A pattern of culpability in Iraq

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Almost every day, additional details have emerged about the serious abuses committed by personnel in US-run prisons in Iraq. These reports are deeply disturbing. But the abuses they tell of form only the tip of an iceberg of culpable mismanagement that has characterized the Bush administration's Middle East policy for many months.

If the ship of US policy is not to be sunk by this iceberg of error, and if the possibility of greater setbacks ahead is to be reduced, a major and speedy course correction is needed. Specifically, given the extent of the Bush administration's mishandling of its policy on Iraq and the Palestinian issue, the prime role in both these areas needs to be handed swiftly to the United Nations.

How big is the iceberg of errors below the prisoner abuse scandal? First, it is clear that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were not merely the work of "a few bad apples." They were part of a much broader pattern in which, under regulations promulgated by the Pentagon, service members were routinely allowed to keep prisoners hooded and naked, to force prisoners to maintain stressful poses for hours on end, and to deprive them of sleep for lengthy periods. Indeed, such actions were even encouraged by Pentagon policymakers, if they would help to "condition" suspects to cooperate in interrogations.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross has described these methods as "tantamount to torture." Many experts believe that they directly contravene the Geneva Conventions, which stress that all residents of an occupied country, even security detainees, must be protected from cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. Contravention of this provision constitutes a war crime and sometimes even a "crime against humanity."

It is not just in Arab and Muslim countries that people and governments have expressed outrage over the abuses. It has been heard from Europe and elsewhere, too. The Bush administration's apparent tolerance, and even encouragement, of these abuses has wiped out the US ability to claim leadership in the worldwide movement for human rights and democracy.

But the administration's pattern of Middle East errors stretches wider than "just" the systematic abuse of Iraqi detainees. The original decision to initiate the war was a major error. But even after the war was launched and US forces had "won" on the battlefield, the Bush administration still had an opportunity to realize the worthwhile goal of building a democratic and peaceful Iraq. It failed to seize that opportunity. The decisions the administration took in the weeks after the initial military victory were, once again, the wrong ones. It turned aside any suggestion that authority over postwar Iraq be handed to the UN. Then, when Paul Bremer took over as US civil administrator, he disbanded Iraq's 400,000-man Army and started energetically remaking the country's economy and system of governance.

Many human rights experts consider the economic and governance overhauls to be a contravention of The Hague Conventions that regulate the laws of war. Many of Mr. Bremer's steps were quite illegal, and they also proved politically counterproductive. Instead of laying the foundation for a robust, pro-Western democracy, they fanned suspicions among Iraqis that Washington's true goals included control of their country's oil industry and other pillars of its economy. The decision to use foreign contractors to do jobs that Iraq's own people and companies were capable of doing kept Iraqi unemployment very high, while further fueling fears of a foreign takeover.

The catalog of culpable errors continued in April. The administration decided to deal harshly with the majority Sunni city of Fallujah, where the bodies of four US citizens - armed private contractors - had been publicly mutilated. That campaign killed an estimated 700 Fallujans - insurgents as well as unarmed civilians - and inflamed opinion across Iraq. That same week, a separate escalation against the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was launched, with equally inflammatory effects.

Then, President Bush announced some significant concessions to Israel on the peace process. In agreeing to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Mr. Bush said Israel should be allowed to keep portions of the occupied West Bank where there are large concentrations of Jewish settlers, and Palestinian refugees shouldn't be allowed to exercise their longstanding claims to return to family homes inside Israel. That announcement stunned people in the Arab world, parts of Europe, and other places.

The April events combined for a "perfect storm" of anti-US hostility. All that was before the pictures of the Abu Ghraib tortures started to appear.

The essence of any democracy is the accountability of officials to the citizens they claim to serve. The decisions this administration has made regarding key aspects of its Middle East policy have significantly harmed the interests of the US citizenry along with those of Iraqis and Palestinians. Things may still get much worse for the US - in Iraq and elsewhere. But it didn't have to be this way: There were several points in the past 15 months where culpably faulty decisions were made. Who made them? Who will be held accountable?

And how many more people - Americans and others - will be killed before the US reverses this disastrous course?

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.

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