June 19, 2004

Abu Ghraib: Then and Now

A B.D. post from March 2003:

When Saddam suddenly ordered the release of tens of thousands of prisoners from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison last fall, the surge of inmates from within the walls and family members from without overwhelmed prison guards and crushed a number of people to death at the very moment of freedom. Reporters who ventured into the bowels of the prison were struck by the appalling odors of long human confinement. When the seal on Iraq is broken, the surge will be just as intense, and the smell of decades of repression just as rank. ''With the removal of the dictator,'' says Thomas Carothers, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ''political life will begin immediately,'' and unless American troops are able to provide civil order while they hunt down weapons depots and resisting units of the Special Republican Guard, it will initially look more like vigilantism than party-building.

Leave aside the second part of this quote; which might get me boring my readers again about how we screwed up by not having at least double the troop count in Iraq back in April of '03 (real 'shock and awe'--ie., overpowering force and manpower throughout the country from Day 1).

Concentrate instead on the ironies surrounding the Abu Ghraib debacle--freed detainees ecstatic at leaving Saddam's torture chambers--and now a torture scandal, at the same jail, involving the United States.

Le plus ca change Euro-sophisticates are doubtless hemming and hawing over a good bottle of Pommard.

There have been tremendously worse and galling ironies, of course, not least on the European continent.

After all, the apogee of cruel irony--which significantly contributed to the cynicism infused post-modern era we inhabit--must be the infamous sign above Auschwitz:

"Arbeit Macht Frei", or "Labor is liberating."

The cynical, Abu Ghraib narrative prevalent in Europe and the Arab world (torture redux, new management) isn't, of course, even remotely of the same scope or nature as the hideously ironic import of that sign that loomed above Auschwitz--the site of one of humanity's greatest horrors and enduring shames.

But, alas, there are still ironies aplenty here.

Abu Ghraib now, in the world's popular imagination, whether fairly or not, is simply viewed as a longstanding penal colony that has simply come under new management.

New management that proclaimed they were coming to bring democracy and constitutions--rather than aberrations of said constitutions (such as supposedly Geneva Convention-compliant torture-lite--borne of suspect, mediocre and morally defunct legal analysis.)

Another irony is that I suspect many Iraqis are less concerned about Abu Ghraib than many outraged Western commentators.

Mostly because they know that, even given that some detainees may have been purposefully killed during U.S. captivity there, the mostly mock executions, sexual humiliations, menacing canine tactics, all told, don't come close to comparing with Saddam-era stewardship of the jail.

It Doesn't Really Matter that Saddam Did Worse

You know, a lot of people supporting the administration on this issue are talking these days about how Abu Ghraib was much worse under Saddam (including people I like and respect like Nick Schultz and Glenn Reynolds).

And, of course, they are (mostly) right. [ed. note: Why the "mostly"? Well, when you die because your skin has been peeled off or you die because you were conventionally beaten to death, the ultimate result is the same, isn't it?]

Still, of course, sexual humiliation and mock executions do not come close to the medieval-style, odious tortures perpetrated by Saddam's brutes at Abu Ghraib (that are hard even to read about--see Nick Schultz's piece for descriptions of the horrific tortures).

But folks, people like Glenn and Nick miss the point here.

We all know Saddam was a monstrous, neo-Stalinist thug.

To intimate, hey, he treated people worse than us--so our behavior is kinda not all that big a deal--that argument shouldn't be allowed to fly.

Especially given the alacrity by which legal grey zones were being found by which to push our obligations under the Geneva Conventions, pretty much, aside.

Especially given the undertow of anti-Arab racism (I get mail from people about how the "Arab culture is less free with the naked body" and such. The import is, why all the fuss about a naked pyramid stack or two?)

As I've said before, we wouldn't have treated Serbian POWs like this. To deny there is a racial aspect to our poor treatment of Arab detainees (and some Afghans) is farsical.

And especially too given the failure of the Administration to digest and understand the full impact of Abu Ghraib in terms of its impact on our moral standing and ability to demand greater human rights standards of others--from Burma to Venezuela; from Cuba to Zimbabwe.

What We Should Have Done; But Haven't To Date

We needed a major Presidential address on this scandal--announcing a thorough, full-blown investigation into U.S. policy on detainees worldwide--from Gitmo to Bagram and everywhere in between.

We needed (need?) Rummy to go--especially given his continued arrogance in addressing the full impact of the scandal ( Drezner pointed out one particularly good example here).

We needed to raze the jail (Christ, we invaded Iraq; now we need Iraqi permission to raze the jail? What B.S.! And regardless, who in the new Iraqi government would want to keep the bloody jail around anyway?)

We needed to release all pics and videotapes--rather than, as will doubtless occur going forward, having them come out piecemeal in the coming days and weeks.

The lack of disclosure lends to a feeling that there is much more to hide. And it aggravates the issue because people are continuing to wait for worse outrages to become public.

The better to get it all out in front per John McCain's suggestion.

After all, if we are going to clamor for the media to show us the barbaric reality of the Nick Berg and Paul Johnson beheadings--well, let's clamor for all the Abu Ghraib pics to be released too, no?

Needed: Real Leadership

Look, we ran Abu Ghraib (and seemingly other detention centers) in clear contravention of international norms we agreed to be bound by. And therefore, in my view, we ran afoul of both the letter and spirit of the U.S. constitution--notwithstanding "defining torture down" DOJ memoranda.

There really isn't any way around this.

No way around, either, the fact that Saddam invaded the Irans and Kuwaits of the world in naked self-interest--land and oil grabs.

Certainly not per any democracy exportation excercise.

We, on the other hand, claimed one of the reasons we went into Iraq was to forge a democracy. And, it bears noting, we may still do so. Despite the very difficult going so far, it's not inconveivable that a unitary, democratic Iraqi polity will still emerge.

But sadly, because of Abu Ghraib and the Administration's still sub-par handling of the scandal, we are showing ourselves to be less than ideal messengers of democratic tenets of accountability and the like.

This scandal is simply too big for Administration's handling of it--and not merely because the NYT and WaPo run stories on it day in, day out. It has got real, deep legs and is going to keep drip-dripping along.

The court martials of the low-level 'bad apples' should be suspended pending an independent investigation of top-down Administration action on our policy on torture and our detention centers worldwide.

To avoid all the partisan rancor and sniping that inevitably accompanies Congressional going-ons--I would propose a blue-ribbon style commission, with subpoena power, and staffed with leading elder statesmen (to the extent there are any left).

Think Cy Vance/Henry Stimson types.

People who aren't going to buckle under a Don Rumsfeld. Sam Nunn. James Baker. Brent Scrowcroft. Warren Rudman. And so on.

Allowing such a process to proceed would signal to the world that we take Abu Ghraib damn seriously.

And that a fully transparent investigatory process is underway.

Responsible, thorough, turn-over-every-rock kind of stuff.

Finally really, what we need is real leadership on this situation.

Empowering such a commission would signal that Bush gets the stakes and is willing to let the chips fall where they will.

You say, but investigations are proceeding. Court processes are afoot. Rummy has apologized. Generals have been suspended. Why the handwringing and hysterics?

I say, not good enough.

Not when the investigatory processes underway are too limited in scope and sometimes smell more like they are aimed at damage control than a thorough investigation of how systemic the problems of Abu Ghraib were and are.

And, not least, not when the Defense Secretary gets to appoint a key investigatory panel looking into the entire matter himself.

That, of course, signals and assumes that ultimate culpability should reside below the level of SecDef.

And, in my view, we simply don't know that just yet.

Posted by Gregory at June 19, 2004 04:15 PM
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