America’s haste to "apologize" or make amends for the alleged brutalities at Abu Ghraib prison, starting with President George W. Bush’s appearance Arab television, followed by Congressional hearings and more contrition from Secretary of State Colin Powell, has elevated the scandal into what the world now considers a matter of national policy. As a result, the anti-America war machine has browbeaten American policy makers into hesitating to take the actions needed to resolve the insurgency problems in Iraq, and win the peace once and for all.
Media outlets, partisan politicians and left-wing activists here and overseas are expected to twist whatever was said to undermine support for the war in Iraq. Much of what President Bush said on Arabian television was never reported, and there has been a steady evolution in press terminology from the "mistreatment" and "abuse" of prisoners to "torture" and "atrocities." If trends continue, John Kerry's 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee claiming widespread "war crimes" by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam will look like mainstream commentary on the perpetual sinfulness of American imperialism.
The impermissible behavior seems to be what Army investigators determined months ago; the aberrant antics of a few undisciplined, half-trained reservists thrown into the pressure cooker of a prison filled with enemy combatants. Antiwar critics, however, are eager to expand the scope of the investigation to cover all interrogation techniques. There has long been a steady drumbeat from the left about how al-Qaeda terrorists have been treated at Guantanamo Bay. Yet, only Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has had the courage to defend the need to extract information from prisoners by less than friendly means. Fanatics who know things upon which the lives of hundreds, even thousands of Americans, depend aren’t going to cooperate with a friendly investigator who simply says, “please tell me what you know.”
The enemy has pledged to stage attacks that kill and main the maximum number of people possible, whether it be car bombs in Iraq or airliners slamming into the World Trade Center. Didn't the last "firestorm" of criticism and public hearing aimed at the White House involve the charge that not enough had been done to uncover and prevent the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people?
The intelligence community has opted for "humiliation" and miserable living conditions as a more humane alternative to the kind of physical torture commonly used by most governments—including those in the Middle East. The French used electric shock followed by summary executions to break urban terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s. North Vietnam inflicted savage beatings on American pilots, hundreds of whom "disappeared" afterwards. Then there were the "rape rooms," wood chippers, and other true atrocities committed in Iraq to suppress dissent under Saddam Hussein.
During their joint press conference in the Rose Garden May 6, President Bush apologized to King Abdullah II of Jordan for "the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners." There was a surreal quality about this encounter. In April, Jordanian authorities smashed a plot to set off a toxic bomb at the General Intelligence building in the capital of Amman which reportedly could have killed up to 80,000 people. Such an attack would have been the largest use of a chemical weapon of mass destruction in history. The militants reportedly also planned to strike other buildings in Amman, including the U.S. embassy. On April 30, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi released an audiotape on which he claimed responsibility for hatching the plot. Al-Zarqawi is the same terrorist whom the CIA has identified as having personally beheaded American Nicholas Berg in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi said in his taped message that the Jordanian intelligence HQ had been targeted because it was the "Arabs' Guantanamo." He said that the HQ housed a "big database used by the enemy of Islam to track down holy warriors," and that his captured agents had been tortured into revealing the details of the plot. One can only imagine the methods used by the Jordan secret police in their interrogations that exposed the plot and filled their database. It is safe to assume they far exceeded the methods used by U.S. Intelligence or military police officers at Abu Ghraib, even the unauthorized degradation of prisoners by the miscreants who have so embarrassed the United States.
Do the ends justify the means? That's the question that must always be asked. In the Jordanian case the answer is yes. In Saddam's case the answer is no. Making the proper distinction is essential, as is keeping events in perspective. Unfortunately, the American media-political culture is not good at either task.
In his appearances on Al Arabiya television, President Bush tried to remind the audience what had brought U.S. troops to Iraq. "Saddam Hussein had constantly defied the world and had threatened his neighbors, had used weapons of mass destruction, had terrorist ties, had torture chambers inside his country, had mass graves." Unfortunately, Bush did not go further and connect the dots. The prisoners in the cellblocks of Abu Ghraib are war criminals and terrorists with the blood of Iraqi women and children, as well as coalition personnel, on their hands. Some are foreign fighters, hardcore jihadists. A few humiliating photos cannot turn these monsters into martyrs. It should be noted the outcry over the scandal is far louder among the usual anti-American crowd in "world opinion" than it is inside Iraq.
The real damage to American credibility in Iraq has come from the failure to act decisively against the enemies of the liberation. Those in the anti-war movement leading the hue and cry over the prison scandal aim to cripple the U.S. war effort. They know they cannot directly convince the American public that defeat is better than victory. They take a more subtle approach. If they can inhibit the war effort so that the conflict appears "unwinnable," then the public will demand the White House withdraw from a lost cause.
Much is said about the "Arab street" but the "American street" is the more critical battleground. Americans are not particularly concerned about how much death and destruction is inflicted upon the enemy. Polls show that support for the invasion of Iraq was at its highest level (76% according to Gallup) when U.S. air strikes were rocking Baghdad and armored columns were rolling in. Now that the war effort seems to be stalled, with Washington unwilling to move decisively against insurgents who daily inflict casualties on American troops, President Bush's job approval for Iraq has fallen to only 42% in the May 4 Gallup poll.
It remains to be seen whether the joint Iraqi-Marine peacekeeping arrangement works in Fallujah, where the Sunni population needs to be integrated into a post-Saddam polity. There is, however, no justification for allowing the radical Shiite insurgent Moqtada al-Sadr to remain at large and in command of his Mahdi Army. Coalition forces have conducted raids and precision strikes on some of al-Sadr's facilities and have repealed assaults by his fighters. However, the operations look more like a defensive containment of his movement than a true effort to eliminate al-Sadr from the Iraqi political landscape. Many even claim U.S. policy is to "marginalize" him.
If he is allowed to survive, al-Sadr can sustain his movement because he has outside support. Money, weapons and fighters are infiltrating Iraq from Iran under the guise of religious pilgrims to the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. As Tehran's agent, al-Sadr can never be persuaded to cooperate within the new Iraqi political system. The Iranian mullah's see the failure of the American effort in Iraq as their top priority. The U.S. plan to reform and modernize the Middle East is a direct threat to their survival. They want Washington to suffer such a bloody nose in Iraq that it will be deterred from ever taking aggressive action again in the region.
Al-Sadr has been able to attract Iraqi militants by successfully posing as the equal of the Coalition Provisional Authority. His threats appear to deter stronger U.S. action due to the fear of casualties or criticism. For the CPA to allow Iran to send a delegation to "mediate" with al-Sadr in mid-April was a sign of abject weakness. The deal negotiated by this delegation asked tribal leaders to "postpone" al-Sadr’s arrest for murdering a rival Muslim cleric and to create an Iraqi force to patrol Najaf, which would include units of the Mahdi militia. This would be a monumental blunder. Al-Sadr must be eliminated before the turnover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.
An army with the superior combat capabilities possessed by the United States will take fewer total casualties by eliminating an enemy than by engaging in a war of attrition. Losing a handful of lives every day to bombs and sniping without advancing adds up and promotes the notion that the losses are in vain. The increased fighting in Najaf and Karbala in recent days hopefully indicates that the advocates of victory have won the internal debate in Washington and American forces are on the offensive again and not merely trying to pressure al-Sadr into a settlement.
What the Bush administration says about terrorism is even more important when applied to Iraq. This is a war, not a police action. The only alternative to victory is defeat, both over seas and in our own country. The U.S. needs to be aggressive and win this. There is no better way to rebut critics than with success.
William Hawkins is Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council in Washington, DC.