On Bush's watch

August 29, 2004

IN THE debate under way about wartime service, President Bush tries to convince the country that the discussion should focus not on who served but on who will serve best as commander in chief. Since Mr. Bush can claim no wartime duty, his attempt to shift the conversation serves his purpose. He has been leading a war - a dubious war, in our view - for over a year. His title as commander in chief is no longer in name only.

In that role, Mr. Bush's responsibilities extend from Washington to Baghdad, from troop deployment to the progress of the war, from the state of Iraqi society to the treatment of prisoners of war. On the latter, we learned last week just how miserably his administration has failed.

If the president has his way, he will steer the national conversation about who's up to the job of commander in chief toward the war on terrorism - the number of al-Qaida captured, the terrorist plots averted, the world being a safer place. Nearly half of the platform of the Republican National Convention, which opens tomorrow in Manhattan, is devoted to national security.

But last week's investigative reports on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal provide one measure of Mr. Bush's job performance. The secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, is the president's man. The investigative reports showed the defense secretary fell down on the job. Military commanders fell down on the job. The defense establishment fell down on the job. And the failures didn't begin and end with a bunch of brutal, out-of-control military reservists on the night shift in a wing of the infamous prison. That clearly has been established, despite Mr. Bush's earlier insistence otherwise.

The mistakes stretched from Washington to Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay to Baghdad. They preceded the fighting in Iraq and the capture of prisoners. They preceded the bombing campaign and Mr. Bush's premature declaration of "Mission accomplished" in his military get-up. They originated with the pre-emptive war strategists in the Bush administration, their ill-conceived invasion and wrongheaded postwar plans - and the president's concurrence. They involved troop strength and deployment, interrogation techniques and detention policies, training and staffing, supervision and oversight - all matters that contributed to the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees.

The independent investigation led by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger confirmed the culpability of defense and military officials in the mistreatment. It was credible and damning because of its findings and its participants: defense establishment insiders with knowledge of and respect in Washington. Mr. Rumsfeld convened the panel and can take credit for seeking an independent review. He stood up, when the prisoner abuse scandal first broke, and took responsibility for the mess. But to what end?

The mistreatment of Iraqi detainees occurred on Mr. Rumsfeld's watch. It occurred on President Bush's watch. As commander in chief, he too should be held accountable.

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