TCS Daily

Prison Dilemma

By Melana Zyla Vickers - May 6, 2004 12:00 AM

"What took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know," President Bush told Arab television viewers Wednesday in an address about abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. personnel. Yet what took place in Abu Ghraib prison amounts to a set of crimes that the president and his senior political and military advisors most definitely should have known about, anticipated, and worked their damnedest to stop in their tracks.

Because the leadership wasn't more careful, the crimes went on and on and the resulting scandal has blown wide open, with grave, long-term consequences for U.S. interests and strategy in Iraq, in the war on terror, and in the Muslim world. The lives of Americans in the region may also be more greatly imperiled.

Here's what U.S. military and civilian leaders should have known:

The mathematical odds of this type of deviant behavior within in this stressed-out, young, far-from-home, military population were high. Throw 135,000 U.S. troops, many of them part-time soldiers, into an extremely high-stress environment for months and years on end and bad things are bound to happen eventually. If nothing else, there are measurable odds of evildoing in such a large chunk of any young, adrenaline-driven population. Consider the unpleasant fact that in South Korea, where the U.S. maintains 37,000 troops, over 150 American soldiers were convicted of murder, robbery or rape between 1967 and 1987 alone. (Half the convictions were for rape.) Similar data exist for prison-guard abuses here in the U.S., and for troops acting criminally in times of war.

By the administration's own description, Iraq is a principal theater of the war on terrorism. And in this war, the enemy can use U.S. errors and crimes to great propagandistic advantage. That's why in Iraq more than anywhere, U.S. leaders should have taken care to anticipate these crimes and stop them -- pre-empt them, to coin a phrase. Failing that, they should have found a method of steam control that let the Pentagon release the information in a way that minimized its ability to stoke the fires of anti-Americanism. It's not clear such a method is still available to the Pentagon. But if the institution is sitting on any more photos or videos, it better not contemplate holding back that incendiary material for half a year, too.

Previous U.S. abuses of Iraqi detainees in early 2003 were giant red flags. They should have led to top-level vigilance over fertile ground for further abuse, such as Abu Ghraib prison: Before the Abu Ghraib events of late 2003, U.S. commanders had already seen abuse at another detainment facility, in the Bucca Theater, in May. Yet it seems that military leaders not only failed to anticipate the Abu Ghraib abuses, they created the slack conditions that allowed them to grow. The Defense Department report on the investigation of the 800th military police brigade shows that for months in 2003 low-level MPs at the prison lacked supervision, guidance, and disciplining, let alone leadership.

What's to be made of the report's observation that the reservist commander in charge of the prison, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, got away with rarely setting foot in the place? And what's to be made of the report's observation that MP battalion commander Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum -- "an extremely ineffective commander and leader" with responsibility for detainee abuses in early 2003 -- was put in charge of MPs now at the center of this scandal? Or that this incompetent lieutenant colonel briefed the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez himself in October 2003, yet was not suspended by Sanchez until January 2004?

Anyone who reads the report will find it hard to believe that top, seasoned military and civilian leaders didn't suspect deep problems at the prison more than half a year ago. The fact that the leaders shuffled the problems off to a low-level, secret investigative team, and waited around for the humiliating, shameful pictures and details to surface on television, is absolutely breathtaking.

Never mind the harm the obfuscators have done to their own careers. These leaders have endangered the lives of soldiers against whom revenge is now sure to be carried out, and have deeply hurt the long-term reputation of the U.S.

The history of long-term occupations, such as Britain's imperial control of India, is replete with examples of culturally inflammatory crimes and events that imperil the occupying power's people and interests. Since the beginning of the Iraq occupation, British colonial history has offered tremendous insights into U.S. problems there. This time is no exception -- the prison abuses and the photographic record of them are a cultural affront that is sure to breed resentment and anger in even the most pro-American Muslim or other foreigner. The British learned the hard way what breeding such anger can do: In 1806 and again in 1857, hundreds of whites in British-occupied India were killed by local Hindus and Muslims, many of whom were serving in the imperial army. Both mutinies were inflamed by a variety of problems, but the sparks that set them off were cultural and religious crimes that the British didn't care much about committing at the time.

The 1806 mutiny took place after the British abolished local troops' right to wear religious caste marks or beards. They also introduced a new turban that the locals suspected carried a flourish made of pig hide -- an abomination for Muslims. The 1857 mutiny was sparked after Hindu and Muslim troops were required to use cartridges that were rumored to be lubricated with cow and later pig fat. The troops would have to bite off the cartridge ends before using them, and risk defiling themselves in the process. The troops and locals rampaged. Across several cities, hundreds of British soldiers, women and children were raped, hacked to death and shot in the months after the 1857 mutiny began.

Time will tell the chilling consequences of this latest cultural affront by an occupying power -- the circulation across the Muslim world of sexually explicit photos of naked Muslim men, including ones in which the men are scorned and abused by a laughing, immodest American woman. Bloody revenge against Americans is not out of the question, to be sure.

At a minimum, the pictures and the broader scandal will deeply harm U.S. credibility as a moral nation. No matter that the wrongdoers are in the tiny minority of the U.S. military, the pictures -- and hints from the Pentagon of more to come -- will make any U.S. lectures about Muslim and other countries' behavior, let alone U.S. efforts to shape that behavior, seem hypocritical.

The scandal will also deeply erode U.S. and Iraqi public support for a continued presence in that country. It comes at a time when the drumbeat for exiting Iraq is already clearly audible -- a result of the escalating problem of insurgency in Fallujah, Najaf and elsewhere, and the administration's disturbing unwillingness in recent weeks to take firm possession of the insurgency problem and resolve it.

Perhaps that unwillingness has now been explained -- it's not implausible that members of the Bush team have seemed like deer in the headlights on Iraq because they have been deer in the headlights, waiting for this Abu Ghraib truck to flatten them.

Enough standing around. It's time for the Bush administration to pick up the roadkill and fix this Iraq disaster -- fire top-level people, clean out all the scandal information so there are no surprises for the public, protect Americans against revenge attacks, and redouble the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq. Or reverse Iraq policy completely. The status quo is inadequate and dangerous for the country, and history will judge this administration based on what it does in the coming weeks.


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