Right Hook

The Iraq torture nightmare: Taranto says beheading video shows who's really evil; Sullivan says team Bush humiliated U.S. unforgivably; Brooks calls for a whole new plan; Coulter declares women "too vicious" for military.

By Mark Follman

Published May 13, 2004 12:03AM (EDT)

Tuesday's horrific video of American civilian Nick Berg being beheaded by Islamic militants in Iraq led some über-hawks, who had been on the defensive after the revelations of U.S. military brutality at Abu Ghraib prison, to counterattack.

"Who'll apologize for this?" Opinion Journal editor James Taranto asked grimly, calling Berg's slaying "a grotesque and timely reminder of who our real enemies are." He added, "Ted Kennedy, take note."

But other conservatives have been so troubled by the torture revelations that they've done some serious soul-searching.

"If I knew before the war what I know now, would I still have supported it?" asked war hawk and blogger Andrew Sullivan on Monday. "I cannot deny that the terrible mismanagement of the post-war -- something that no reasonable person can now ignore -- has, perhaps fatally, wrecked the mission." He answers his own question with a qualified "yes," noting that "much has also gone right in Iraq" and "we must still win." But Sullivan savages the "incompetent" Bush administration for what he views as an inexcusable betrayal of the U.S. cause.

"The one anti-war argument that, in retrospect, I did not take seriously enough was a simple one," writes Sullivan, who a year ago blasted opponents of the war as wobbly and myopic. "It was that this war was noble and defensible but that this administration was simply too incompetent and arrogant to carry it out effectively. I dismissed this as facile Bush-bashing at the time. I was wrong. I sensed the hubris of this administration after the fall of Baghdad, but I didn't sense how they would grotesquely under-man the post-war occupation, bungle the maintenance of security, short-change an absolutely vital mission, dismiss constructive criticism, ignore even their allies (like the Brits), and fail to shift swiftly enough when events span out of control. This was never going to be an easy venture ... and many of us have rallied to the administration's defense in difficult times, aware of the immense difficulties involved.

"But to have allowed the situation to slide into where we now are, to have a military so poorly managed and under-staffed that what we have seen out of Abu Ghraib was either the result of a) chaos, b) policy or c) some awful combination of the two, is inexcusable. It is a betrayal of all those soldiers who have done amazing work, who are genuine heroes, of all those Iraqis who have risked their lives for our and their future, of ordinary Americans who trusted their president and defense secretary to get this right. To have humiliated the United States by presenting false and misleading intelligence and then to have allowed something like Abu Ghraib to happen -- after a year of other, compounded errors -- is unforgivable."

Once a stanch supporter of Bush's war policy, Sullivan now says dealing with that failure of leadership is crucial.

"By refusing to hold anyone accountable, the president has also shown he is not really in control. We are at war; and our war leaders have given the enemy their biggest propaganda coup imaginable, while refusing to acknowledge their own palpable errors and misjudgments. They have, alas, scant credibility left and must be called to account. Shock has now led -- and should lead -- to anger. And those of us who support the war should, in many ways, be angrier than those who opposed it."

New York Times columnist and war hawk David Brooks sounded some similar themes on Tuesday. In a remarkably honest and self-critical column, Brooks wrote, "This has been a crushingly depressing period, especially for people who support the war in Iraq. The predictions people on my side made about the postwar world have not yet come true. The warnings others made about the fractious state of post-Saddam society have ... We went into Iraq with what, in retrospect, seems like a childish fantasy."

Perhaps the most striking passage in Brooks' column is this one, which implicitly repudiates the entire Bush Doctrine: "We didn't understand the tragic irony that our power is also our weakness. As long as we seemed so mighty, others, even those we were aiming to assist, were bound to revolt. They would do so for their own self-respect. In taking out Saddam, we robbed the Iraqis of the honor of liberating themselves. The fact that they had no means to do so is beside the point."

Brooks blasted the Bush administration's foolishness -- and its failure to take responsibility -- in his Times column two days prior:

"Whose bright idea was it to keep Saddam's gulag open as a U.S. prison, anyway?

