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U.S. Must Re-establish Credibility on Iraq Issues

The recent revelations of detainee abuse at the hands of U.S. servicemen and women at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have shocked the world. Now, additional reports coming to light indicate the problem of detainee abuse was not just isolated to the prison at Abu Ghraib. The Army has reported a number of questionable deaths and instances of abuse in other areas of Iraq and Afghanistan and has launched investigations into their causes.

As we cope with the realization that this problem is more widespread than just a handful of soldiers misbehaving badly, many question whether the very structure of the military, a lack of sufficient training and even poor leadership might have created an operational environment which allowed this type of behavior to go unchecked. Worse, these deplorable and unconscionable acts have become another distraction, turning our military’s attention away from the missions at hand — providing a secure and stable environment in which a new Iraqi government may emerge and the necessary infrastructure for a new government can succeed. It is important that Congress, as a part of its constitutional responsibility for oversight, examine the circumstances that permitted these abuses. There are several reasons why a congressional investigation is important and necessary.

The Constitution explicitly creates a system of checks and balances for the federal government in which Congress alone holds the authority to provide for our military. Congress therefore has a concomitant duty to oversee the executive branch’s operation of the military forces it provides. Congress has the constitutional responsibility to ask questions and probe for answers. We cannot adequately fulfill that responsibility with only occasional hearings that focus broadly on the status of events in the Persian Gulf or that are conducted behind closed doors because of classified information considerations. The sad truth is that the Abu Ghraib abuses and others like them are an international embarrassment of such magnitude that only a full, public and impartial investigation will suffice.

America needs to re-establish its credibility in the eyes of the world. We must prove to other nations, particularly to our allies and to the Arab world, that the events at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were an aberration. We need to be able to demonstrate our commitment to accountability and to ensuring that these abuses cannot recur. We must prove that cruelty and maltreatment are not the standard operating procedure for our military or for our country. In many respects, the character of our entire nation has been called into question by these incidents. Only a comprehensive, transparent and public investigation will permit us to show the world that we have higher standards — that we are a nation of laws, not of men, and that we are dedicated to freedom, truth and justice. It would be good if such an investigation could be conducted on a bipartisan basis.

Without a formal Congressional investigation, Members cannot adequately assess the military, political and economic situation in Iraq. We are at a critical juncture in Iraq’s future. A new government is about to be seated, and we know that in order for that government to succeed and for a secure and stable Iraq to exist, we will need to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. We will need the support of both the United Nations and our traditional allies. We know that Congress will need to authorize and appropriate large sums of money to support military operations in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Finally, we know that the lives of American service men and women will continue to be on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our ability to succeed in Iraq over the long term begins with our ability to demonstrate to the satisfaction of those whose support we must have — Iraqis, the American people, allies and the international community — that our intentions are noble. And the benchmark by which these constituencies will judge us in this respect is how we acquit ourselves in righting the wrongs of detainee and prisoner abuses.

To be clear, a Congressional investigation does not mean a witch hunt. We should not strive to hold up selected individuals to the world as blameworthy and declare the matter done. We should go to all necessary lengths to follow where the leads take us, whether to a few junior personnel or higher up the chain of command. Moreover, if we identify broader systemic failures that contributed to these abuses, Congress should be prepared to step in to enact appropriate legislative remedies. We can do neither if there is no investigation. And we can inspire no confidence in whatever we do unless there is comprehensiveness and transparency in our actions.

I believe that great strides have been made toward bringing freedom and a representative form of government to a nation long without either. The setback in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people caused by these abuses may cause this worthy goal to slip through our fingers. If we act promptly, the setback may only be temporary, and we can resume our nation building without losing too much ground. However, if Congress does nothing, then not only will the trust of the Iraqi people be lost, but the goodwill of the Arab world and the international community toward America will also suffer. This trust will not be regained anytime soon, and we may fail in Iraq.

Congress, particularly the House, must publicly investigate the allegations of abuse now. The reputation of our military, the credibility of our country and the trust of the world depend on it. It is time that we in Congress accept the responsibility given to us by the U.S. Constitution. To do anything less would be a tragic loss of opportunity — one for which we will pay the price for years to come.

Rep. Ike Skelton is ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.

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