Monday, May 10, 2004

We're flipping channels the other night and come across a news channel discussing abuse of Iraqi prisoners with the headline: "Who's to Blame?" To me, the answer seems obvious: "Bush." But Robin points out that while Bush might be responsible for all manner of things, maybe we can't hold him directly responsible for the conditions inside one Iraqi prison.

At first this seems reasonable to me; indeed, it's the same logic that the Bush administration is using to protect the president and Donald Rumsfeld, laying the blame squarely on a few low-level, bad-apple soldiers (and on a reserve general who was the only woman to hold a command in Iraq). But the more I think about it, the more I think my first instinct was right. We have no one but Bush to thank that the major achievement of the "war on terror" has been a culture of lawlessness, from the Patriot Act to secret detentions to "unlawful combatants" denied even the most basic of human rights.

The Bush administration's idea of a response to the abuse scandal is to put Abu Ghraib prison under the command of a general whose previous assignment was Guantanamo Bay, where no one is allowed to see what's going on, prisoners are explicitly denied any legal rights, and those who try to talk about the place are charged with espionage. In fact, it was this general's idea to place military police in the service of intelligence-gathering interrogators--a decision, it's becoming clear, that is heavily to blame in allowing abuse of prisoners to become so widespread, so casual.

A lot of people are saying Bush should fire Rumsfeld. Sure. There's no doubt Rumsfeld knew about abuse of prisoners and not only did nothing, but didn't give a damn. But Rumsfeld's departure would almost certainly mean at least the temporary installation of deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary--and if anybody could be worse, Wolfowitz would be. Rumsfeld, for all his arrogance and bluster, is at base a soulless, tunnel-vision technocrat, one who's so wedded to his vision of a "smaller" (read: understaffed, underprepared, undersupported, and misguided) military that he's willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives and destabilize the whole Middle East to prove his point. (The overwhelmed and untrained reservists who perpetrated the known abuse are the poster children for Rumsfeld's Army.) But Wolfowitz is a real fanatic--set from day one on the invasion of Iraq and a sweeping vision of American empire in the Middle East--and would likely prove impervious to even the limited kind of embarrassment that Rumsfeld's experiencing right now. Hit one weasel in this administration and a bigger one pops up.

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