"It's hard not to be appalled by the Pentagon's blindness to the psychological catastrophe these photos were bound to create. Even [Friday], months after the atrocities were first known, Rumsfeld and company were incapable of answering the most elemental questions from John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others about who was in charge of the prison, and why the photos weren't immediately seen as weapons of mass morale destruction."

He demurred as to whether Rumsfeld should go. But as he called for an overhaul of U.S. foreign policy, Brooks seemed to say that time is fast running out for President Bush and his inept policy team.

"Believe me, we've got even bigger problems than whether Rumsfeld keeps his job. We've got the problem of defining America's role in the world from here on out, because we are certainly not going to put ourselves through another year like this anytime soon. No matter how Iraq turns out, no president in the near future is going to want to send American troops into any global hot spot. This experience has been too searing ...

"We've got to acknowledge first that the old debates are obsolete. I wish the U.S could still go off, after Iraq, at the head of 'coalitions of the willing' to spread democracy around the world. But the brutal fact is that the events of the past year have discredited that approach."

Brooks dismissed the U.N. as a failed institution -- but nonetheless started to sound remarkably like a multilateralist Democrat:

"We've got to come up with a global alliance of democracies to embody democratic ideals, harness U.S. military power and house a permanent nation-building apparatus, filled with people who actually possess expertise on how to do this job."

On Monday, Brooks' Times colleague William Safire agreed that there was a catastrophic breakdown at the Pentagon, but avoided discussion of whether the torture was ordered from on high.

"The secretary testified that he was, incredibly, the last to see the humiliating photos that turned a damning army critique by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba into a media firestorm. Why nobody searched out and showed him those incendiary pictures immediately reveals sheer stupidity on the part of the command structure and his Pentagon staff ...

"Second only to the failure to prevent torture was the Pentagon's failure to be first to break the bad news: the Taguba report should have been released at a Rumsfeld press conference months ago.

"Now every suspect ever held in any U.S. facility will claim to have been tortured and demand recompense. Videos real and fake will stream across the world's screens, and propagandists abroad will join defeatists here in calling American prisons a 'gulag,' gleefully equating Bush not just with Saddam but with Stalin."

But Safire stoutly defended the man in charge, arguing that it would look bad to fire Rumsfeld.

"It is not in our political value system to scapegoat a good man for the depraved acts of others. Nor does it make strategic sense to remove a war leader in the vain hope of appeasing critics of the war.

"This secretary of defense, who has the strong support of the president, is both effective and symbolic. If he were to quit under political fire, pressure would mount for America to quit under insurgent fire."

A warning from the rank and file
In an editorial published Monday, the editors of Army Times Magazine fired a loud warning shot at the administration, as top Bush officials have sought to focus responsibility for the Abu Ghraib abuses on the foot soldiers and commanders on the ground.

"There is no excuse for the behavior displayed by soldiers in the now-infamous pictures and an even more damning report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Every soldier involved should be ashamed.

"But while responsibility begins with the six soldiers facing criminal charges, it extends all the way up the chain of command to the highest reaches of the military hierarchy and its civilian leadership. The entire affair is a failure of leadership from start to finish. From the moment they are captured, prisoners are hooded, shackled and isolated. The message to the troops: Anything goes."

The Army Times is incredulous that the Pentagon leadership went AWOL at a critical moment.

"Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, also shares in the shame. Myers asked '60 Minutes II' to hold off reporting news of the scandal because it could put U.S. troops at risk. But when the report was aired, a week later, Myers still hadn't read Taguba's report, which had been completed in March. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also failed to read the report until after the scandal broke in the media.

"By then, of course, it was too late.

"Myers, Rumsfeld and their staffs failed to recognize the impact the scandal would have not only in the United States, but around the world. If their staffs failed to alert Myers and Rumsfeld, shame on them. But shame, too, on the chairman and secretary, who failed to inform even President Bush. He was left to learn of the explosive scandal from media reports instead of from his own military leaders ...

"This was not just a failure of leadership at the local command level. This was a failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability here is essential -- even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war."

