GIG HARBOR, WASH. — Prompted by leaked photos, US military leaders confess they learned several months ago of atrocities perpetrated by American soldiers guarding Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad. The generals now say they are outraged and will punish the guilty few.
Outrage is not enough. Nor will reprimands set things right.
The Army's credibility as a force for good may be the only thing preventing mission failure in Iraq.
The photos from Abu Ghraib prison do enrage. Truly disgusting are the minds - American minds! - that decided to put a hooded, helpless prisoner on a box and hook him up to electric wires; minds that decided to strip their captives and stack them in an orgiastic pile; minds that grin for the photographer.
Until they went bad, it appears the Abu Ghraib jailers were ordinary citizen-soldiers, patriotic Americans on temporary active duty. The soldiers' actions may be criminal; the failures of their commanders who fostered the climate they operated in are potentially catastrophic. The practice of torture has risked the entire American enterprise in the Middle East. To figure out if the situation is recoverable, America's double image in the Arab world must be understood.
Until now, one could hold a split-level view of America's actions in the Middle East. As I heard for myself on a recent trip to Morocco, polls showed that even if Arab publics disagreed with Bush government policies, Middle Easterners admired America for its liberal democracy and Americans for their personal commitment to freedom and individual rights. US troops in Iraq were living proof of an admirable America.
With no weapons of mass destruction to be found and security an ever more elusive vision, the only remaining rationale for America's fierce grip on Iraq is that the Army's heart is pure. The US stays only to plant the seeds of democracy. That noble goal alone justifies the huge cost in death and injury, money and material.
Goodbye, nobility. Never mind that Americans are supposed to abhor torture, both in their morals and in their laws. Never mind that the rank and file of the military are supposed to be the very models of rectitude. America's primary military asset, its character, has been badly tarred.
With US credibility already near zero in the Muslim world, the photos go beyond blasphemy. They anger the Arab world just as Americans were angered a few years ago by the pictures of an American helicopter pilot being dragged through Mogadishu. In an online poll this week by the Middle East TV news channel Al Jazeera, two-thirds "suspect the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is routine."
But the game may not be over. In the Al Jazeera poll a third did not think American abuse of prisoners was routine. Can the US recover the skeptics?
The Pentagon game plan - to claim this was an isolated incident and issue paper reprimands to a handful of junior torturers - won't wash. Abu Ghraib has "command climate" written all over it.
It appears the torture was all of a piece with a national dragnet for "bad guys." For months, many top Western journalists have been reporting violent, middle-of-the-night raids as US soldiers break into Iraqi homes and roughly carry off "suspects" in hoods and handcuffs. Passersby are seized at checkpoints. Prisons and military headquarters swarm with family members hunting for the disappeared. Apparently there are many thousands of these "detainees" hidden in a gulag of prisons scattered across Iraq and, it seems, in some other countries as well.
This prison system must be abolished immediately. The US will not be free of Abu Ghraib until all captives - including those in Guantánamo - are turned over to some international authority for immediate processing. Lawyers, laws, and courts can sort any criminals. Intelligence must be gained through lawful means. You cannot torture your way to democracy.
As the Army gets out of the coercive prison business it must get into the accountability business.
It is not credible that a few juniors and some sleazy intelligence types worked on their own. For frontline commanders the daily cycle - scour for bad guys, squeeze the detainees, and use whatever information turns up to go after more bad guys - must have become the main engine of each day's work. If the US is to get back to helping Iraqis, not jailing them, the whole military command apparatus in Iraq and its upper branches running all the way to the top of the Pentagon must go under an accountability microscope.
This cannot wait until after the war. Success hinges on restoring the US military's moral stature now. A panel of highly regarded, retired senior officers joined by a couple of standout citizens could run a professional ethics comb through the entire Iraq operation rather quickly. Military law can take care of anything that turns up amiss. Congress should oversee an Operation Restore Military Credibility.
Only through total, self-administered accountability will American troops again be able to look every Iraqi in the eye and say, "Trust me, I'm here to help you, my friend."
• Larry Seaquist is a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist. He designs conflict prevention and community-building campaigns in the developing world and American cities.