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Dirty Pictures, Dirty War

Campaigning in Michigan this week, President Bush revealed that American culture is moving away from “if it feels good, just go ahead and do it . . . to a culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life.”

A comfy thought. But no one — including the president — is willing to take any responsibility whatsoever for the ghoulishly documented reports of abuse and torture coming out of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. For more than two months now, the Bush administration has sat on a 53-page internal Pentagon report richly detailing the widespread abuse that included:

Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.

Bush says he hasn’t read the report, which was dissected in The New Yorker last week by Sy Hersh. Neither has the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. (Myers went on the Sunday shows to reassure us that these are isolated incidents.) The almost-always-chatty Don Rumsfeld went mysteriously mum during the first week of the scandal and then finally responded with the usual platitudes. Military Intelligence blames the Military Police. The MPs, in turn, blame the MIs. No one, meanwhile, can explain what the senior NCOs were doing while the smirking, smoking soldiers were snapping pics of nude Iraqis in the hallways. Where were the staff sergeants, by the way? Were they too distracted by group readings of the collected works of Bill Bennett?

Judging from the photos flashing around the globe, no one seemed in a big hurry to conceal anything. No supervising officers noticed the prisoners were being posed in sexual positions outside of their cells? Everyone closed their eyes as the Iraqis were shunted around the facility to avoid Red Cross inspections? No rush to wrap the prisoner beaten to death in plastic and ice and pretend he was alive as his corpse was carried out?

Looks like the American staff at Abu Ghraib hadn’t yet heard the president’s message of moral uplift. Looks like they were still stuck in that old ’60s culture of “if it feels good, just go ahead and do it.” They were probably blaring some Hendrix tunes as they staged the Iraqis giving blowjobs to each other. And who knows what kind of cigarette that woman soldier pointing to their penises was smoking?

The internal report by Major General Antonio Taguba makes it clear, in fact, that no one was assuming responsibility. In page after page, he stressed that this was an institutional — not isolated — problem. Sy Hersh, interviewed by Charlie Rose, said the abuses started early and went on and on unchecked. Hersh surmised that if the Pentagon hadn’t learned a couple of weeks ago that the abuse pictures were about to become public, very little if any of the conditions at the prison would have changed. The Military Intelligence investigation — one of six now in course — didn’t begin until 10 days ago. Even after CBS’s 60 Minutes contacted the Pentagon three weeks ago for response, and the DOD knew for sure this story was going to break, still no one in the administration even briefed congressional oversight committees or gave them the Taguba report.

 

The ineptitude of this administration is truly breathtaking. You needn’t have been a genius to anticipate this sort of abuse. Given that the most ardent proponents of this war argued that it was aimed at shifting the Middle Eastern balance of forces away from anti-Americanism, the Bush administration had a special responsibility to take measures to avoid any such dehumanization and degradation.

The Abu Ghraib prison was Saddam’s Bastille, a notorious brick-and-mortar monument to the grisly repression of the ancien régime — simply the most despised patch of ground in Iraq. If the White House and the Pentagon planners had any real sense of that country, they would have immediately bulldozed the place, and the crowds that would have come out to cheer would have dwarfed the small rally stage-managed around the televised toppling of the Saddam statue.

Taking over Saddam’s torture house as their own detention facility was a grievous error by the coalition. Replicating Saddam’s practices inside will prove politically fatal. “It is as if British or American soldiers had not only executed German prisoners of war, but had force-marched them to Dachau in order to commit the atrocity,” says Christopher Hitchens, an early advocate of regime change. Beyond the pingponging arguments about WMD, whatever fundamental moral bases for the invasion and occupation of Iraq existed have now fully evaporated. It’s hardly scenes from a liberation that we can glimpse through the viewfinders of those soldiers’ digital cameras.

The scope, dimensions and impact of the political storm unleashed by the abuse revelations are yet to be fully determined. That it has set back U.S. policy and standing in the region a couple of decades seems already indisputable. Just as the prison photos are sure to turn up in Osama bin Laden’s next recruitment video. The high tide for the Bush administration project in Iraq is now behind us. From now on we will be forced to navigate our exit through the deadly rip tides and whirlpools of a failed policy, hoping — at most — that neither we nor the Iraqi people will be drowned on the way out.

The limits of American power — political, military and moral — are now starkly outlined. After a year of unilateral blustering, we turn meekly back to the U.N. for help, only to find we have few willing allies left. After similarly failing to muster enough popular support in Fallujah to make it governable, we fumble to find mustachioed Ba’athist commanders who will impose order, and we give American uniforms and arms to the same insurgents who, a week ago, were firing at us.

Once we have ceded to Saddam’s generals, it should be little surprise that we have also ceded to his methods.

See Marc Cooper’s daily blog at www.marccooper.com.