From Gitmo to Abu Ghraib
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who oversaw the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, was sent to Iraq late last summer to assist with operations at Abu Ghraib and reportedly said that he planned to 'Gitmoize' the detention operation there. Indeed, some conservatives are worried that the abuses at Abu Ghraib will seriously undermine the current U.S. policy of using bases located around the globe to imprison and interrogate so-called enenmy combatants. National Review contributor Andrew C. McCarthy, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney, says the Bush government clearly no longer operates with the benefit of the doubt.

"The images are out and we must move forward. Moreover, the world in which we must go forward is not limited to Iraq. We have for many months been holding captured unlawful combatant terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, as well as three other such combatants (including two American citizens) in United States military brigs.

"As counsel for some of the combatants argued late last month in the Supreme Court, when the executive branch asserts that it should be permitted to detain indefinitely without judicial review, it is essentially saying, 'Trust us.' Trust us that we have captured the right people, that we are treating them humanely, and that we don't intend to keep them in limbo for a second longer than is necessary to elicit intelligence and prevent them from rejoining the battle against our troops. No, it's not fair that the barbarity of a few should be of such profound consequence, but anyone who thinks that 'trust us' carries the same assurances today as it did two weeks ago is hallucinating."

He's encouraged by the matchless performance of the U.S. military in the Afghan and Iraq wars, but military historian and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the National Review, suggests that there may be a downside to our quick victories: Not enough collateral damage.

"We are confronted with the paradox that our new military's short wars rarely inflict enough damage on the fabric of a country to establish a sense of general defeat -- or the humiliation often necessary for a change of heart and acceptance of change. In the messy follow-ups to these brief and militarily precise wars, it is hard to muster patience and commitment from an American public plagued with attention-deficit problems and busy with better things to do than give fist-shaking Iraqis $87 billion."

In a similar vein, Hanson believes the Abu Ghraib abuses have been way overblown, providing fodder for apologist Europeans.

"For someone in a coffee-house in Brussels the idea that Bush apologizes for a dozen or so prison guards makes him the same as or worse than Saddam and his sons shooting prisoners for sport -- moral equivalence lapped up by the state-controlled and censored Arab media that is largely responsible for the collective Middle East absence of rage over the exploding, decapitating, and incinerating of Western civilians in its midst."

To see, or not to see
There's been substantial debate on the right over whether the media was justified in saturating the public with the torture images. National Review editor Jonah Goldberg argues that the good reasons CBS may have had for broadcasting the images on "60 Minutes II" were "vastly outweighed by the bad."

"The good reasons are obvious. The people have the right to know. The scandal firestorm sharpens the resolve of politicians and the military to investigate and stop the abuse of prisoners. The bad is that uproar from these pictures drowns out all other messages, explanations and journalistic 'context.'

"Lost is the fact that in America torturers get punished, while in the Arab world they get promotions. Huge percentages of Arabs are illiterate, which means these pictures will tell the whole story, particularly in the hands of the vilely anti-American Arab media. This will harden hearts against us and almost certainly result in lost American and Iraqi lives.

"Of course, CBS had every right to do what it did. But that's irrelevant. Nobody's suggesting the government should have stopped them. I'm suggesting that CBS should have stopped itself. Now we'll all have to live with the consequences -- and some of us will die from them."

Commentator Suzanne Fields, whose syndicated column appears on the right-wing clearinghouse Town Hall.com, disagrees:

"It was our Army that discovered the humiliation at Abu Ghraib Prison, and our media, with its guarantee of freedom of the press, that put them out for the world to see. This is a sign of the strength of Western values, not weakness, and we must make that point over and over, as many times as necessary, to impress it on the consciousness of the world."

Meanwhile, right-wing pundit and syndicated columnist Ann Coulter weighed in on the torture issue with her own thoughtful analysis. Last week on the Fox News show "Hannity & Colmes," she explained the meltdown of the Bush administration's military leadership in a different, perhaps more personal light:

"I think the other point that no one is making about the abuse photos is just the disproportionate number of women involved, including a girl general running the entire operation. I mean, this is lesson, you know, one million and 47 on why women shouldn't be in the military. In addition to not being able to carry even a medium-sized backpack, women are too vicious."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections Abu Ghraib Iraq Middle East Torture