Firing Rumsfeld wouldn't change a thing

May 10, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - President Bush wants you to know he's angry with Donald H. Rumsfeld. The president had his press aides put out the word that he called the defense secretary on the carpet last week over the scandal growing out of abuse of Iraqi inmates by U.S. soldiers.

Mr. Rumsfeld, it turns out, never told the president about the pictures. And that has Mr. Bush rip-roaring mad.

The photographs, after all, made all the difference. Without them, the Bushites could still go around the country blithely declaring that things are going just fine in Iraq, despite some "rough patches" brought on by a "violent few." Without the photos, the president would never have been forced to give interviews to Arab TV networks or to apologize - apologize, for heaven's sake! - to Jordan's King Abdullah II. Without the pictures, it would have been business as usual.

Darn those pesky images!

Let's be clear about what happened at Abu Ghraib prison. This wasn't the sort of hazing to which Detective Sipowicz routinely subjects criminal suspects on NYPD Blue. This was abuse and torture that violates basic standards of human decency, much of it aimed at Iraqis who were not accused of terrorism.

The military investigation cited "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses," including forcing male detainees to masturbate for the cameras and sodomizing at least one detainee with a chemical light or a broomstick.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the pictures is the smiling visages of American soldiers as they force naked Iraqi men into humiliating postures. They remind me of photographs of lynchings from the bitter days of Jim Crow, when white Southerners brought their families out to watch the torture and execution of black Southerners. In those photos, too, the torturers are all smiles.

The White House acknowledges that Mr. Rumsfeld alerted the president several weeks ago to a sweeping investigation of complaints of abuse and torture of prisoners by U.S. soldiers, not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. But Mr. Bush never bothered to read the full report. For that matter, neither did Mr. Rumsfeld. He complained in a TV interview that the documents are "a mountain of paper."

So neither man had any deep and abiding concern over the fact that U.S. soldiers were emulating some of the methods of torture employed by Saddam Hussein. Neither seemed to care that humiliating Iraqi prisoners would set back the cause of establishing a pro-Western democracy in Iraq.

Because of the uproar provoked by the pictures, not just Democrats but also Republicans are beginning to suggest that Mr. Rumsfeld should be fired. It is, admittedly, a prospect with a certain appeal: Who would mourn the sacking of the swaggering, cocksure defense secretary?

But it wouldn't change a thing. Mr. Rumsfeld is no errant incompetent in an administration full of hard-nosed realists, men and women dedicated to righting their policies when they discover that things have gone awry. No, indeed. He is a perfect representative of a group of people so convinced of their own righteousness that they can rarely be troubled with inconvenient facts.

Nor would Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation change this ugly truth, only now becoming visible as it plays out in Iraq: Inevitably, inexorably, occupation breeds barbarity and inhumanity in the occupier, like a virus that flourishes in dark places.

As the French became ever more savage in their attempts to pacify the Algerians, as the Japanese brutalized the Chinese in World War II, so will more young American men and women become brutish in their treatment of Iraqis. Mr. Bush and administration officials are working hard to portray the outrages at Abu Ghraib as isolated examples, just a few soldiers gone bad. Would that it were so.

Whether Mr. Rumsfeld stays or goes, the U.S. occupation of Iraq is bound to grow uglier still.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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