Thursday, June 21, 2007

Circling the Wagons

The Iraq War, it will be proven someday, was lost in the first week of May 2004. Up to that point, many if not most Iraqis were convinced that the United States had come as a friend, to liberate them and to establish a western-style democracy with respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Then came Abu Ghraib.

As the photos of sadistic prisoner abuse showed the Iraqis that maybe the United States wasn’t exactly an ideal role model, any hope of winning the hearts and minds of the people vanished. From that moment on, recruitment of what we call “insurgents” became much easier.

It didn’t have to be that way. When the photos surfaced, the official reaction should have been one of total outrage. The response from the White House and the Pentagon should have been along these lines: “This conduct is inexcusable and shameful, and we are going to find out who was responsible, and when we do, heads will role. Meanwhile, we extend our profound regrets to all those Iraqis who were abused, and to their families.”

Instead, the world was told that (1) the United States does not authorize torture, (2) the offenses were acts of a handful of misguided soldiers, (3) the accused would be properly tried and, if convicted, punished. Congressional oversight was a joke, with one committee member rationalizing that “Abu Ghraib was the price of defending democracy.”

The trail of responsibility ended in the lower levels of the chain of command, as it always does. Secretary Rumsfeld pleaded ignorance, as did Generals Abizaid and Sanchez. Needless to say, neither Rumsfeld nor his President had ever signed any order that could conceivably condone the actions of Abu Ghraib. Rule number one is to do what you have to. Rule number two is to ensure deniability.

The whole sorry tale of Abu Ghraib is told in Seymour Hersh’s “The General’s Report” in the June 25 issue of The New Yorker. The General here is Major General Antonio Taguba, who wrote the definitive Army report on the prisoner abuses. General Taguba, a man of unshakable integrity, knew what this assignment meant: “If I lie, I lose. And, if I tell the truth, I lose.”

General Taguba issued a pull-no-punches account of Abu Ghraib, and shortly thereafter General Abizaid, then the head of Central Command, sternly told him, “You and your report will be investigated.” Says Taguba, recalling the warning, “ I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time I thought I was in the Mafia.” Last year, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, General Cody, telephoned: The message:” I need you to retire by January of 2007.” Thus the messenger was shot.

War is, as Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, a messy business, and it is also clear that our soldiers are fighting an enemy with little regard for the Geneva Conventions. Still, we are supposed to inhabit the moral high ground. At least that’s the way General Taguba saw it, and others agreed with him. But the men of morals were outgunned by the men of expediency. The heavies in the Hersh article include a number of Generals (Abezaid, Miller, Craddock, Formica, Cody, Sanchez) and Secretary Rumsfeld and his Under-Secretary Stephen Cambone.

General Taguba’s was not the only report issued on Abu Ghraib. An independent panel headed by James Schlesinger also investigated, concluding that there was “institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels.” But Schlesinger (a former defense secretary) absolved Rumsfeld of any direct responsibility.

Seven M.P.s were convicted of various charges, and one was sentenced to ten years in prison. The only officer facing trial is a lieutenant colonel due to stand court-marshal in August. The top brass and the Pentagon power structure circled the wagons, as they always do, and they are all off the hook.

(Flashback: Lt. William Calley was convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai and sentenced to life imprisonment. As it turned out, he served 3-1/2 years of house arrest at Fort Benning and was then set free. His superior, Capt. Medina, who, according to Calley, gave the order to kill all 109 victims, was found blameless.)

Says General Taguba: “we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”

The Hersh article is dispiriting, but it is worth reading.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Summit

A few weeks from now, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin will spend two days here in Kennebunkport, just down the coast a few miles. It is stirring to consider that decisions made almost within sight of here (a few pesky islands are between us) may shape the world order for decades to come.

One can’t be sure of the temperature of the conversation - there has been a chill in the air lately – but it might go something like this:

GWB: Hiya Vlad. Good flight?

VP: Ochen korosho. Kak vui pashzevayetsa?

GWB: Tell you what, Vlad. Let’s try it in English. Your English is a whole lot better than my Russki.

VP: Very good, Mr. President. And yes, it was good flight.

GWB: Now Vlad, we’re good friends, right?

VP: I hope so, Mr. President.

GWB: And friends can speak about their differences openly. So I have to say again what I said at the G-8: We’re disappointed in your actions in the area of human rights.

VP: Well, if I may use an old Russian proverb, Mr. President, people living in glass houses should not throw stones. May I remind you of Guantanamo, Abu Graib, Haditha…

GWB: That’s different, Vladimir. We’re at war.

VP: When the Soviet Union was fighting in Afghanistan, we were at war. But you were not so forgiving then. In fact, you supplied weapons to our enemies, to people you now call terrorists.

GWB: Look Vladimir, that was then, this is now. The Cold War is over. Let’s be friends.

VP: Friends do not point nuclear missiles at each other.

GWB: Now, Vladimir, I am going to have to help you a bit with your English. The word is nucular, not nuclear. I hope you don’t mind the correction.

VP: But I thought it was spelled…..

GWB: The spelling doesn’t matter, Vladimir. It’s an irregular verb.

VP: It’s a strange language, English.

GWB: Like reelator. Would you like something to drink?

VP: Excellent. I brought some of our best vodka, George. Will you join me?

GWB: Thanks, Vladimir, but I've been on the wagon for years. How about a good old-fashioned, capitalistic Coke?

VP: Yes, we will toast each other with Cokes. Here's to peace!

GWB: As they say in Russia, nazdorovya!

VP: As they say in Casablanca, here’s looking at you, kid.

GWB: Tell you what: Let’s save the serious stuff for tomorrow. Today, why don’t you enjoy the place? A swim in the ocean would be just the thing after your long flight. Would you like that?

VP: But isn’t the ocean water very cold here in Maine?

GWB: Only in the winter, Vladimir. In July, it’s a warm as a cow in the clover, heh heh.