The photographs of U.S. troops humiliating Iraqi prisoners inside one of Saddam's most notorious torture chambers were used on Capitol Hill as an opportunity to highlight problems of executive decision making over a number of aspects of the mission in Iraq. And the buck has, not surprisingly, landed at the door of the architects of the mission Rumsfeld and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon.
A Question of Accountability
Critics of the administration see the isolation and vulnerability of the American mission in Iraq right now as a product of policy choices personified by Rumsfeld: the aggressive unilateralism that has left the U.S. unable to attract significant allied participation; comments questioning the application of the Geneva Convention in instances where the enemies of the U.S. are deemed terrorists; and, most importantly, a capital-intensive war plan that has left America short of troops to pacify Iraq. Just as the plaudits poured in for the Defense Secretary following the lightning victory for the U.S. forces that captured Baghdad in three weeks, so do the complaints arrive at his door when, a year later, the U.S. is struggling to achieve its war aims. That's because the DoD civilians appeared to overrule Army brass before the war in respect of troop levels required for the occupation mission, and they shut out the State Department from the process of post-war planning that proved to be tragically inadequate.
The objective of the Bush administration this week, in numerous interviews by the president and other top officials in the Arab media, and in the congressional testimony by Secretary Rumsfeld and some senior military officers, has been to paint the Abu Ghraib abuses as an abhorrent and unacceptable aberration, the work of a few bad apples who have sullied their uniform and endangered the overall U.S. mission. Both the president and his defense secretary have made clear that the very process of inquiry now must serve as an exemplar to the Iraqis and the Arab world more generally of America's good intentions, and the principles of democratic accountability.
The administration did, nonetheless, move to put a firewall around the defense secretary by saying that Rumsfeld had been "dressed down" by the president for failing to keep him in the loop. If, indeed, the abuses turn out to have been the work of a handful of low-ranking individuals acting outside of orders, Rumsfeld's job is safe. But if it emerges in the coming weeks that the abuses were a systemic failure of oversight or even the product of orders from Military Intelligence to the jailers to create an "enabling" environment at the prison that would facilitate the extraction of information from detainees under interrogation, as some of the questions Friday suggested the defense secretary may take the hit from any backlash.
The U.S. Mission in Iraq
Still, in answering questions from Rhode Island Democratic senator Jack Reed about whether instructions may have been issued to "soften up" detainees for interrogation, Rumsfeld made what may be the central point of the events at Abu Ghraib. Interrogation of suspects, he explained, was an essential part of protecting U.S. soldiers in Iraq. And that brings several unresolved issues squarely into focus.
Since April 1, an average of five U.S. troops has been killed in Iraq every day. A year after Baghdad first fell, the insurgency is stronger than ever, and U.S. forces require intelligence to help defend themselves from insurgent attack. But the ideological assumption of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is that most Iraqis welcome the presence of the Coalition troops, while those resisting are a tiny minority of local thugs and foreign terrorists. The reality on the ground, as experienced by tens of thousands of U.S. troops, may be quite different. Polls show that a majority of Iraqis now want the U.S. to leave immediately, and as much as half the population sees violence against Coalition forces as justified in some circumstances. Military commanders on the ground have begun to adapt their tactics to a reality quite different from the official spin of a liberating mission challenged only by foreigners and desperate thugs: At Fallujah, the Marines have given security responsibility to former Iraqi generals who are publicly celebrating the city's "victory" over the U.S., and are recruiting to the new Fallujah security force some of the very people that fought the Marines for control of the city.
U.S. forces are now operating in an environment in which their enemies sometimes have considerable popular support, and they are difficult to distinguish from the civilian population. Under such conditions, interrogation tactics may be necessary to save lives. The key question, though, is whether the prison guards acted on their own, or whether Military Intelligence had issued any general instructions to "soften up" the detainees ahead of interrogations as those charged with carrying the abuses argue in their defense. No clear answer on this question emerged in Friday's testimony.
The defense secretary's vulnerability is less on the specific instances, than on the question of oversight. He struggled, for example, to answer questions from Arizona Republican senator John McCain over who was in charge of the interrogation process at Abu Ghraib, and whether they had issued any instructions to the guards that might pertain to treatment of the detainees ahead of interrogations. Oversight issues were also at the center of questions over the handling of complaints from the International Committee for the Red Cross, and how President Bush was informed of the abuses.
At a time when the latest Gallup poll shows that some 55 percent of Americans now disapprove of the President's handling of the situation in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal puts a cloud over Rumsfeld's career particularly when administration officials inform the press that he has been reprimanded by the president. The administration may also see a need to reassure America's closest allies, who have given the U.S. the benefit of the doubt in legal gray areas and whose trust has been eroded, that strong action is being taken. But axing the tough-talking executive charged with executing his war on terror would be sharply counterintuitive to President Bush, and could send a disastrous message of internal discord at a moment when the administration is vulnerable over the conduct of the war. The test will come in the weeks ahead, as investigations proceed and new details emerge. The President has said he does not recognize the America shown in the Abu Ghraib abuse photographs. But if investigations show that the abuse is the result of more than a handful of bad apples, Bush will be under growing pressure to take some action.