All Writings
May 12, 2004

A War That Was Lost Before It Began

I believe that in the wake of the revelations about the sadistically cruel and inhuman abuses of Iraqi prisoners, it is safe to say that America's stature in the world has sunk deeper than at any previous time. It may take us decades before we can regain our moral legitimacy and, if we can, it will be only because we immediately begin to take drastic measures to repair the profound damage caused by the war in Iraq and its terrible aftermath.

Even before the despicable revelations of the gross human rights abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq, our international standing was severely tarnished because of the false premises we used as a basis for executing the war. The treatment of Iraqi prisoners is our worst nightmare come true in a war that should have never taken place. We had an unparalleled opportunity in human experience to consolidate our moral legitimacy and leadership in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union; instead, we have squandered all of this reserve in a mere 31/2 years because of a reckless war followed by misguided and arrogant policies. The fact that such atrocities have been committed by a country that has held up the torch of human rights and preached to other nations the gospel of freedom and democracy make the charges against us doubly critical. To suggest, as did President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, that the abuses were committed by only an aberrant few in no way excuses, explains, or justifies the administration's inept conduct and negligence that resulted in abuses of such magnitude. Although top officials received reports of what was going on since the Summer of 2003, they virtually ignored them and very little was done until the infamous photos came to light. It is apparent from testimonies and several investigations that these atrocities, committed in many Iraqi prisons, especially Abu Ghraib, were the consequence of an environment and culture that encouraged them. It was a given of this culture that the pressing need for intelligence and information to blunt the Iraqi insurgency justified any means, including torture, rape, the utter disregard for the uniform military code of justice and humanitarian treaties, as well as the Geneva conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war. The sad mockery is that, even as the president and his Secretary of Defense apologized for the despicable behavior of some of our men and women in uniform in Iraq, hundreds of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were languishing, mostly in solitary confinement, without being charged with any crime, yet denied basic human rights and any legal recourse. An irony, even more sad, is that we went to war to liberate Iraq from a ruthless despot, but now we are seen by most Iraqis as ruthless occupiers determined to suppress any opposition, not for the sake of a free and democratic Iraq, but for control over its oil riches.

One might think that the outrageousness of what happened in Iraq is the lowest to which we could have sunk, but that prize for now seems to go to the Republican Senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe. During a Congressional hearing on General Taguba's investigation, Senator Inhofe stated that the prisoners were murderers and terrorists and "probably have American blood on their hands." He then suggested that for every picture released of an abused prisoner, we should release photos of mass graves and children being executed under Saddam Hussein. This kind of statement represents precisely the type of perverted mentality that drove some of our otherwise decent men and women in uniform to commit these terrible infractions. Since when does Saddam Hussein's conduct provide a yardstick for our moral behavior? How are we to correct our global image when individuals in positions of authority lose their moral compass as they place party politics above the national interest? We can trace our continuing failures, I believe, to this loss.

One of the most painful aspects of the unspeakable abuses concerns how we are to remember the young men and women of our armed forces who died believing in the cause of freedom when their comrades betrayed their memory by blatantly wanton and criminal behavior.

To restore our credibility and integrity may take decades, but only dramatic immediate actions can begin this long and painful process. We need a fresh start at the Defense department, the CIA, the occupation's provisional Authority, and a new National Security advisor. Mr. Rumsfeld, Director Tenet, Mr. Bremer, and Dr. Rice must go. It is under their watch that these abuses happened, and they must each assume responsibility for them. We must demonstrate that we take very seriously what has occurred in Iraqi prisons, not only for the Iraqis' sake, but for our own. The president has rendered a terrible disservice to the nation by lavishing unqualified praise on his Secretary of Defense yesterday for "courageously leading our nation in the war against terror," and "doing a superb job," adding that "our nation owes you a debt of gratitude." One wonders if Mr. Rumsfeld has done such an incredible job in executing the war in Iraq as the president said, why are we in such a terrible mess? What kind of shape would we be if Mr. Rumsfeld had done a poor job? God help us.

Replacing these top officials is not enough. The chaos in Iraq, and apart from that, the battle against international terrorism cannot be overcome singlehandedly. We need first to admit that we cannot go it alone and then seek an honorable political exit strategy that involves the full participation of United Nations and our European allies. If they must share our burden, they should also be allowed to share the authority to shape Iraq's future. It is not entirely certain they would want to get involved in the Iraqi morass, but in times of emergency and crisis like the present that affect the entire international community, they must share responsibility and the need for their involvement becomes considerably more compelling. We must show that our actions always transcend our national interest and indeed serve the interests of all those nations affected by these events directly and indirectly. The Iraqis, to be sure, want to see an end to the occupation. Only through the clear and transparent involvement of the international community, including Arab and Muslim nations, might we prove to ordinary Iraqis that violence has diminishing returns.

A terrible initial fallout from this horrendous abuse, the beheading of the Nicholas Berg from Pennsylvania, has rightfully sent shivers down the spine of every American. How are we to stop this raging madness? The war in Iraq and its aftermath have plunged the good men and women of our armed forces down into the abyss. The occupation must end. For once, this administration must be honest with the American people and stop pretending that we won a war we had in fact lost before it began.