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Abuse in Iraqi Prisons Does Not Justify Rumsfeld’s Ouster

The abuse of Iraqi prisoners that is now coming to light was without a doubt despicable, abhorrent and illegal. But on the basis of presently known facts, these events do not justify the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nor the political frenzy it has caused in Washington. [IMGCAP(1)]

This was not the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops butchered hundreds of innocent Vietnamese civilians in 1968. And, contrary to the charges by Democrats screaming for Rumsfeld’s scalp, the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison was not “covered up.”

U.S. authorities have launched at least five investigations into treatment of captives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Charges have been filed against some abusers. Officers have been relieved of command. The investigations and charges were announced in March, and stories were written about them in U.S. newspapers.

What triggered the tornado of controversy about Abu Ghraib was the publication of pictures depicting the abuses and a leak of the classified official report on the investigation.

Since then, the response of the Bush administration has been anything but a shrug. Abject apologies have been issued from military authorities in Iraq, from Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and, finally, President Bush.

Investigations are ongoing and, if abuse of detainees is proved to have been routine or inspired by high-level policy, it’s certain that heads will roll, as they should. If it’s called for, even Rumsfeld’s job should be at risk. But it isn’t yet.

Rumsfeld’s leadership of the Iraq war effort has certainly been flawed, especially in his underestimation of post-war difficulties and costs. He has needlessly offended foreign countries. On the other hand, Iraq is largely his war — as well as Bush’s and Vice President Cheney’s — and, barring evidence of misconduct, he should be kept on to finish the job he started.

One major failure that the prison scandal exposes is the Bush administration’s inability to communicate to the Iraqi people, the Arab world, international opinion and even Americans what horrific brutalities the United States ended when it toppled Saddam Hussein and what progress the U.S.-led occupation has made in Iraqi reconstruction.

The administration has been unable to counter impressions of what’s happening in Iraq that are transmitted by a largely hostile media — from Al Jazeera to the BBC and even much of the U.S. media in Iraq, which concentrate on the negative.

Americans know only in the most general sense about the mass graves — containing 130,000 bodies so far — of persons executed under Hussein’s regime.

A few networks have aired grainy pictures from Hussein’s files of persons having their tongues cut out, being thrown from buildings and being shot, but the administration has made no concerted effort — either before the war or after — to offer a humanitarian case for the war.

The world needs to be reminded — again and again — that Hussein’s secret police were rewarded for torturing, raping, humiliating and murdering victims by the thousands.

This doesn’t excuse the hooding and sexual humiliation inflicted by American soldiers, and it certainly it does not excuse deaths that may have been caused in some cases. But it deserves attention to fix U.S. behavior in a more realistic context.

At least part of the horror being expressed in the United States now stems from the reading — perhaps correct, perhaps not — that the Abu Ghraib pictures will inflame opinion in the Arab world against the United States.

But as Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami pointed out on PBS’ “Newshour with Jim Lehrer” last week, the Arab media are perpetually inflaming hatred against the United States. The abuse controversy is merely new fuel for that long-burning fire.

Moreover, there is no evidence as yet of any mass uprising in the “Arab street” — no riots, no embassies sacked — as a result of publication of the Abu Ghraib pictures.

The United States should set a context by publicizing the grim reality of conditions in Arab prisons.

Who’s ever heard of a Human Rights Watch report revealing that Egyptian police routinely round up homeless children who “in police custody face beatings, sexual abuse and extortion by police and adult criminal suspects, and police routinely deny them access to food, bedding and medical care”?

Surely Americans should be held to a higher standard than Arab countries, especially when we claim to be bringing democracy to the Middle East. And in fact the United States is indeed observing a higher standard: When abuses occur, we investigate them, punish them and apologize for them.

Last week, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Rice pointed out that American troops were sacrificing their lives to improve the lot of the Iraqi people. Yet both she and the administration have all but failed to get out word about what’s been done.

Members of Congress are regularly furnished with “Iraq Status” reports featuring statistics on electricity generation, oil production, schools and hospitals opened, and security forces trained. But this information rarely filters to the public at large.

Justifiably, Rumsfeld received a scolding last week for failing to give Bush and Congress a heads-up about the soon-to-be-released Abu Ghraib photos. But he doesn’t deserve sacking. Yet.

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