The Politics of Abu Ghraib
By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; 7:30 AM
Hold onto your seats boys and girls, because this one might shock you: Republicans and Democrats are accusing each other of playing politics in Washington.
Politics? In Washington? No!
On Monday, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie held a conference call in which he blasted Sen. John F. Kerry and the Democrats for trying to make political hay over the accusations of prisoner mistreatment in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He referred to an e-mail and letter that the Democratic National Committee sent to its mailing lists asking recipients to "send a message to President Bush demanding that he fire Donald Rumsfeld for his failure to prevent the despicable acts at Abu Ghraib prison." The Kerry campaign sent a similar e-mail.
By Monday afternoon, the Kerry campaign reported that it had collected 275,000 names for its petition, including 150,000 new e-mail addresses that will no doubt be added to future pleas for help from Kerry’s camp.
Both the letter and the e-mail include requests for donations.
The missives allowed Gillespie to continue the Republican strategy of calling Kerry a flip-flopper: "The day before Senator Kerry stated publicly that the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib constituted 'a moment for America to try to deal with this without partisan politics,' his campaign engaged in a mass e-mail campaign attacking the president politically and initiating a petition drive in support of Kerry's call for Secretary Rumsfeld to resign-along with a 'donate now' appeal for campaign contributions," Gillespie said in the conference call. "Once again, Senator Kerry has proven incapable of maintaining a position."
Gillespie suggested Kerry's biggest crime was calling for Rumsfeld to resign even before the defense secretary had testified before Congress to give his side of the story. That was proof, Gillespie said, that the Democrats were playing politics.
Not surprisingly, Democrats -- who, as you may recall, were all atwitter about the Bush campaign's use of 9/11 images in an early campaign ad -- were outraged that the Republicans were outraged.
DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera didn't deny playing politics with the war, but instead shifted the focus back on to the Republicans.
Both the RNC and Bush campaign Web sites tout the president's handling of the war on terror on pages that also include requests for donations, he noted.
"Our response is, let me get this straight," Cabrera said. "The Republicans are trying to accuse Democrats of politicizing the war? This is the same party, the Republican Party, that raised money by selling 9/11 photos, used footage of a flag-draped coffin emerging from the World Trade Center in political television ads and spent over $1 million in taxpayer money on a Bush photo-op on an aircraft carrier. The Republicans have a consistent pattern of politicizing Iraq, the war on terror and, sadly and inexcusably, 9/11."
Gillespie drew a distinction between what he called the appropriate playing of politics and the inappropriate playing of politics: "I think how you approach national security policy after 9/11 is one of the central questions [of the campaign]. I think Sept. 11 was an event that shaped who we are...it was a defining moment. I don't believe that Abu Ghraib is a defining moment. It is an exception to the rule of how we as a nation conduct ourselves."
The Kerry campaign said Gillespie should chill out.
"Actually, Kerry called for Rumsfeld to resign on Sept. 25, 2003, for his overall failed planning on Iraq, which has put American soldiers at greater danger than they ever needed to be...He should have listened to [then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K.] Shinseki who was clearly correct in the number of troops and the kind of planning that we need to have to be successful. Yet he sent the troops in without the body armor and Humvees that they needed. That is why John Kerry called for Rumsfeld’s resignation in September."
Bush has described the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as "a stain on our country's honor and reputation." Rumsfeld said in his congressional testimony last week that "the acts were abhorrent. They sicken my stomach. They are a stain on our country."
The list of adjectives used by top level Bush administration officials have used to denounce the actions of the U.S. soldiers involved in the abuse of Iraqi detainees is too long to recite.
But Rush Limbaugh, perhaps the most influential non-elected Republican in the country, has a different perspective. He discussed the controversy on his radio program last week.
"All right, so we're at war with these people," he said. "And they're in a prison where they're being softened up for interrogation. And we hear that the most humiliating thing you can do is make one Arab male disrobe in front of another. Sounds to me like it's pretty thoughtful. Sounds to me in the context of war this is pretty good intimidation -- and especially if you put a woman in front of them and then spread those pictures around the Arab world."
Limbaugh said pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners piled on top of one another were no worse than what lefties in this country tolerate in Britney Spears or Madonna videos.
U.S. soldiers, he said, were just "having a good time" and blowing "off some steam."
While acknowledging that the soldiers' actions were "stupid" -- essentially the equivalent of a college fraternity initiation -- he suggested that the reaction in the United States "is an example of the feminization of this country."
Not all conservatives share that perspective. In my interview with influential conservative William Bennett that will run Thursday as part of Yahoo's "Political Players" series, Bennett repudiated Limbaugh's comments. He said that although the actions of U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib may fall short of war crimes, the offenses were serious and the photos of naked Iraqis piled on top of each or tethered to leashes will becomes effective "al Qaeda recruiting posters."
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