The standard Washington scandal has a predictable trajectory: Allegations are made. The press piles on. The opposition party voices outrage. The incumbent party does damage control. The pressure intensifies. Someone resigns and officials declare it's time to move on and deal with the real concerns of the American people. The press drifts off, waiting for the next whiff of scandal.
This one, I believe, is different.
The images of Iraqi prisoners being abused -- more images keep dribbling out as the administration warns there is worse to come, but keeps further pictures under wraps -- are so disturbing that they defy the usual scandal rules. You can tell from the nature of the commentary that these revelations are deeply wounding, that they are so fundamentally at odds with our picture of ourselves as Americans that even hardened journalistic veterans are struggling to come to grips with the situation.
It will not go away any time soon. Even when the story finally fades from the front pages and nightly newscasts -- where it landed belatedly, I might add -- it will form the backdrop for the ongoing debate about Iraq. It will lurk in the subconscious. These are images that cannot be easily erased from our minds, or be neutralized by overexposure, like Howard Dean's yell and Janet Jackson's breast.
There is plenty we still don't know, about who was involved and who gave the orders and which higher-ups went along. But there is some part of this that, no matter how many investigations are conducted, we will never fully understand.
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com is rethinking his support for the war, which he had viewed as "vital to reverse the Islamist narrative that pitted American values against Muslim dignity. The reason Abu Ghraib is such a catastrophe is that it has destroyed this narrative. It has turned the image of this war into the war that the America-hating left always said it was: a brutal, imperialist, racist occupation, designed to humiliate another culture. Abu Ghraib is Noam Chomsky's narrative turned into images more stunning, more damaging, more powerful than a million polemics from Ted Rall or Susan Sontag. It is Osama's dream propaganda coup. It is Chirac's fantasy of vindication. It is Tony Blair's nightmare.
"And, whether they are directly responsible or not, the people who ran this war are answerable to America, to America's allies, to Iraq, for the astonishing setback we have now encountered on their watch.
"The one anti-war argument that, in retrospect, I did not take seriously enough was a simple one. 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. . . .
"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. 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."
And this from a man who had steadfastly backed Bush on Iraq.
Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com/ joins the soul-searching:
"For myself, it's not so much the horror of what we're seeing itself. Certainly, history is littered with far greater outrages. But how exactly did we find ourselves on the doling out end of this stuff? Morally, how did it happen? And in simply pragmatic terms, since this was a grand gambit for hearts and minds in a region awash in anti-Americanism and autocracy, how exactly did we get here? More than anything, a self-inflicted wound of this magnitude just leaves you speechless.
"For someone who considers himself in many ways a hawk and who did and does believe in American power as a force for good in the world (most recently in the Balkans) it is difficult to describe the depth of the chagrin over watching the unfolding of a story which reads in many ways like a parody of Chomskian screeds against American villainy.
"As I think is already becoming clear, the responsibility for all of this goes right to the very top -- to the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Vice President and many others. The point isn't that the president ordered or knew specifically that soldiers in Iraq were setting attack dogs on to naked prisoners or all the other outrages we're about to hear of. But going back almost three years these men made very conscious and specific decisions to disregard or opt out of the various international conventions, rules and traditions governing the treatment of prisoners of war and enemy combatants that are intended to prevent such things from happening."
Bush, meanwhile, is standing by his man, as the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/la-051004rumsfeld_lat,1,3649614.story?coll=la-home-headlines reports:
"President Bush gave his embattled secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, a warm verbal embrace yesterday at the Pentagon, while promising that 'there will be a full accounting for the cruel and disgraceful abuse' of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. . . .
"Bush's comments to Rumsfeld opened a brief speech he delivered vowing to not retreat in the face of new challenges in Iraq. By delving directly into the matter of his confidence in the Defense secretary, Bush moved to answer those -- largely Democratic critics -- calling for Rumsfeld's resignation after the revelations of abuse of prisoners held by U.S. forces in Iraq."
Fortunately for the White House, the nation is not exactly clamoring for Rummy's head:
"Most Americans don't believe Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should resign after revelations of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, a new poll indicates," says the Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/8634731.htm?ERIGHTS=-1994395452330121433philly::firstname.lastname@example.org&KRD_RM=8ooxoovrwquwrwtrpqrooooooo | Howard | Y.
"However, a slight majority of those surveyed said they thought the Pentagon tried to cover up the abuse.
"Sixty-six percent of those surveyed by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey said Rumsfeld should not step down. Only 24 percent of the 1,030 adults polled said he should resign."
More reports of more warnings, the latest from the Wall Street Journal:
"The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross told Secretary of State Colin Powell in mid-January about widespread allegations of abuse of prisoners in Iraq, people familiar with the matter said.
"At a Jan. 15 meeting with Mr. Powell, Jakob Kellenberger, president of the ICRC, cited Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison while discussing mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, these people said. Disclosure of the meeting suggests high-ranking administration officials received high-level warnings of broad abuse early this year."
And there's a fresh round of bad polling news for Bush, and for Kerry, in USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/polls/2004-05-10-bush-poll_x.htm :
"President Bush's approval rating dropped to the lowest of his presidency in a poll taken after a week of revelations about abuse of Iraqi prisoners and questions about whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should keep his job.
"Forty-six percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance in the USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll released Monday. That's 3 percentage points lower than his 49% in late January, early March and last week. A majority said they disapproved of his handling of Iraq and the economy."
