Not for the first time, the American people are reacting to the Abu Ghraib scandal in a far more measured and fundamentally decent way than is the Washington establishment.
According to a Washington Post poll, 90 percent of Americans are either concerned, upset, or angry about the abuse of Iraqi detainees, two-thirds favor criminal charges against the soldiers guilty of it, and 54 percent believe that those officers who allowed discipline to break down should also face punishment.
But only 20 percent of Americans think that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign; more than two-thirds think he should stay on; and even a slight majority of Democrats support him.
These are sober, balanced, and moral judgments. It is possible they will change in response to new evidence. While they stand, however, they are in sharp contrast to the fit of moralistic indignation in Washington where Rumsfeld’s resignation is almost universally demanded–for instance, by the Post, the New York Times, the congressional Democrats, anonymous military officers, The Economist magazine–as a symbol of national repentance and cleansing. [Note to letter writers: Moralistic does not mean the same thing as moral.]
That would be a legitimate and necessary demand if Rumsfeld had either encouraged the abuses or sought to cover them up when they were discovered. But the evidence strongly indicates that he did neither.
Some have sought to suggest that Rumsfeld in effect encouraged abuse by arguing that “new rules applied” since September 11 and by maintaining that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the Afghan irregular fighters held in Guantanamo. But almost all politicians and government officials have said exactly the same thing. Various new rules have in fact been introduced since 9/11 covering such matters as airport security and preemptive strikes against rogue states. The 9/11 Commission hearings have sharply criticized the administration precisely because the old rules did not effectively safeguard the U.S. against terrorism–to loud applause from the same quarters now denouncing Rumsfeld.
Needless to say, neither Rumsfeld nor anyone else has suggested that “new rules” might allow detainees to be sexually humiliated, attacked by dogs, or subjected to any of the other horrific acts that seem to have occurred. Interestingly enough, similar abuses did not occur in Guantanamo even though the Afghan detainees there were legally considered to be outside the protection of the Geneva Convention. Maybe that was because the U.S. government and Rumsfeld himself, far from hinting that harsh treatment might be justified, said repeatedly that the detainees would be treated in line with the rules of the Convention.
The argument that Rumsfeld was guilty of a cover-up is even thinner. The U.S. Army first learnt of the allegations on January 13. The following day a criminal investigation was launched. Two days later the Army announced publicly that it was investigating allegations of prisoner abuse. All in all, since the whistleblower first blew his whistle, the Department of Defense has initiated no fewer than six investigations into different aspects of the prisoner abuse.
Indeed, what the media and the public know about the scandal comes almost entirely from one of those investigations–the Taguba report–that was leaked on the Internet. But details of the alleged abuses were not officially released earlier because, as with normal criminal investigations in the U.S., the rights of the accused have to be protected.
Rumsfeld went by the book. Where, then, did he go wrong?
That is actually a hard question to answer. In the first place, he probably thought that since these various investigations were going ahead, the problem was being handled. He would deal with it–and make any further public announcements–when the legal process climaxed and the criminal indictments landed on his desk.
Remember too that, during this period, the battles of Fallujah and Najaf broke out. For a while the entire future of Iraq seemed to hinge on their outcome. He doubtless gave the prisoner abuse scandal (then working its way through the Army’s legal process) a lower priority than winning those battles and stabilizing the security situation.
The good news is that the Iraqi situation has actually improved. In particular, the firebrand cleric in Najaf, Motaqba Al-Sadr, has been quietly marginalized. More senior Shia clerics have sermonized against him; his militia’s last-ditch attacks in Basra have failed; and an anti-Sadr militia has emerged and is murdering his militant followers.
Fallujah too is quieter with Sunni police patrolling the town by arrangement with the U.S. Marines. And though the final outcome there is still uncertain (and though its current peace may have been bought with too high a price in U.S. prestige), Fallujah no longer seems likely to spark a nationwide Iraqi uprising.
The bad news (for Rumsfeld) is that the American media is no longer interested. It can only handle one Big Story at a time. It has transferred its monomania from the security situation in Iraq (and from the much more serious scandal of the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program) to detainee abuse. It wants a scalp. And all those who have long wanted to get rid of Rumsfeld on other grounds, such as military brass whose favored programs he has axed or a Democratic leadership in need of an issue, jumped eagerly on its bandwagon.
Things may change, but in the light of the current evidence, Rumsfeld seems to have made three mistakes: Not realizing that the scandal, fuelled by disgusting photographs of abuse, would be so powerful. Not sensing that the hostility of many Americans, some very well-placed, to the Iraq invasion would make them actually eager for news that discredited it. And not overriding the U.S. Army’s legal procedures in order to break the news quickly and limit the inevitable political damage.
None of these are resigning matters–especially for a Defense secretary who won two military campaigns with very low casualties. The American people realize this even if their betters do not.
–John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of The National Interest. This piece first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission. O’Sullivan can be reached through Benador Associates