We went to Iraq to liberate the people of Iraq from oppression. Part of our jobs as liberators is to create and enforce some level of law and order. Part of this process is creating a local police force, part of it is acting as a police force ourselves.
It is not an easy job to fill a power vacuum like that left by Saddam Hussein and his iron-fist regime, and there will be problems. I’ve been saying this all along, as has the Bush administration. None of us expected the roadside bombings and widespread terrorism, but it’s something we have to deal with.
Acting like the regime that we deposed is not the way to deal with it.
You’d have to have lived under a rock not to have heard about the prisoner abuse scandal that is unfolding at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. (You can read a little about it all from Time Magazine / CNN.com [no longer available].) American soldiers who have mistreated the prisoners there have betrayed Iraq, have betrayed their service, and have betrayed the United States of America.
After a series of photographs of the abuse surfaced in the media and on the internet (go to wherever you get your news, you’ll find what I’m talking about), there was general outrage around the world about what was happening in Abu Ghraib—and justifiably so. Prisoners were shown piled on top of one another, paraded around naked, ridiculed, threatened with attack dogs, forced into sexual positions, and otherwise treated in a way that I would never treat even my worst enemy.
Millions around the world now look at the United States’ Iraqi regime as the bad guy (more so than they did already). Any positive news out of that country—the rebuilding of its infrastructure, development of its government, and slow restoration of law and order—has been sidelined by the abuse scandal. Now, in apparent retaliation for our mistreatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners, an American citizen has been beheaded on tape with a threat that more such murders are still to come.
President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—not to mention various generals and other military officials—have apologized for what happened at Abu Ghraib. That’s step one. Now it’s time to go a lot further.
But first, I am not talking about the resignation of Rumsfeld. Some have called for this, and I believe it would be counterproductive. Rumsfeld did not cause the prisoner abuse, and he did not “allow” it to continue. Chances are that he didn’t even know it was happening, and if he did I can guarantee that he did not know its extent. Nobody in the Bush administration would risk kind of fallout on the “Arab street” that this has generated. If anybody knew these abuses were happening, they would’ve been stopped for PR purposes, if not for ethical ones.
Second, people need to stop blaming President Bush for everything little thing that goes wrong. To blame the commander-in-chief for a horrendous, terrible thing that’s happening halfway around the world and perpetrated by a group of low-level soldiers and other officials is ludicrous. Bush has a responsibility to set things right, but he cannot be held responsible for every crime a member of the military commits.
So what should the administration do? First, they must punish the people who are responsible. There’s a lot of controversy about just who bears responsibility for the abuses in Abu Ghraib—military officials claim that it was the low-level soldiers who are shown in photographs committing the abuse, while those soldiers are claiming they were ordered to abuse prisoners. I would guess it is both. Those giving the orders should be punished for giving illegal orders, but the soldiers who committed the crimes should be punished for obeying them. A soldier does not have to follow an illegal order.
But trying these people for the abuse is not enough. They have committed treason against the United States, and they should therefore be tried for treason. Further, they have committed crimes in Iraq against Iraqis—thus, after our military court system is through with them, they should be turned over to the Iraqi justice system.
When those soldiers, with the American flag on their shoulders, committed crimes and abuses in Iraq, they insulted my country and aided its enemies. Their superiors did the same when they ordered those soldiers to do so. All should be punished accordingly.
Further, we must right these wrongs by Arab and Muslim traditions. This means payment to the victims and their families for the shame, embarrassment, and pain that our country’s representatives have put them through. We must deal with the religious and cultural authorities in Iraq, as well as the victims themselves, to determine appropriate compensation for the crimes our soldiers committed. Then, our government should pay without hesitation, without negotiation, and without question. This will go a long way toward improving our image, and—more importantly—it is the right thing to do.
Finally, we must close Abu Ghraib. Not only must we close it, we must bulldoze or bomb it to the ground. Some of the worst atrocities of the Saddam Hussein regime were committed at that prison, and—sadly—some of the worst atrocities of the American occupation occurred there too. It is a place that represents evil. If only for symbolic reasons, Abu Ghraib must go.
The liberation of Iraq was the right thing to do, and the mistakes we have made in the war and its aftermath do not change that fundamental fact. As atrocious as our behavior has been at times, it still pales in comparison to the prisoner abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib under the previous regime. But that does not justify what has happened, nor does it mute its effect on how the American occupation is perceived in Iraq and around the world.
We cannot spend a year wasting time with congressional investigations and trials and our president saying on Al Arabiya television that he is “appalled.” We need decisive action and we need it immediately. We need to convince the “Arab street,” the rest of the world, and our own citizens that we’re punishing people, we’re changing things, and these abuses will not happen again. When Iraqis turn on Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya next week, they should see those criminals who call themselves soldiers being carted off to prison. When the feed cuts away, it should cut to the coalition razing Abu Ghraib prison.
These proactive steps to set things right will not instantly change how the United States is perceived in Iraq or elsewhere. Unfortunately, the harm to our image may be irreparable. As liberators, we had a responsibility to set an example of how free nations behave—this is a responsibility that we may not have lived up to. In free nations, criminals are supposed to be in prison, not running them.
Now is a critical juncture in our occupation of Iraq. President Bush was not responsible for the abuses in Abu Ghraib, but he is responsible for the example we set in dealing with those abuses. If we allow democracy to appear criminal, weak, lawless, and slow, then we have lost the war. He has little time to prevent that from happening.