarized."

Since the leak, the White House has refused to release the remaining sections of the Intelligence Estimate. At a press conference in Washington on Sept. 27, Press Secretary Tony Snow restated the White House denial of repeated requests to release the balance of the report, saying it would "compromise the independence of people doing intelligence analysis."

The ambassador also did not address the issue of the U.S. administration’s decision not to release the Intelligence Estimate immediately on completion, in spite of its essential relevance to U.S. foreign policy and the public’s ability to evaluate the appropriateness of the country’s course.

It is part of a general trend in people’s mindsets and "particularly the press," she said, "to focus on the negative aspects." The ambassador’s message was that we should "step back and focus on the bigger picture" and see that "we have made a lot of progress with regards to cooperation on intelligence." The collective effort of Europe and US to deal with the Iranian conflict is "proof of such progress," she said.

Defending the existence of the secret prisons in Europe and of the detaining of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the ambassador explained that "the president’s goal and overarching mission is to protect American lives and by the same token he is doing that for European lives too.

"And if we have terrorists who will kill indiscriminately, kill citizens just to get their ideology across, what do you do with these terrorists? Do you let them go? Do you not inquire? Do you not ask them, do you not try to gather information from them to save lives? Do you let the planes fly over the Atlantic, and let them blow up hundreds of bodies? No, I don’t."

She downplayed the importance of the findings of the combined U.S. intelligence agencies in the study that the terror threat had grown as a result of the Iraq War.

"The global war on terror, is not something that’s going to be won overnight," she said, "and I think if there is evidence of greater terror its solely because we are fighting back."

She insisted on the idea that the US Government does stick to the American beliefs in human and civil rights, and in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary from both inside and outside the government, that the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay are treated humanly.

"We are trying to save lives, [trying to] find ways to stick to our beliefs, that is, our beliefs in human rights and civil rights. And these detainees in Guantanamo are being treated humanly; we do not condone torture…"

Later in the evening, during her main address, McCaw went as far as to suggest that some were being held in Guantanamo for their own protection.  "Those left [in Guantanamo Bay] come from countries where we do believe they’d be tortured," she said.

As tension amounted in the air, due to the controversial nature of the subject, the ambassador appeared calm, concluding that she was there to "get the message across." Ambassador McCaw believes that "one of the key things we (US) could do to help the American image is by encouraging more people to spend time in America." Sharing her personal experience of her time as an exchange student in Europe, she explained how this gave her a "much broader perspective on how America fits into the world."

Austrian students coming to America could benefit from that same first hand exposure, she said.  "You listen to our music, you watch our films, but I don’t think they have a sense of the real America.  While they may not sign on to our foreign policy, [they may] at least have a better appreciation for why [it] is shaped the way it is."

Later, as she closed her evening address, she encouraged Webster students to consider careers in diplomacy.  "The Foreign Service is fabulous!" she said.

Her address received a generous round of applause, and the ambassador took time to sip a glass of wine and chat with students in the Webster Art gallery, guarded from a discrete distance by the men in black. They later followed her closely as she made her way out of the building to her black limo with the tinted windows.

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