May 10, 2004

Bush's Pentagon Statement

Still very much on the road but was able to catch Bush's Pentagon press conference on CNN International.

All told, I wasn't impressed.

It was a transparent bid to try get back 'on message' (Bush, while blessedly not a Clinton-like obsessed poll-reader, likely nevertheless derived some comfort from polls indicating that a majority of the public supports Rumsfeld).

Basically, it appears Bush is looking to routinize the scandal, ie. get into 'let the investigation proceed', impending court martials, 'rule of law' mode.

Democracy in action!

I wish I could be so sanguine.

But, and particularly with more pictures on the way, I simply can't.

Bush, in his Pentagon talk, outlined three main "commitments" to Iraq (and, in passing, asked Congress to approve a USD25B 'contingency fund').

1) "First, we will take every necessary measure to assure the safety of American and coalition personnel, and the security of Iraqi citizens. We're on the offensive against the killers and terrorists in that country, and we will stay on the offensive."

2) "Our second great commitment in Iraq is to transfer sovereignty to an Iraqi government as quickly as possible. Decades of oppression destroyed every free institution in Iraq, but not the desire to live in freedom."

3) "Third, because America is committed to the equality and dignity of all people, there will be a full accounting for the cruel and disgraceful abuse of Iraqi detainees.

The conduct that has come to light is an insult to the Iraqi people and an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency.

One basic difference between democracies and dictatorships is that free countries confront such abuses openly and directly. In January, shortly after reports of abuse became known to our military, an investigation was launched. Today, several formal investigations led by senior military officials are under way.

Secretary Rumsfeld has appointed several former senior officials to review the investigations of these abuses. Some soldiers have already been charged and those involved will answer for their conduct in an orderly and transparent process. We will honor rule of law. All prison operations in Iraq will be thoroughly reviewed to make certain that such offenses are not repeated.

Those responsible for these abuses have caused harm that goes well beyond the walls of a prison. It has given some an excuse to question our cause and to cast doubt on our motives. Yet who can doubt that Iraq is better for being free from one of the most bloodiest tyrants the world has ever known? Millions of Iraqis are grateful for the chance they have been given to live in freedom, a chance made possible by the courage and sacrifice of the United States military."

Some of this is true.

Millions of Iraqis (though the number is likely diminishing daily) are of course grateful to have been rid of the yoke of brutish neo-Stalinist rule that was Saddam's Iraq.

Our soldiers have shown courage in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it was good of Bush to stress to the servicemen and women serving in Iraq (the vast majority serving honorably) that he stands firmly with them in the midst of this scandal.

But here is the problem. He got the order of the commitments wrong.

He tried to trot out the old lines about hunting down the diehards and terrorists. He gave us the Fallujah/Najaf updates. Finally, third, he got around to the "abuse" of Iraqi detainees.

At the present juncture, however, the tortures that took place in Abu Ghraib must be the lead story (or commitment). Sorry, but whether we've got patrols or such in Fallujah right now; well, I don't care a whit just now (OK, I do, but not nearly as much as I care about seeing Bush get on top of this torture scandal).

A scandal that is going to get worse (see the latest picture over at the New Yorker of a dog terrorizing a detainee--blood is reportedly drawn in later pics--an odious, de-humanizing torture worthy of your best friendly neighborhood Baathist thug).

Speaking of torture, Bush has yet to utter the word.

But army dogs drawing blood from detainees is prima facie torture.

But I guess actually using the T-word would compromise due process for our accused troops or such?

Nor has Bush yet offered up an unadulaterated and full-blown apology to the Iraqis tortured by U.S. forces.

Or announced he will reduce Abu Ghraib to rubble.

Meanwhile, his White House press spokesman (during the snippets of the daily White House brief I saw) looks like he is in cover up mode regarding pics and tapes still not made public.

Put another way, I'm worried Bush doesn't get the stakes and the fact that America (as Fareed Zakaria recently put it) is increasingly being viewed as an "international outlaw" (if so often hyperbolically and unfairly) through large swaths of the globe.

I say this with regret as a defender of Bush and supporter of this war.

I think Bush has often been grossly underestimated and believe he has pursued, all told, a robust, cogent and impressive foreign policy.

But, in Iraq, I'm starting to lose faith.

We have made big mistakes.

We should have never disbanded the Iraqi Army. And no, this isn't a case of hindsight being 20-20. Many experts urged that the Iraqi Army not be disbanded before the conflict.

We never had enough troops in country to effectively protect supply lines, to provide a real 'shock and awe' strategy (read: a soldier on every corner when Iraqis woke up in the morning), to pursue a consistently robust counter-insurgency campaign.

And now, we are not getting in front of this hugely important scandal. A scandal which shows a pretty AWOL command. It smells, frankly, of (gross) negligence at the highest levels. Or something of an alarming insouciance about the treatment of U.S. detainees from the senior Pentagon leadership.

Bush, to use a phrase he likes to use these days, must understand that this scandal is of the highest import in terms of, not only successfully seeing the Iraq effort through, but also our larger aims in the region and our image through the world.

Bush must release all remaining pictures and videotapes to the world. Now.

Then he must call them what they are. That's torture.

He must then fully apologize. In unfettered, unadulterated fashion.

And, all told, I suspect he needs to push Rumsfeld along (should the embattled SecDef decide not to resign) if the vicious abuses and tortures prove to have occurred at other facilities too or if Rumsfeld is increasingly deemed to have been staggeringly incompetent (or arrogant, or secretive) in terms of not alerting POTUS and/or Congress, in timely fashion, about the scale of the torture scandal developing since January.

Finally, Rumsfeld, I fear, has ulimately proved a too hubristic figure who allowed for a "culture of extra-legal behaviour" (the Economist's phrase) to take root during the prosecution of the global war on terror.

And I fear that may have had a material impact on the lack of effective oversight at places like Abu Ghraib.

Put differently, it's starting to smell like we had too many penal colonies strewn about the globe where, more often than should ever have occurred, an anything goes mentality appeared to reign. Put differently, material gaps in adult supervision of the going-ons.

Yes, we don't know that yet. But it's my strong suspicion. In any case, we will see how all this develops in the coming weeks and months.

But, I repeat, and as a pretty consistent Bush supporter--Rumsfeld must give very serious consideration to resigning relatively soon.

You say--the fish rots at the head--why not call for the President's head?

He will be answerable to the electorate a few months on regardless--while Rumsfeld is an appointed official. For me, how Bush handles Abu Ghraib will be critical for his electoral prospects.

Accepting Rumsfeld's resignation, destroying Abu Ghraib; seeking the stiffest penalties in the court martial proceedings for guilty soldiers; uttering the "T" world, releasing all pictures/videos forthwith; apologizing convincingly (and yes, seeing the job through in Iraq generally)--all these actions will help Bush in November and, more important, are the right thing to do now.

In other words, talk about the 'rule of law' (how about in Abu Ghraib?) taking its course and Fallujah updates aren't going to cut it right now, I fear.

I hope Bush gets the stakes more fully and moves in these directions shortly. I'd note too, finally, that his praise of Rumsfeld today was not all it appeared.

He didn't reiterate that Rummy will stay in his cabinet, for instance. Yes, he praised him handsomely. But he left Rummy the wriggle room to exit if that increasingly appears the way to go...Developing, as they say.

Posted by Gregory at May 10, 2004 05:49 PM
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