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Jewish World Review May 10, 2004 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Barbara Amiel

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Rummy resign? It boils down to evil v. bad | LONDON — This week's Economist cover screams, "Resign, Rumsfeld". With the tide of condemnation over American mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and the charge that it will be a "permanent stain on America for years to come" (sic), the events at Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad seem a story judged.

The admonition of the Economist leader that "the pictures of abuse, especially the one… of the hooded man wired as if for electrocution, stand an awful chance of becoming iconic images that could haunt America for years…" shows how news organisations are doing their damnedest to make sure just that happens. The iconic photo takes up the entire cover of the Economist.

All I know so far about what happened at that prison is the 53-page report prepared by American Major-General Antonio Taguba. His report describes a prison running wild rather than one systemically bad. Hardened Iraqi criminals were mixed in with high-risk terrorists and ordinary detainees. One commander went to Kuwait for a rest from "stress" before being demoted. His female replacement appears to have no notion of army regulations or procedure. The training of the 800th Military Police Brigade to administer 7,000 prisoners is described as inadequate. Not only were prisoners inside being abused but scores of others were merrily escaping with no follow-up. Some corrupt Iraqi guards were passing weapons and contraband to inmates. Riots resulted in shootings and the death of inmates. It all sounds like a wartime version of Bedlam, Byzantium and affirmative action.

Clearly, terrible things, including rape and sodomy, were committed, largely during October and November 2003. American soldiers inside the prison brought them to the attention of the authorities in January 2004 and the Taguba report was finished in March. Criminal investigations as well as court martial proceedings are under way. What one needs to read in addition to this report are its 106 annexes, which include the testimony of army personnel and prisoners, earlier reports and a multitude of cited data. Pending this, it's hard to make an informed judgment.

Was torture an official policy? Was it encouraged or condoned? Was there any attempt at cover-up? How high did it go? What precisely were the involvement of intelligence officers and the circumstances of the atrocities? The Economist is not handicapped by such hair-splitting worries and has already decided that the abuses were "part of a culture of extra-legal behaviour that was set at the highest level". Hence the admonition to fire Mr Rumsfeld if he won't resign.

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What a difference a year makes. In her fascinating 2003 biography Rumsfeld, Midge Decter gives a wry round-up of the "Rummy" love-ins that swept America when the defence secretary became a national celebrity in the wake of September 11. CNN called him a "virtual rock star", Fox news "a babe magnet". People magazine named him one of the country's "leading sex heroes". Cut to last week's blindingly thick Senate Armed Forces Committee Hearings, which resembled nothing so much as the preliminary inquiries of a war crimes trial. It was a couple of hours before one Democratic senator blew up like a puff adder to ask, portentously, the Killer Question: if it were in the national interest, would Mr Rumsfeld resign? After a pause, the defence secretary, whose patriotism and press conference candour are no act, replied: "That's possible." The New York Times found this "stunning" in its "breathtaking simplicity". I thought it a simple answer to a straw-man question.

If President George W Bush had followed Governor George W Bush's "no nation-building" policy, Mr Rumsfeld would not be facing such a question. The defence secretary won the first half of the war with the major combat operations that deposed Saddam Hussein. It is the second half - the attempt to transform Iraq into some sort of working quasi-democracy - that is in doubt. If you are a democracy waging war, you had better be victorious.

Torture is reprehensible in any event, but only when victory is in doubt could a matter like these prison photos blow up into such a major scandal. The outrage from Arab countries, many of which comprise the torture chambers of the modern world and tolerate tyrants enforcing far worse measures than those at Abu Ghraib, is hard to take seriously. One heard no such protests when Saddam was in power and doing his worst, or when Syria was slaughtering the Muslim Brotherhood. This doesn't excuse what happened at the prison but tactical crocodile tears do not need our handkerchiefs. The objections of the Western world are more complicated.

Three weeks ago in Highland Park, Texas, Mrs Dolly Kelton was arrested and handcuffed for failing to pay a traffic ticket after her car was stopped for having an expired registration. I doubt that Mrs Kelton was a threat to the safety of the arresting officer. She is 97 years old.

We handcuff her - or a white collar criminal such as Michael Milken - because some Western societies, and America in particular, use these procedures as a way of softening up the accused by humiliation and to underline the power of the authorities. We routinely use measures in normal police matters that, very strictly speaking, violate the Geneva Conventions. Interrogations may use some form of psychological menace. Noise or lighting may deliberately create some sort of sleep deprivation for a short period.

This is not to say we should withdraw from the Geneva Conventions in order to fight drug dealers and child molesters, but only to note that in some circumstances, our police may use such tactics. In Iraq, we are fighting men and women who routinely blow up civilians in a guerrilla war of the most merciless kind. If a 97-year-old woman is handcuffed for a traffic offence, what is the appropriate procedure for murderous guerrillas?

In this contest against such an enemy is it possible to employ investigative methods to get vital intelligence that are no stronger than those police departments use for ordinary crimes? I don't know the answer but it seems to me an issue that can't totally be dismissed by reference to the need to uphold the values for which we are fighting - true though that is.

We waged war on Iraq for several specific reasons. Behind the stated ones was the strategic sense that if the Western world were ever to be safe from Arab threats, we had to create one country in the region where genuine power-sharing could create a modern society. In the same issue of the Economist, guest contributor Sir Jeremy Greenstock writes a thoughtful article on the need for coalition forces to stay in Iraq until 2006 to create this. For such an effort, homeland support is vital. Winning the hearts and minds of the mass media is at least as difficult as gaining those of all Iraqis. Without both, Western hopes and security will be sodomised and no senate hearings will ever be held on that.

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JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

11/04/03: No wonder Bush inspires hatred
10/01/03: Blair's dilemma today is Blair himself
09/09/03: The UN in Iraq? That's the last thing that America needs
04/15/03: It's time for Russia to choose our side in the Great Game
04/01/02: Turkey should be wary of its Franco-German friends
03/18/02: Blair's dilemma: This time he cannot be all things to all men
02/18/02: Letter from London: What you don't see is what you get
02/05/02: The UN is fast becoming a threat to world peace
10/29/02: When dealing with the devil, words like "dialogue" and "agreement" are comic
09/10/02: Never mind the dossier, just leaf through 'Iraq for Dummies'
08/27/02: How Kissinger the hawk was twisted into a fake dove: Lessons in liberal journalistic integrity
05/15/02: Why protecting the peace will make a mockery of justice
05/01/02: Why has it taken Le Pen to ask the awkward questions?
04/17/02: Truth about Israeli casualties is being ignored in this war
02/18/02: America's war on terrorism is a fight for all democracies: What the European elite are clueless about
01/29/02: Pity the al-Qa'eda detainees? Why is liberal 'torture' kosher?
12/18/01: What those in the London salons don't -- or won't -- see
12/04/01: We are not risking world war so women can show their ankles
11/20/01:"Anti-terrorism" has become the Western world's equivalent of the Arabian Nights' "open sesame"
11/06/01: We must rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes
10/31/01: The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it

© 2001, Barbara Amiel