Picturing defeat in war of ideas

Sun National Staff

The accusations of gross misconduct directed at a handful of U.S. soldiers guarding prisoners in Iraq have thrown the administration into a graver political crisis than the deaths of more than 760 of their fellow troops in the war.

On the face of it, that seems extraordinary. But as the Bush administration and Congress came to understand last week, the stark photos from Abu Ghraib prison threaten the United States with defeat in the war of ideas that underlies the war on terrorism.

During a campaign stop in Iowa on Thursday, President Bush adjusted his stump speech for a slightly awkward moment, struggling to hold on to the moral high ground he has claimed unwaveringly since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The abhorrent pictures on our TV screens have stained our honor," Bush said. "They do not reflect the nature of the men and women we have sent overseas," he assured the audience. "We've sent decent, compassioned, honorable, sacrificing citizens."

He did not address the mystery that has disturbed many Americans over the past 10 days: how such decent citizens came to produce the sadistic pornography of the photos flashing on their television screens.

"Insofar as we have portrayed those we're fighting as evil, we've cast ourselves as good," says Lawrence M. Hinman, professor of philosophy and director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego. "That makes us extraordinarily vulnerable to the charge that these pictures show that - albeit on a much, much smaller scale - we are capable of the same kind of wrong as our enemy. So that line between us and them becomes much less clearly drawn."

Even the most horrifying attacks on Americans in Iraq - U.S. soldiers ripped apart by car bombs or security contractors burned and dismembered by a mob - did not challenge the administration's moral framework. Such attacks could be portrayed as confirming the iniquity and ruthlessness of the enemy.

But the prisoner abuse is different, Hinman says: "We said we were better than this. And that's why we're in Iraq."

From the first days after hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, the administration has sounded two themes for the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.

On the one hand, officials said, the United States was "taking off the gloves," dropping the legal niceties and going after the "evildoers," whether they were al-Qaida leaders or a Baathist dictator. The Clinton administration had made a fatal mistake by treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem; the Bush administration was declaring war.

On the other hand, the same officials said, the United States is a good and compassionate nation that sought only to bring freedom, democracy and prosperity to oppressed people. America would win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, a liberated Iraq included, with generous aid, fair treatment and, if necessary, advertising campaigns explaining the American way.

For more than two years, those two themes uneasily coexisted. At Abu Ghraib prison, they have collided.

A broader pattern

While the sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib clearly is an extreme, it is part of a broader pattern of abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army said last week that 35 investigations into prisoner mistreatment or deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken place, and the CIA has referred two deaths of detainees in agency custody to the Justice Department. Independent groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have complained repeatedly of a pattern of abuse in both countries.

The abuse, in turn, took place against the background of two years of tough words from top administration officials.

Speaking of CIA operations against suspected terrorists, Cofer Black, the agency's former counterterrorism chief, declared bluntly in September 2002: "All I want to say is that there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves come off."

In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush made a striking reference to the killing of terrorist suspects: "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way - they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

Nor was the harsh tone limited to words. In November 2002, the CIA fired a missile from an unmanned aircraft in Yemen to kill six suspected al-Qaida members, one of them a U.S. citizen.

In interrogating terror suspects, U.S. intelligence officers began to collaborate with their counterparts in regimes from Egypt to Pakistan that have few qualms about torture. Two U.S. citizens designated enemy combatants, Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, were locked up without lawyers or access to the courts. A prison for terrorism suspects was set up at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to place it beyond easy reach of U.S. courts.

There is no evidence that top officials approved anything remotely resembling the degradation that took place at Abu Ghraib. But some observers insist that the message sent by the nation's leaders set the stage for the prison scandal.

"This kind of thing has happened many times before in war," says Heidi Burgess, co-director of the Conflict Resolution Consortium at the University of Colorado. "But I think this administration has been very active in dehumanizing the enemy."

Robert Hariman, a Drake University professor who studies political discourse, said the administration's "policies and rhetoric alike have involved blatant disregard of international law and international oversight in respect to every phase of the invasion and the treatment of prisoners." He also faulted officials' statements "endorsing and even taking pride using extreme measures in an all-or-nothing crusade against evil."

David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, is more skeptical.

"There's a fairly high level of brutality in every prison, and these things happen in every war," Segal says. He notes the resemblance of the scenes from Abu Ghraib to a famous psychology experiment in 1971 at Stanford University, in which students played the roles of guards and prisoners. The experiment had to be halted because the "guards" became so abusive, in some cases stripping the "inmates" and humiliating them.

Segal says the lesson is a broader one: "There are necessary wars, but there are no good wars. Every time a nation goes to war it loses a degree of civilization."

Even if the Bush administration did not inadvertently license the abuse, it failed to react to warnings, said Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

'Arrogant indifference'

Ignatieff, author of The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, says that "an unpopular counterinsurgency war is always an occasion for abuses like this." But in this case, the administration showed "an arrogant indifference to what international observers like the Red Cross were so plainly telling them."

The larger issue, Ignatieff says in an e-mail, "is that Abu Ghraib is the visible tip of a large archipelago of [U.S.] detention centers around the world which are beyond the rule of law." He says Bush should immediately order "a system of inspection, a code of rights and a process of judicial review."

I. Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department counterterrorism official who is now a University of Maryland law professor, agrees. When the administration discarded the idea of treating terrorism as a matter for U.S. criminal courts, it stripped the war on terrorism of any legal framework.

Some countries that have suffered severely from terrorism have created new legal structures to deal with it, Greenberger says. "Even in Israel and Britain, when suspected terrorists are put in preventive detention, they are given lawyers, and there are time limits and rules," he says.

Interestingly, Greenberger says, some of the loudest voices speaking up for the legal rights of foreign detainees are those of U.S. military lawyers. "There's a sense that if we don't do this properly, we're jeopardizing our own soldiers when they get captured by the enemy," he says.

Last summer, with the U.S. military already in Baghdad, there was evidence that at least some Pentagon thinkers were anticipating the brutalizing effects of counterinsurgency warfare and its potential for disaster. An e-mail announcing a showing of the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, a harrowing study of terror and counterterror, was sent out by the Defense Department's Office of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, according to an account in The New Yorker.

The film announcement had a provocative pitch: "Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?"

Its heading: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas."

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