Monday, May 10, 2004
THE CHASTENING: The question I have asked myself in the wake of Abu Ghraib is simply the following: if I knew before the war what I know now, would I still have supported it? I cannot deny that the terrible mismanagement of the post-war - something that no reasonable person can now ignore - has, perhaps fatally, wrecked the mission. But does it make the case for war in retrospect invalid? My tentative answer - and this is a blog, written day by day and hour by hour, not a carefully collected summary of my views - is yes, I still would have supported the war. But only just. And whether the "just" turns into a "no" depends on how we deal with the huge challenge now in front of us.
THE CASE STANDS - JUST: There were two fundamental reasons for war against Iraq. The first was the threat of weapons of mass destruction possessed by Saddam Hussein, weapons that in the wake of 9/11, posed an intolerable threat to world security. That reason has not been destroyed by subsequent events, but it has been deeply shaken. The United States made its case before the entire world on the basis of actual stockpiles of dangerous weaponry. No such stockpiles existed. Yes, the infrastructure was there, the intent was there, the potential was there - all good cause for concern. Yes, the alternative of maintaining porous sanctions - a regime that both impoverished and punished the Iraqi people while empowering and enriching Saddam and his U.N. allies - was awful. But the case the U.S. actually made has been disproved. There is no getting around that.
The second case, and one I stressed more at the time, was the moral one. The removal of Saddam was an unalloyed good. His was a repugnant, evil regime and turning the country into a more open and democratic place was both worthy in itself and a vital strategic goal in turning the region around. It was going to be a demonstration of an alternative to the autocracies of the Arab world, a way to break the dangerous cycle that had led to Islamism and al Qaeda and 9/11 and a future too grim to contemplate. The narrative of liberation was critical to the success of the mission - politically and militarily. This was never going to be easy, but it was worth trying. It was vital to reverse the Islamist narrative that pitted American values against Muslim dignity.
The reason Abu Ghraib is such a catastrophe is that it has destroyed this narrative. It has turned the image of this war into the war that the America-hating left always said it was: a brutal, imperialist, racist occupation, designed to humiliate another culture. Abu Ghraib is Noam Chomsky's narrative turned into images more stunning, more damaging, more powerful than a million polemics from Ted Rall or Susan Sontag. It is Osama's dream propaganda coup. It is Chirac's fantasy of vindication. It is Tony Blair's nightmare. And, whether they are directly responsible or not, the people who ran this war are answerable to America, to America's allies, to Iraq, for the astonishing setback we have now encountered on their watch.
THE INEXCUSABLE: The one anti-war argument that, in retrospect, I did not take seriously enough was a simple one. It was that this war was noble and defensible but that this administration was simply too incompetent and arrogant to carry it out effectively. I dismissed this as facile Bush-bashing at the time. I was wrong. I sensed the hubris of this administration after the fall of Baghdad, but I didn't sense how they would grotesquely under-man the post-war occupation, bungle the maintenance of security, short-change an absolutely vital mission, dismiss constructive criticism, ignore even their allies (like the Brits), and fail to shift swiftly enough when events span out of control. This was never going to be an easy venture; and we shouldn't expect perfection. There were bound to be revolts and terrorist infractions. The job is immense; and many of us have rallied to the administration's defense in difficult times, aware of the immense difficulties involved. But to have allowed the situation to slide into where we now are, to have a military so poorly managed and under-staffed that what we have seen out of Abu Ghraib was either the result of a) chaos, b) policy or c) some awful combination of the two, is inexcusable.
It is a betrayal of all those soldiers who have done amazing work, who are genuine heroes, of all those Iraqis who have risked their lives for our and their future, of ordinary Americans who trusted their president and defense secretary to get this right. To have humiliated the United States by presenting false and misleading intelligence and then to have allowed something like Abu Ghraib to happen - after a year of other, compounded errors - is unforgivable. By refusing to hold anyone accountable, the president has also shown he is not really in control. We are at war; and our war leaders have given the enemy their biggest propaganda coup imaginable, while refusing to acknowledge their own palpable errors and misjudgments. They have, alas, scant credibility left and must be called to account. Shock has now led - and should lead - to anger. And those of us who support the war should, in many ways, be angrier than those who opposed it.
WINNING THE WAR: But we must still win. This isn't about scoring points. It should not be about circling partisan wagons. And it must not mean withdrawal or despair. Much has also gone right in Iraq. Saddam is gone; the Kurds are free and moving toward democratic rule; in many areas, self-government is emerging. The alternatives to regime change, we should remember, were no alternatives at all. Civil war is neither inevitable nor imminent. Before the Abu Ghraib disaster, there were encouraging signs that Shiites were themselves marginalizing al Sadr's gangs; and that some responsible Sunnis could be integrated into a new Iraq. We have time yet to win over the middle of Iraqi opinion to the side of peaceful democratic change. How to do it? We need to accelerate elections; we need to show the Arab and Muslim world that we will purge our military and intelligence services of those who perpetrated these obscenities and those responsible for them; we must spend the money to secure the borders, police the power-lines, and bring measurable prosperity to a potentially wealthy country; and we have to eat even more crow to get the U.N. to help legitimize a liberation that most Iraqis now view as an intolerable occupation.
