The Unraveling of the Bush Administration
THE ABU Ghraib torture scandal that broke in late Aprilbarely a year into the U.S. occupation of Iraqrepresents a qualitative shift in the scale of the political disaster facing the Bush administration. The images of prison torture and abusenaked men attacked by dogs and soldiers giving thumbs up signs next to naked men forced into sexual poses (and many more pictures that Congress has decided its members can see but the public cannot)have made an indelible mark not only on millions of Americans, but on millions throughout the Middle East, and indeed, throughout the world.
The enormous gap between the administrations rhetoric of liberation and the reality of occupation stands exposed in a way that has permanently damaged the Bush administration, in particular its campaign to use Iraq as a launching pad to remake the entire Middle East region. The whole affair has also left the neocons, who were the chief architects of the administrations Iraq policy, reeling.
Bush, Rumsfeld, and the military brass are attempting to portray the torture as the work of a small number of soldiersacting without sanction. The administration has described the soldiers actions as "un-American," and contrary to U.S. policy.
But the photos that have thus far been released, and subsequent revelations, are merely the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, leaked memos written in March 2003 show that Bush had his lawyers prepare analyses arguing that harsh interrogation techniques of detainees were legally permissible, as long as they were not "specifically intended" to cause "severe physical or mental pain and suffering."
Humiliating, physically abusing, and terrorizing prisoners in order to "soften them up" for interrogation is standard operating procedure for military intelligence, let alone the CIA, which has been exposed in the past for publishing its own terror and torture manuals. Even the armys own reportsnot to mention what has been uncovered by the Red Cross and other independent agenciesreveal that torture is systematic and not confined to Abu Ghraib.
For example, as part of the training of army personnel at Camp Xray in Guantánamo Bay, Specialist Sean Baker was asked to put on an orange jumpsuit and pose as a prisoner. An "internal reaction force" held him down, choked him, and repeatedly slammed his head against the floor, until they noticed that he had an army uniform under the jumpsuit. If this was a training exercise gone wrong, what is the real thing like?
According to Cliff Kindy, a Christian Peacemaker Team worker in Iraq, Iraqis routinely spoke of their relatives being tortured in prison. "We found that about 50 percent of the people spoken with after they were released spoke of some kind of abuse." The Christian Peacemakers submitted a formal report of their findings last autumn to the U.S. Army, which cited "pretty severe humiliation, lack of access to food and water, people dying with bags over their heads," and the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners. Prisoners were also denied access to toilets, water, food, and adequate clothing.
The U.S. has a history of committing torture and atrocities against people whom it has attempted to conquer, from the wholesale slaughter of Indians on this continent, to the "water treatment" against Filipino nationalist fighters in the early 1900s, to the systematic torture and assassination of more than 50,000 suspected "Viet Cong" activists and sympathizers under the notorious Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War.
Torture is a necessary part of the apparatus of repression used by conquering powers in order to intimidate and cow a population, and a logical outcome of the racist dehumanizing that always accompanies such wars of conquest. The Bush administration desperately wants to get the occupation back on track. The U.S. hopes that as a result of the UN Security Councils 15 to 0 vote in support of the new Iraqi government, which it got in exchange for promising Iraqi elections in 2005, it can make the occupation legitimate.
But the UNs formal endorsement is unlikely to translate into practical support such as contributing troops or sending UN personnel so long as the resistance continues to be widespread. A UN fig leaf isnt likely to convince Iraqiswho face daily humiliations and violence at the hands of U.S. troopsto accept a new government that the U.S. handpicked with the help of special UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Thus far, the whole scandal has not gone very far up the chain of command. The Bush administration is desperate to hold the line against the removal of Rumsfeld or anyone too closely connected with Bush, for fear that the whole administration will be implicated.
But it is far from clear that the torture scandal will blow over. As long as the U.S. is unable to stabilize the occupation and the resistance continues to grow, U.S. foreign policy, and the Bush administration along with it, will continue to stagger.
The torture scandal has its roots at the highest levels of the Bush administration. As Seymour Hersh wrote in the May 24 issue of the New Yorker:
The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld¹s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of elite combat units, and hurt America¹s prospects in the war on terror.