Hawks Eating Crow
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The Bush administration has not made it easy on its supporters. David Brooks now admits that he was gripped with a "childish fantasy" about Iraq. Tucker Carlson is "ashamed" and "enraged" at himself. Tom Friedman, admitting to being "a little slow," is finally off the reservation. Die-hard Republican publicist William Kristol admits of Bush, "He did drive us into a ditch." The neocon fantasist and sometime Republican speechwriter Mark Helprin complains on the Wall Street Journal editorial page -- the movement's Pravda -- of "the inescapable fact that the war has been run incompetently, with an apparently deliberate contempt for history, strategy, and thought, and with too little regard for the American soldier, whose mounting casualties seem to have no effect on the boastfulness of the civilian leadership."
Most of the regretful hawks blame the administration for its failure to execute what they consider a noble endeavor. But it is a noble endeavor only in the way it would be noble to give all your money to one of those deposed Ethiopian princesses who fill your inbox with pleas to send them all your money for a guarantee of future riches. In other words, yes, while it might have been nice to liberate Iraq from Saddam's clutches, it was a lot more likely that under Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co., we would end up arresting innocent people, holding them without trial and systematically torturing and sexually humiliating them; all the while saying, as the Daily Show's Rob Corddry so brilliantly put it, "Remember, it's not important that we did torture these people. What's important is that we are not the kind of people who would torture these people."
Take a look at the sequence of events leading to the revelations of the Abu Ghraib scandal in The New Yorker: It began, as Seymour Hersh notes, with Rumsfeld's desire to extract information from informants about the location of certain "high-value" targets in Afghanistan along with his unwillingness to apply the terms of the Geneva Conventions to prisoners captured in the War on Terrorism. Next came the bait-and-switch application in Iraq of tactics drawn from the War on Terrorism, upon which Bush and his administration had based their entire case for offensive war. Add to this the refusal to provide the military with sufficient manpower resources to carry out the necessary tasks of the occupation, and throw in a willingness to use what one former official quoted by Hersh terms "recycled hillbillies" -- untrained, inexperienced and overworked in a military prison located inside a hostile fire zone with rogue interrogators and virtually no nighttime supervision.
All of this made something like what eventually took place at Abu Ghraib all but inevitable -- just as the administration's aversion to accountability dictated the attempted cover-up that followed. The abuse was called to the attention of the occupation authorities as early as May 2003, and in November a scathing report of the International Committee of the Red Cross was reviewed by senior US military officials in Iraq, a full two months before the Army launched its investigation. Amnesty International had complained last summer of Iraqi detainees being subjected to "crude, inhuman or degrading treatment." Aides to Colin Powell and Paul Bremer insist that they, too, raised concerns within administration circles but were ignored as well. Nothing was done to put an end to the officially sanctioned sadism -- which also turned out to be a propaganda gift to anti-American terrorists the world over -- until mid-January of this year, when the whistleblower Specialist Joseph Darby turned over photos to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division.
The existence of an internal Army report on the Abu Ghraib abuses, according to Time, was flatly denied to Intelligence Committee Democrats when they asked the Pentagon about it in January. In February, when Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's report confirmed the earlier charges and provided the pornographic evidence, the story was still kept secret from Congress and the American people. Finally it was apparently leaked by one of the defendants' lawyers to Hersh and 60 Minutes II, but even then, Secretary Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers professed to be almost perfectly clueless. Briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee hours before the photos were to be broadcast on CBS (already delayed two weeks at Myers's request), Rumsfeld mentioned nothing about the approaching firestorm. Neither got around to reading the report until days later.
What was Bush's public response to the man responsible for what Senator Ted Kennedy aptly terms "America's steepest and deepest fall from grace in the history of our country"? It was to congratulate Rumsfeld for doing "a superb job." In Congress the word came from Dick Cheney's office to "get off [Rumsfeld's] case."
These are the men not just the neocons but self-described progressives and human-rights advocates believed capable of carrying out the delicate and difficult mission of bringing democracy and modernism to the Arab world, while safeguarding the security and good name of the United States. Excuse me, but just what was so hard to understand about this bunch? We knew they were dishonest. We knew they were fanatical. We knew they were purposely ignorant and bragged about not reading newspapers. We knew they were vindictive. We knew they were lawless. We knew they were obsessively secretive. We knew they had no time or patience for those who raised difficult questions. We knew they were driven by fantasies of religious warfare, personal vengeance and ideological triumph. We knew they had no respect for civil liberties. And we knew they took no responsibility for the consequences of their incompetence. Just what is surprising about the manner in which they've conducted the war?
And how pathetic is it that the only cable network really grappling with the media's failure is Comedy Central? Let's give the last word to the Daily Show's incomparable Stephen Colbert: "The journalists I know love America, but now all anybody wants to talk about is the bad journalists -- the journalists that hurt America.... Who didn't uncover the flaws in our prewar intelligence? Who gave a free pass on the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection? Who dropped Afghanistan from the headlines at the first whiff of this Iraqi snipe hunt? The United States press corps, that's who."
Eric Alterman is a columnist with The Nation.