President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld were both asked to apologize recently for the illegal and amoral behavior of a few miscreant soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They did so without qualifications, despite the fact the military had itself uncovered the transgressions and already prepared a blistering indictment of such reprehensible acts. Media scrutiny was intense; a general has already been removed from command; court trials are scheduled; and more resignations, demotions, and jail time loom.
But since we are in the season of apologies, we might as well continue it to the bitter end. Here I do not mean the buffoons like Michael Moore whose remorse would be as spurious as the original slander was lunatic, but rather serious commentators and statesmen who have crossed the line and need to step back. So here it goes.
Ted Kennedy is the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts. He wields enormous influence and has appointed himself as surrogate spokesman for the Democratic opposition. Yet here is how he recently weighed in about Abu Ghraib: “Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management–U.S. management.”
This slander is both untrue and dangerous at a time when thousands of Americans are under fire in the field from commandos and criminals without uniforms who often pose as innocent civilians. The slur, pompously and publicly aired, is a morally reprehensible pronouncement in almost every way imaginable inasmuch as Saddam murdered tens of thousands with the full sanction of the Iraqi state apparatus. In contrast, a few rogue U.S. soldiers may have tortured and sexually humiliated some Iraqi prisoners–evoking audit and censure at the highest levels of “U.S. management” and inevitable court martial for those directly involved. There is no evidence that the “torture chambers” that disemboweled, shredded, and hung prisoners on meat hooks are now “reopened” for similar procedures on orders of the American government.
Mr. Kennedy should apologize. His reckless and feeble attempts at moral equivalence are wrong in matters of magnitude, government responsibility, and public disclosure, remorse, and accountability. Worse still, his silly comments–printed around the Arab world–suggest to the those on the battlefield that a high-ranking official of their own American government believes that his own soldiers are fighting for a cause no different from that which murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Thomas L. Friedman is the chief New York Times columnist now writing about foreign affairs. Millions at home and abroad read what he writes, and trust him to be both sober and judicious in his criticism. We have all read him with profit at times. But in a particularly angry opinion editorial on May 13 he leveled the following baffling charge: “I know this is hard to believe, but the Pentagon crew hated Colin Powell, and wanted to see him humiliated 10 times more than Saddam.”
That charge is simply untrue, and is nearly as reckless as Mr. Kennedy’s remarks. Mr. Rumsfeld and his aides do not “hate” Mr. Powell. No one has expressed such venom. But what is truly reprehensible is to imply that officials of the United States government wished far worse for their own decorated Secretary of State than they did for a mass murderer with whom they were then currently at war. Once more such a malicious remark will do untold damage abroad. If Mr. Friedman cannot produce a reputable source or direct quotation for such an unfortunate attribution that borders on character assassination, he should apologize for being both wrong and incendiary.
So far we know as much about the Oil-for-Food mess as we do the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal. Other than the sensational pictorial evidence from the prisons, the only difference in the respective ongoing audits is that the U.S. military is fully investigating its own while the U.N. is stonewalling. But if dozens of Iraqis may have been humiliated and perhaps even tortured by renegade American soldiers, tens of thousands of women and children faced starvation while corrupt U.N. officials at the highest levels knew about billions of needed dollars in illegal kickbacks skimmed off hand-in-glove with a mass murderer.
So far Kofi Annan–whose own son, Kojo, was at one time associated with the Swiss Cotecna consortium involved in the shameful profiteering–has not apologized to the Iraqi people. He should. Again, his agency’s wrongdoing did not result in humiliation for some, but probably cost the lives of thousands while under his watch.
What is going on? The months of April and May have been surreal–scandals at Abu Ghraib, decapitations and desecrations of those killed from Gaza to Iraq, and insurrections in Fallujah and Najaf. The shock of the unexpected has led to hysteria and cheap TV moralizing by critics of the war, fueled by election-year politics at home, apparent embarrassment for some erstwhile supporters of the intervention who are angry that democracy in Iraq has not appeared fully-formed out of the head of Zeus, and a certain amnesia about the recent dark history of the United Nations.
Yet there are historical forces still in play that bode well for Iraq–aid pouring in, oil revenues increasing, Iraqi autonomy nearing, and radical terrorists failing to win public support–all of which we are ignoring amid the successive 24-hour media barrages. The combat deaths of 700 soldiers are tragic. We in our postwar confusion have also made a number of mistakes: not storming into the Sunni Triangle at war’s end, not shooting the first 500 looters that started the mass rampage of theft, not keeping some of the Iraqi army units intact, not bulldozing down Saddam Hussein’s notorious prisons, not immediately putting at war’s end Iraqi officials into the public arena, not storming Fallujah, and not destroying al Sadr and his militias last spring.
Still, in just a year the worst mass murderer in recent history is gone and a consensual government is scheduled to assume power in his place in just a few weeks. Postwar Iraq is not a cratered Dresden or the rubble of Stalingrad–it is seeing power, water, and fuel production at or above prewar levels. For all the recent mishaps, two truths still remain about Iraq–each time the American military forcibly takes on the insurrectionists, it wins; and each time local elections are held, moderate Iraqis, not Islamic radicals, have won.
So let us calm down and let events play out. If it were not an election year, Mr. Kennedy would dare not say such reprehensible things. In two or three months when there is a legitimate Iraqi government in power, Mr. Friedman may not wish to level such absurd charges. And when the truth comes out about the U.N.’s past role in Iraq, both Iraqis and Americans may not be so ready to entrust the new democracy’s future to an agency that has not only done little to save Bosnians or Rwandans, but over the past decade may well have done much to harm Iraqis.
But in the meantime, let these who have transgressed all join the president and the secretary of defense and say they are sorry for what they have recklessly said and the untold harm that they have done.