The Lessons from the Abu Gharaib Scandal


The congressional debate on prisoner abuse in Iraq is heated and intensely partisan. At the same time, it largely misses the point.

Both sides, Republicans and Democrats, are, of course, shocked by the graphic pictures and detailed reports of abuse. And both are justifiably concerned about the impact that this horrific problem will have on both the image of the United States and the safety and security of the many decent and innocent Americans serving the United States overseas.

The partisan divide, however, occurs over the matter of accountability. Most Republicans go to great pains to stress that the pictures and the reports of torture are the work of a few, "a very few". They promise first to root out and punish the bad elements who committed these deeds. They also recognize the need for an investigation into who else in the chain of command bears responsibility. Leading Democrats agree with these steps, but have additionally called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who they hold ultimately responsible for the entire affair.

For his part, President Bush, showing genuine outrage, has denounced the abuse calling it abhorrent and has promised that justice will be done. There are reports that Bush upbraided Secretary Rumsfeld in a private White House meeting, but the President has made it clear that Rumsfeld will retain his post. On the other side, the presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, who, after returning from Vietnam in the 1970s was exceptionally critical of the behavior of some in that conflict, has joined with others in his party in calling for the Defense Secretary to step down.

The problem, however, is deeper than either side is willing, or apparently able, to admit. In many ways, the pictures and stories coming about of Abu Gharaib, while shocking in and of themselves, are only symptomatic of issues that cut to the very core of this war.

Eighteen months ago, when Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and I introduced a resolution on Iraq for consideration by the Democratic National Committee, we were concerned by the Administration’s rush to war and the mistaken support given to their effort by some in the Democratic leadership. We raised issue with the fact that the American people were not being given full information and that the President was, we felt, deliberately underestimating the costs, the consequences and the terms of US commitment in this war. At that time, the ideologues who were selling their vision of this war were projecting a "cake walk"-a weeklong battle, followed by a celebratory reception of Iraqis greeting their American liberators and then the flowering of a contagious democracy in the heart of the Arab world.

More cautious or concerned estimates provided by uniformed military, both past and present, were ridiculed, and detailed contingency plans by State Department experts were dismissed. At congressional hearings, civilian Pentagon officials steadfastly maintained that the job required only about 100,000 American troops and the first estimates were that the total U.S. commitment would last only about six months.

This, not the weapons of mass destruction, was the big lie about this war. And it is this lack of candor about the cost, consequences and commitment that is at the root of the current problems confounding U.S. forces in Iraq today. As a result of this state of affairs, inadequate forces-needed to provide security, services and reconstruction-bedevil the U.S. American military personnel taught to fight wars are instead required to patrol streets, engage in public relations and social service activities, act as prison guards and protect increasing numbers of apparently unsupervised private mercenary contractors who have been brought in to perform in a variety of capacities.

The problem of this war is bigger, therefore, than the six abusive prison guards who have so far been identified. It is even bigger than firing the Secretary of Defense. The horrors at Abu Gharaib, and other still unidentified locations, are a function of the fact that this war is today being fought by overworked, under trained, unsupervised and overextended young Americans put in a situation they never should have been put in to begin with.

It is important, as well, to comment on two of President Bush’s other observations. First, he has maintained, that the abuse shown in the pictures is not reflective of American values. But then, in reality, such inhumane behavior is just that-inhumane. Which is to say that it reflects no society’s values. Saying this, however, does not absolve a society, because under the right conditions any society, or people in any society, can behave in such a manner. All societies have displayed, in different instances, their share of barbaric behavior. This is the case in many Arab countries, in Israel, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and of course, America. There are, for example, too many instances of brutal and inhuman treatment in America’s prisons that should be addressed and corrected. And yet, all too often, these abuses have been ignored.

The problem is not the values we profess, but it is what we do to protect these values and how we act to make corrections when these values are violated. This brings me to the President’s second point. During his interview with Arab television, Bush noted that, in acknowledging this wrong doing in a public way, he was doing something that reflected how the American system operates. Certainly that was true as well in the heated exchanges that took place between Secretary Rumsfeld and the Senate and House committees that questioned him. Bush was correct to note that the U.S.’s system of justice and its open media would not allow such an outrage to go unnoticed and unpunished. If this situation plays out to its completion America may yet be able to salvage its wounded image. But in order for this process to truly be completed, it will require more than justice being meted out to the guards who committed offenses. It will require more than following their crimes up the chain of command. What is required, as well, is a total reassessment of how and why America got into this war as it did in the first place. It will require dramatic corrective action and a reorientation of America’s posture toward Iraq and the entire Arab world.

All of this will come too late for the thousands of Iraqis and the hundreds of Americans who’ve died, and for the Iraqis who’ve been tortured and for the young Americans who became torturers-but it’s never too late to start the process of making real change.