Why isn't this good news for Kerry? Consider:
"The Bush decline did not produce new support for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the expected Democratic presidential nominee. In a hypothetical matchup among likely voters, Kerry fell 2 points since last week -- from 49% to 47% -- and remained in a dead heat with Bush, who was steady at 48%."
Are conservatives starting to defect? Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol, in the Weekly Standard | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/056mvrqy.asp, are no longer buying the optimistic line:
"We do not know how close the American effort in Iraq may be to irrecoverable failure. We are inclined to believe, however, that the current Washington wisdom -- that the United States has already failed and there is nothing to do now but find a not-too-damaging way to extricate ourselves -- is far too pessimistic, a panicked reaction to the difficulties in Falluja and with Moktada al-Sadr, as well as to the disaster of Abu Ghraib.
"We are also appalled at the cavalier and irresponsible way people on both left and right now suggest we should pull out and simply let Iraq go to hell. We wonder how those who, rightly, complain about the American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, can blithely consign the entire Iraqi population to the likely prospect of a horrific civil war and the brutal dictatorship that would follow. Spare us that kind of 'humanitarianism.'
"Thank goodness the president says he remains committed to victory. Thank goodness there are stalwarts like Senators Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh in the Democratic party who are fighting against that party's growing clamor for withdrawal. But loss of confidence that the war is winnable goes well beyond left-wing Democrats and isolationist Republicans. The Bush administration seems not to recognize how widespread, and how bipartisan, is the view that Iraq is already lost or on the verge of being lost. The administration therefore may not appreciate how close the whole nation is to tipping decisively against the war. . . .
"Among the biggest mistakes made by the Bush administration over the past year has been the failure to move Iraq more rapidly toward elections. . . .
"We do not believe in the present circumstances that the current administration plan moves quickly enough toward providing Iraqis real sovereignty. It is not real sovereignty when a U.N. official tells Iraqis who their next prime minister will be."
Salon's Michelle Goldberg | http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2004/05/10/withdrawal/index.html examines the pullout crowd:
"Just a month ago, the conventional wisdom on Iraq was that America, having smashed the old system, has a responsibility to stay until something new and better is built. While the antiwar left and the libertarian right issued calls to end the occupation, most mainstream voices, even those who had opposed the war, counseled perseverance.
"But after the insurgency of April and the torture scandal of May, that's beginning to change. There's now a growing chorus on both the left and the right demanding that the administration acknowledge that its Iraq adventure is an unsalvageable failure and cut America's (and Iraq's) losses by bringing the troops home. The call for withdrawal hasn't yet reached critical mass, but if it does, it could affect both the dynamics of the 2004 election and the future of American involvement in Iraq. . . .
"Greg Mitchell, editor of the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, recently wrote a column titled, 'When Will the First Major Newspaper Call for a Pullout in Iraq?' 'Are you ready, now, to think the unthinkable?' he asked his readers, many of whom work in the media industry. 'Who will be the first in line to call for a phased withdrawal, not more troops? As with Vietnam, one brave voice (remember Walter Cronkite on Feb. 27, 1968) may inspire others.'"
David Frum | http://nationalreview.com/frum/diary051004.asp says Rummy should stay the course, because . . .
"1) Resignation would be utterly unjustified. The abuses in Abu Ghraib were in no way Donald Rumsfeld's fault. Nothing he ever said or did could have given anyone in the chain of command beneath him any reason to think that he countenanced or would countenance the humiliation and degradation of prisoners.
"2) Resignation would be pointless. The damage done by the Abu Ghraib pictures is irretrievable. The president could fire his entire cabinet, without changing a single mind in the Arab world -- or for that matter Europe -- about what happened and why.
"3) Resignation would deprive the country of the services of one of the greatest secretaries of defense the United States has ever had. . . .
"4) Resignation would actively damage the war effort. The debate over Rumsfeld is a debate over the whole war on terror -- and especially over the administration's absolutely right and necessary policy of treating captured terrorists as a category of offender different from, say, Martha Stewart."
Kerry is trying to make news on a non-Iraq subject, as the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/bush/articles/2004/05/11/kerry_says_bush_has_no_answer_for_health_care_costs/ reports:
"Democratic challenger John F. Kerry charged yesterday that President Bush has ignored the spiraling cost of health care during his term in office, even as the family premium split by employees and employers has risen by more than 40 percent.
"Kicking off a weeklong focus on health care costs, Kerry told nursing students at Edinboro University near Lake Erie: 'We need a president who understands our health care crisis is unacceptable. We need a president who has a plan to fix it. I do.'
"The Massachusetts senator did not roll out any new policies but instead focused on a key component of a plan he unveiled a year ago in Iowa: controlling costs for the 163 million workers who already have insurance, not just insuring the more than 40 million without it."
Repackaging old news is always a tough sale.
And in case you've felt deprived of a sex scandal lately, the New York Post | http://nypost.com/news/regionalnews/23979.htm obliges:
"A 19-year- old legislative intern has accused Harlem Democratic Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV of rape, high-level police sources said yesterday.
"Powell, 43, the son of legendary Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was also accused in a complaint made late last week of plying the female intern with alcohol. The legal drinking age is 21. An incident report released by police in Colonie, an Albany suburb, said the victim arrived at the police station 'making an allegation of being raped.' . . .
"The alleged victim was described as a college student from the greater New York City area who is in an intern program run by the Assembly's majority Democrats. . . .
"Powell, who is divorced, refused to answer questions about the alleged incident yesterday.
" 'I have no comment,' he said as he walked toward the Assembly chamber."
Why does this theme sound familiar?