Resign, Rumsfeld

01.05.04 Publication:

Resign, Rumsfeld

Responsibility for errors and indiscipline needs to be taken at the top


Responsibility for errors and indiscipline needs to be taken at the top

YOU are fighting against international terrorists in a battle that both they and you describe as being one about values. You fight a war against Saddam Hussein at your initiative, not his, and you say that it is a war about law, democracy, freedom and honesty. A big metaphorical banner hangs above both wars proclaiming that your aim is to bring freedom, human rights and democracy to the Arab world. All of that sets admirably high standards for the conduct of your forces as well as of your government itself. Now, however, some of your own armed forces are shown to have fallen well below those standards. What do you do?

One answer is exactly what George Bush has done in response to revelations of torture and humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail (see article): to make it clear, in public, that you find such action abhorrent and unacceptable, and that the perpetrators of it will be punished. That has also been the approach of the British government in response to the publication of photographs that may well be fakes but that could nevertheless indicate that genuine abuses have taken place (see article). Yet such statements are not enough, especially in the American case. The scandal is widening, with more allegations coming to light. Moreover, the abuse of these prisoners is not the only damaging error that has been made and it forms part of a culture of extra-legal behaviour that has been set at the highest level. Responsibility for what has occurred needs to be taken—and to be seen to be taken—at the highest level too. It is plain what that means. The secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, should resign. And if he won´t resign, Mr Bush should fire him.

That recommendation will elicit several different responses. One, from critics of the war, will be to point out that the highest level is in fact held by Mr Bush, and that it is the president who should go. The answer is that the electorate has a chance to dismiss Mr Bush in November, while Mr Rumsfeld is an unelected official who, if he is loyal to Mr Bush, ought to want to take the bullet in order to protect his boss. Another response, though, will be to say that the expulsion of Mr Rumsfeld would be disproportionate: wars always bring some abuses, for the soldiers who take part in them have been trained to kill, and the important question is whether the abuses are properly punished when they occur. A third response would be a cynical one: perhaps he should go, it may be said, but he won´t. It´s an election year. Get real.

The cynics may be proved right; they usually are. But these are exceptional circumstances. The pictures of abuse, especially the one on our cover of the hooded man wired as if for electrocution, stand an awful chance of becoming iconic images that could haunt America for years to come, just as the famous photograph of a naked girl running during a napalm attack did during the Vietnam war. One way of dealing with that risk is by countering it with your own iconic act: ejecting the man at the head of the Pentagon, the man most identified with America´s use of military power during the past three years. He is also, however, the man most identified with the wider culture to which these abuses may be connected.

That approach was epitomised by the setting up of a prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba in 2001. The decision to detain combatants caught in Afghanistan for an indefinite period, with no access to lawyers and no legal redress, was understandable as a short-term response to the threat of terrorism and to ignorance about who might actually be terrorists, but it was nevertheless both wrong and disastrous for America´s reputation. It was wrong because it violated the very values and rule of law for which America was supposedly fighting, and soon produced evidence of double standards: some American citizens captured in Afghanistan were allowed to stand trial in American courts in the normal way, but such rights were denied to mere foreigners, every single one of whom was labelled as a dangerous terrorist by Mr Rumsfeld, regardless of any evidence. It has been disastrous for America´s reputation because of that hypocrisy but also because it has become a symbol of a “we´ll decide” arrogance.

The Geneva conventions that have governed the treatment of prisoners of war for decades were waved aside. And the argument used to justify America´s rejection of the new International Criminal Court—that its soldiers would be vulnerable to unreasonable persecution, with necessary military actions defined as crimes—looked ever more hollow. Thanks to Guantánamo, critics could argue that America really does need the check of the ICC, and that its claim that abuses would readily be dealt with in domestic courts was also hollow.

The domestic courts are now gradually taking on the issues raised by Guantánamo, with a ruling awaited from the Supreme Court. And the promise by Mr Bush and Mr Rumsfeld this week that abuses in Iraq will be punished is no doubt sincere. It may be that the shoulder-shrugging pragmatists are right when they say that abuses are an inevitable consequence of war; and it may be that they would have happened regardless of Guantánamo. But the culture that it represented, with all prisoners considered guilty until proven innocent, with dubious interrogation methods widely considered to be condoned, could well have had an influence on the attitudes and behaviour of lower ranks. To stem such an influence right now, and to offer an indubitable demonstration to all Iraqis of the importance America places on eliminating such abuse, Mr Rumsfeld must take responsibility.

Some may worry that a change of defence secretary now would further endanger the effort in Iraq. The opposite is the case, for although Mr Rumsfeld is rightly credited with a successful steering of the conventional war a little over a year ago, he and his team have also been responsible for many of the blunders since then: appalling post-war planning, inadequate troop numbers, excessive deBaathification, and more. For that reason, if he were to go it would be unwise to replace him simply with one of his own team, such as Paul Wolfowitz.

As the recently retired British envoy to Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, writes in this issue (see article), nothing is easy in an Iraq mired in violence and with fractured and volatile political groupings. But the political course now set, of handing more authority to a new, UN-picked interim government after June 30th in preparation for elections next January, is the right one. All efforts must be made to prevent that course from being disrupted or blocked by violence, by sectarian divisions or by Iraqi mistrust of the whole process.

This week, things seemed to be improving as an Iraqi-led force began to police Fallujah, the rebellious Sunni town to which the Americans had laid siege, and as the main Shia rebel, Muqtada al-Sadr, was becoming more isolated by his fellow Shias. Mr Bush´s television broadcasts condemning the abuses at Abu Ghraib and promising punishment probably helped cool the atmosphere, though he ought also to have offered a straightforward apology. Better still if he and Mr Rumsfeld were now to demonstrate one of the true American values: that senior people take responsibility.