To my mind, these awful recent revelations - and they may get far worse - make it even more essential that we bring democratic government to Iraq, and don't cut and run. Noam Chomsky is wrong. Abu Ghraib is not the real meaning of America. And we now have to show it - in abundance. That is the opportunity this calamity has opened up. And then, when November comes around, we have to decide whether this president is now a liability in the war on terror or the asset he once was. How he reacts to this crisis - whether he is even in touch enough to recognize it as a crisis - should determine how the country votes this fall. He and his team have failed us profoundly. He has a few months to show he can yet succeed.
Sunday, May 09, 2004
READ AND WEEP: Here's Sy Hersh's latest account of what went wrong at Abu Ghraib. The truly horrifying thing is that the worst is yet to come. The photos we have seen are, apparently, benign compared to what we have not yet seen. I am sorry I cannot be more upbeat. But nothing that the enemy could dream up could have done us more harm in the eyes of the world than what some in U.S. uniform have done to the United States' credibility and honor. We have no option but to withstand it and carry on. We owe that to the Iraqi people, to the world and to ourselves and our own security. But the damage is immeasurable; and, ultimately, the president must take responsibility. You could feel the psychological barometric pressure drop this weekend in Washington. Maybe the rest of the country won't react the same way. Or maybe there will be a time-lag in which the country as a whole realizes it has lost confidence in this administration as profoundly as Washington now has. But every time I try to think of a way in which this is not catastrophic to the cause of democracy and peace in the Middle East, I come undone.
Saturday, May 08, 2004
"AN EXCUSE UGLIER THAN THE GUILT": Iraqi blogger, Zeyad, writes: "Now, regarding the disgusting images from Abu Ghraib that the whole world had witnessed in the last few days. They didn't come as a surprise at all, we have been hearing stories about the abuse of prisoners for a long time from released detainees and from humanitarian organisations. It doesn't shock me at all that some American soldiers are so sick and devoid from any humanity. You need to have a cousin pushed off from a dam by some in order to learn that. What surprises me though are people saying 'Saddam did worse', or the soldiers responsible claiming they were 'never taught anything about running a prison', and 'No one gave us a copy of the Geneva conventions'. We have a saying for that over here, 'An excuse uglier than the guilt'.
The fact that the soldiers were merely relieved from duty and reprimanded wasn't surprising either. In fact it is to be expected. The outcome of the investigation indicated that systematic psychological and physical torture, mistreatment, or abuse (whatever) was indeed routine in US detention centers throughout Iraq. Military Intelligence officers had encouraged it, referring to it as 'setting the conditions for subsequent interrogation', and of course soldiers follow orders without questioning. Keep in mind, though, that former Iraqi Security and Mukhabarat officers also employed appropriate measures to 'set the conditions', and we thought we were over that now.
While Saddam Hussein sits safely in his comfortable cell in Qatar or wherever else he is being held, Iraqi detainees are being put into the most humiliating and degrading conditions that can be imagined. While the guilty are free to wreak havoc, and take refuge in holy cities, the innocent are detained and mistreated for months without charges. But it seems like that is life.
They may be just a few soldiers, it may be an isolated case, but what's the difference? The effect has been done, and the Hearts and Minds campaign is a joke that isn't funny any more.
A SLEEPLESS NIGHT: I have to say my mind and heart are reeling from these images from the bowels of Abu Ghraib and the thought that worse are yet to come. The look on Lindsey Graham's face yesterday said it all: he was in a kind of panic. Yes, I know that the implications of this do not extend to our entire endeavor in Iraq; it is still a noble, important and worthwhile thing to accomplish. In fact, it is perhaps more essential that we get it right now and, by a successful end, remedy in part the unethical means of Abu Ghraib. But I cannot disguise that the moral core of the case for war has been badly damaged. It would be insane to abort our struggle there now because of these obscenities. But we will be changed even in victory. I believed the WMD rationale for this war and that still survives, though with greatly diminished credibility. But I believed in the war fundamentally on moral grounds. When doubts surfaced in my head before the conflict, I kept coming back to the inadequacy of the alternatives, i.e. keeping a crumbling Saddam in power, and to the moral need to replace a brutal dictatorship with freedom.
By any objective standard, that rationale still holds. Iraq is a far better place today than it was as a police state, and its future immeasurably brighter. But what this Abu Ghraib nightmare has done is rob us of much of this moral high ground - and not just symbolically or in the eyes of others. But actually and in the eyes of ourselves. The political consequences of this - will Rumsfeld go? will Kerry become president? - strike me as less important than the crisis of national morale it provokes. I want us to get over this but I also don't want us to get over this. The betrayal of our ideals is too deep to be argued away. Images in this media-saturated, volatile world can have more impact than any words. But the impact will, I think, be deeper on Americans than on an Arab street where hatred for this country runs high in any case. And that is how it should be. For these pictures strike at the very core of what it means to be America. We must expose, atone for, and somehow purge ourselves of this stain, while fighting a war that still must be fought. And it will not be easy.