A new defense chief

May 09, 2004

SUMMONED TO Congress on Friday to account for the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wasted no time in assessing his role in the mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison: "It happened on my watch, and I take full responsibility." He went further. He acknowledged the U.S. failure to properly treat the prisoners, and apologized to them. He regretted the damage done to the troops serving honorably in Iraq. He admitted his own shortcoming: "Let me be clear; I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels, including to the president and members of Congress."

But an afternoon of plain talk, apologies and candor won't restore the United States' credibility among the Iraqi people or its standing in the world. It's not enough of an effort to protect American troops from further insult and injury -- or worse. Mr. Rumsfeld's mea culpa can't make up for the missteps and failings of his postwar planning that helped create conditions within the military that led to the abuse. It doesn't convince us that Mr. Rumsfeld can effectively lead the Defense Department through what comes next. And more is in the offing.

Mr. Rumsfeld said it himself: There are more photographs -- videos as well -- of American military personnel mistreating Iraqi detainees. The photographs depicting humiliating and sadistic behavior by American MPs are so graphic that they have overtaken any discussion of the criminal investigations triggered by the allegations of abuse. As Mr. Rumsfeld and his generals outlined repeatedly for Congress, the military did respond, swiftly and publicly. A criminal investigation was begun and acknowledged publicly by the military command in Baghdad.

But the problem is now a political one, not a legal one.

Mr. Rumsfeld knew that the photographs confiscated in the criminal investigation would be damning if made public. And yet the defense secretary made no attempt until days ago to see for himself just how damning they were. Had he viewed them before they appeared on a CBS broadcast, perhaps he would have understood the powerful consequences to the United States, in the realm of international opinion and on the ground in Iraq. Instead, he waited. Mr. Rumsfeld and his top commanders say they were allowing a criminal investigation to proceed as required. But the sexual nature of the mistreatment called for a different response because of the religious and cultural sensitivities of the majority Muslim population in Iraq and the Arab world.

Mr. Rumsfeld should have known better. The failure is his. With more damning material in the offing and other investigations underway, others may be at fault. Whether they are privates or four-star generals, they must be held accountable for their actions. But as Mr. Rumsfeld said, this all has occurred on his watch. In the best interest of the country and its wartime effort, the secretary should step down.

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