Monday, May 10, 2004

Why Rumsfeld Should Go

This blog is launching at a weird time: the middle of what may be The Worst Thing Ever to Happen to US Foreign Policy, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Are heads likely to roll? Golly, yes, as our embattled secretary is probably saying to somebody at this very moment. But so far, the only heads threatened are those of Beetle Bailey, and possibly Sarge.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Shameless Partisan Hack) argued on CNN that "you can't give a person who is managing a 2.5 million-member armed forces across the world the responsibility for what happens at 2:30 in the morning in a remote prison in Iraq."

Now this is almost certainly not an accurate characterization. The International Committee of the Red Cross says, "We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system."

But even if it were true, Hunter is wrong. Yes, you can give him responsibility for it: he's the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America, and our armed forces have acted in a way that will seriously threaten Iraq's chances for stability and undermine American moral credibility for a generation.

Rep. Hunter apparently thinks the SecDef can't be held responsible for his failure to prevent torture, as long as it happens in some remote corner of the globe late at night. Hopefully, later in life, Hunter will realize how disgusting this is, and devote his life to charity to repair the hole in his soul. In the meantime, the rest of us will press on without him.

Here's why Rumsfeld should go. First, because it's the only thing that will communicate our repugnance at these acts with sufficient power. Rumsfeld himself basically acknowledged this on the Hill on Friday, to his credit.

[Senator EVAN BAYH (Democrat, Indiana):] Even though you weren't personally involved in the underlying acts here, would it serve to demonstrate how seriously we take this situation and therefore help to undo some of the damage to our reputation if you were to step down?

RUMSFELD: That's possible.

BAYH: I appreciate your candor.

But the second reason -- the one Rumsfeld can't acknowledge, and won't -- is that he did actively contribute to the problem. As Secretary of Defense, he's responsible for the decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions to the prisoners at Guantanamo. He has consistently shown a mocking disregard for international law, for the laws of war that protect American soldiers too. This attitude set an example for all the soldiers down the chain of command.

Bland disclaimers about "treatment consistent with the standards of the Geneva Conventions" didn't help. Apparently the troops got the message: this is a new kind of war, where laws don't apply.

Incidentally, conservative commentators like David Limbaugh should also apologize, because they fueled the fire of lawlessness that led to this disaster. Limbaugh, when the Red Cross was given access to prisoners at Guantanamo, wrote:

Since when did this organization become part of the military chain of command? This is more than a minor matter. It is outrageous and, frankly, embarrassing that our government is letting the Red Cross, Amnesty International and America’s other habitual critics dictate our military policy in this instance.

No, David, it was one of the oldest and best ways of making sure warring parties don't mistreat each other's prisoners. And if it had continued, maybe the Iraqi people wouldn't now be seeing the shadow of Saddam when they looked at their American liberators.

Around the same time Limbaugh was blasting the ICRC, Rumsfeld said of the detainees, "I do not feel the slightest concern at their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else."

Rumsfeld should have been forced to resign immediately, before this doctrine took root. Now that its effects have become clear, he needs to apologize -- not on behalf of the soldiers who committed these abuses, but on behalf of himself, for the policy of lawlessness he created.

And then he needs to go. "Taking responsibility" means more than just saying, "I take responsibility." It means doing whatever is necessary to correct your mistakes.