The resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, while probably inevitable and certainly deserved, will not necessarily change a culture of unaccountability that has pervaded the Bush administration.
He is, of course, quite right. Article 13 of the third convention, concerning the treatment of prisoners, insists that they “must at all times be protected… against insults and public curiosity”. This may number among the less heinous of the possible infringements of the laws of war, but the conventions, ratified by Iraq in 1956, are non-negotiable. If you break them, you should expect to be prosecuted for war crimes.
This being so, Rumsfeld had better watch his back. For this enthusiastic convert to the cause of legal warfare is, as head of the defence department, responsible for a series of crimes sufficient, were he ever to be tried, to put him away for the rest of his natural life.
– One Rule For Them…
Rumsfeld is a problem, but he is not the problem in an administration that thinks it can set its own rules without having to answer to anyone, whether the issue is its formation of an energy policy with industry lobbyists behind closed doors, the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without regard to the Geneva conventions or its resistance to various international treaties. It is worth remembering that this very invasion and occupation of Iraq was launched in defiance of the United Nations.
No one could reasonably suggest that President Bush, Rumsfeld or other top leaders in our government, military or civilian, would condone or tolerate the sadistic treatment of prisoners in Iraq. Their expressions of shock and outrage ring genuine.
Still, this administration’s response to the allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad reflects a continuing pattern of secrecy and hubris. It is deeply disturbing to know that Rumsfeld not only withheld the allegations from Congress for months, but did not even think it worthy of mention when he briefed legislators just hours before the images of abuse were shown on “60 Minutes II.”
It is hard to accept that Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to work behind the scenes to keep CBS News from airing the abuse scenes, ostensibly out of concern for the safety of U.S. troops. The fact is, those indelible images are putting U.S. troops, and civilians, at risk for years to come, and that would be the case whether they were aired last week, next week or next year.
It is not going to be easy to repair the damage from these abuses. The images of their countrymen being humiliated and tortured by U.S. troops are now seared in the minds of Iraqis. The rest of the world, which has long bristled at U.S. refusal to join hands for a common good — whether the matter is nuclear proliferation, global warming or the International Criminal Court — will cite this as Exhibit A of superpower hypocrisy.
The Bush administration has insisted it will, as it should, punish the perpetrators of these abuses and identify and correct any systemic flaws that allowed them to happen. The role of private contractors must be a major focus of the probe. In testimony before two Senate committees Friday, Rumsfeld never gave a clear or satisfactory answer to repeated questions of “who was in charge” of those wayward soldiers. Resignations, convictions and more apologies are sure to follow.
The perception of the United States as an arrogant bully, inflamed by the Abu Ghraib images, is not just a public-relations problem. It is a matter of national security.
Much of the world will not be convinced of this country’s contrition until it sees a foreign policy with less sanctimony and more of a willingness to adhere to the standards it demands of others. The question is whether this administration is capable of it.
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