Mistakes mustn't halt march

May 07, 2004|By Michael Rubin

WASHINGTON - Now is not the time for the United States to withdraw from Iraq.

Stung by the damage done by revelations that American personnel abused detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush spoke on Arab television and was unequivocal: "People in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent." He pledged to punish the soldiers involved.

Across the Middle East, officials condemned the United States. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, for example, said the incident was proof that the United States had a "systematic plan to torture Iraqis, to kill them, to rape them." Syria's official daily, Ath-Thawra, called the abuse "proof" that torture is widespread in Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqis protested in front of Abu Ghraib prison, demanding the release of all prisoners. In Iran, Syria and Egypt, newspapers called for American withdrawal from Iraq.

But there could be nothing worse than a U.S. pullout.

Professors and pundits may say that the sky has fallen, but Iraqis have a broader perspective. They may forgive the actions of a few soldiers. While the American media focus on car bombs and prison abuse, in the year since liberation, Iraqis have also watched thousands of soldiers and contractors repair schools, repave roads and revitalize the electrical grid.

There's no doubt that the prison photos are devastating. But they are not a deathblow to Mr. Bush's call for a fundamental transformation of the Middle East. Iraqis respect Mr. Bush for his willingness to address them. The president has juxtaposed himself with every ruler in the Arab world.

Iraqis often acknowledge that from Jordan to Morocco, kings and presidents remained silent in the face of Saddam Hussein's crimes. Even U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, while undersecretary-general of the Arab League, said nothing as Mr. Hussein slaughtered Kurds and Arabs alike.

Iraqis ask where Arab leaders were when Mr. Hussein's Baath Party raped women, maimed men and filled mass graves. "Officials of the former regime did not even try to apologize. Bush's attempt to repair the damage is a good thing," a Baghdad teacher told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Democracies acknowledge mistakes and correct them. Dictatorships cover them up. The way forward lies in American transparency.

As the United States brings the perpetrators to justice, Mr. Bush should challenge regional regimes to do the same. For example, he should demand that Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed el-Bashir bring to justice those soldiers who, according to Human Rights Watch, in recent weeks have massacred blacks and committed mass rape and ethnic cleansing in Sudan's Darfur province.

Even as Arabic channels condemn the United States, Mr. Bush should demand they investigate the plight of Fathi Eljahmi, a Libyan democracy advocate. Two days after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns visited Libyan strongman Muammar el Kadafi, Libyan security arrested Mr. Eljahmi. Both the White House and the Arabic media remain silent despite reports that Libyan security forces have tortured the dissident.

Mr. Bush should also demand that the Arab media investigate the plight of Aktham Naisse. Syrian police detained Mr. Naisse on April 14 for circulating a petition calling for democracy. In his court appearance eight days later, witnesses said Mr. Naisse's hand and leg were broken. Nor has the Arab League demanded an investigation into the Syrian regime's detention and torture of dozens of Syrian Kurds, arrested after the last pro-democracy demonstrations in March.

Iran should back its rhetoric with substance. Mr. Bush should hold Iran accountable for its treatment of 75-year-old journalist Siamak Pourzand. Imprisoned for more than a year after demanding democracy, Mr. Pourzand was tortured by Iranian police and forced to confess to imaginary crimes on state television. Denied medical care, his weight dropped to 121 pounds. Last month, he suffered a heart attack. He is fortunate, though.

Iranian security arrested photojournalist Zahra Kazemi on June 23. Beaten in custody, she fell into a coma and died. The Iranian government refused to make her body available for autopsy. No one has been prosecuted for her murder.

A small number of soldiers and contractors have soiled the reputation of thousands of American servicemen and women. The Coalition Provisional Authority has freed 24 million Iraqis from a terrible dictatorship; despite our mistakes, Iraqis will not forget that.

We should not abandon Iraq because of the actions of a few individuals. Nor should we abandon the oppressed throughout the Middle East. It is that that would be most unforgivable.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.