How low can Bush go?

The week we learn about another general punished for doing his job, the president's approval ratings fall again.

By Joan Walsh

Published June 21, 2007 9:49PM (EDT)

"Here ... comes ... that famous General Taguba -- of the Taguba report!" That's my favorite line in Seymour Hersh's great New Yorker piece this week, quoting -- guess who? -- former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sneering at Gen. Anthony Taguba, the Abu Ghraib investigator whose career would ultimately end because of his integrity. Can't you just hear Rummy saying that? Doesn't it sound a little like Uncle Rummy, the cantankerous darling of the Pentagon press corps after 9/11, before he got totally cranky when the Iraq war went bad and everyone turned against him?

I started to blog about Hersh's piece the night I read it, but it got a ton of attention right away, which it deserved, and I moved on. Days later I'm still thinking about what it all means. Of course Salon has been reporting on the evidence that administration higher-ups, not just a few "bad apples," were to blame for Abu Ghraib -- Mark Benjamin and Michael Scherer's great work on "The Abu Ghraib files" laid out some of what's known, and both have followed up on the story all year long. In fact, my second-favorite Rumsfeld quote in Hersh's piece already ran in a story by Scherer, "What Rumsfeld Knew," last April. Scherer laid out Rumsfeld's role in the harsh Guantánamo interrogation of alleged al-Qaida detainee Mohammed al-Khatani, which featured "degrading and abusive" treatment, according to Army investigators. Rumsfeld monitored al-Khatani's interrogation closely, but later claimed he didn't know about abusive treatment. Scherer and Hersh both used a memorable quote from Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt, an investigator who interviewed Rumsfeld in 2005. "He was going, 'My God, you know, did I authorize putting a bra and underwear on this guy's head?'" And Mark Benjamin continues to break new ground on the torture front (I wish there wasn't one) with today's feature on "The CIA's Torture Teachers," the psychologists who have been training military and CIA investigators in cutting-edge interrogation techniques.

The Taguba revelations might seem like old news since Rumsfeld's gone, but obviously torture continues, in our name. And while generals and even defense secretaries come and go, the commander in chief holds onto his job. Eminent McClatchy military columnist Joe Galloway writes that he hopes the Hersh piece forces Congress to reopen its Abu Ghraib investigation, as I do. What makes Taguba stand out is that ... Taguba really shouldn't stand out. He was a career military officer following orders; he was told to do a job, and he did it. While he deserves praise for his integrity and sympathy for his forced retirement, it's worth remembering that Abu Ghraib critics like Mark Danner noted at the time that Taguba's investigation didn't go nearly far enough. While acknowledging that the general was "following orders," Danner and others complained that Taguba concentrated only on military police, and thus his report did nothing to shed light on the Pentagon higher-ups or intelligence officials who were to blame for creating the conditions for torture. But for the Bush administration, he went too far, and he was forced out.

There are few clearer examples of the many ways this administration has undermined the military than the Taguba story, but is Congress paying attention? Another loyal general gone, another 14 soldiers dead in Iraq today. Bush's poll standing continues to drop -- he's down to 26 percent, lower than Jimmy Carter ever fell -- in the Newsweek poll released today, largely because more Americans than ever disapprove of his handling of the war. More than 3,500 Americans dead, generals like Taguba and Eric Shinseki on the trash heap, and still too many Congress members lack the courage to put the brakes on the war, let alone on torture.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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