Where the US goes after Abu Ghraib

As America braces for more brutal images, and testimony on abuse continues, war support drops and talk of justice grows.

The US may have little choice but to slog forward as it struggles to recover from the damage to its credibility caused by the abuse of prisoners in Iraq.

So far, few voices in Washington are calling for accelerated withdrawal of US troops because of the degradations that took place at Abu Ghraib. Similarly, few argue that the abuses show the US needs to take more control and refrain from returning limited sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, as planned.

But within the middle option of staying the course are a range of actions the US might take to try and bolster its position in the region and the world. These include everything from simple softening of rhetoric to a declaration of prisoner-of-war status for all US detainees.

Quick and public justice for the abused may be only the foundation on which the US must build.

"We have to do more than just tell the world we'll do the right thing," says James Jay Carafano, a security expert at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Army officer. "We have to prove to the world we're doing the right thing."

In the current context such a task seems daunting in the extreme.

On Tuesday, Congress was bracing itself for receipt of a new batch of images of abuse said to be at least as shocking as those already made public, if not more so. Senate leaders were struggling with privacy and legal issues raised by the new photos, as well as the difficult question of whether to make them public.

Meanwhile, the author of a scathing internal Army report on the abuses, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, told Congress that they were caused by lax leadership. He blamed not so much individual soldiers as their superior officers, from the brigade commander on down.

Fault lay in "lack of discipline, no training whatsoever, and no supervision," General Taguba said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Supervisory omission was rampant."

Continued revelations about the abuse seem to have taken a toll on US attitudes toward the effort in Iraq.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released on Monday found that only 44 percent of respondents believed the war in Iraq has proved to be worthwhile. That represents a drop of 6 percentage points from one month ago. One year ago, shortly after the end of major combat operations, the same survey found 73 percent of respondents thought the war was worthwhile.

In an appearance after a meeting at the Pentagon on Monday, President Bush reiterated support for embattled Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He vowed that the US would stay the course in Iraq.

Some opponents of the war, however, said that the abuses simply proved that it was misguided from the start, and that the first duty of the White House now should be an exit strategy.

Iraq is a "mess," William Odom, a retired three-star general and former head of the National Security Agency, told a Council on Foreign Relations interviewer.

Mr. Odom said the US should now eat a little "humble pie" and try to get UN troops to take over.

Others - such as the Center for American Progress, a think tank heavily populated with former Clinton administration officials - have urged the US to try to NATO to takeover Iraq's military command.

The center, in a policy paper, also says that a full and independent investigation of the Abu Ghraib charges should be finished by June 30. After that, an international committee might oversee the condition of Iraqi detainees.

"The Bush administration must take credible and immediate steps to show Iraqis and the Arab world that it is serious about [reversing] the gross perversion of democratic and humanitarian ideals it seeks to promote," concludes the paper.

The problem, say many experts, is that the Abu Ghraib abuses appear to undermine the US insistence that it is a force for good in the world.

At the least the US needs to show how such wrongdoing is handled in a democratic country. Thorough, fast - and public - trials of accused perpetrators are simply the starting point.

The United States might then give prisoner of war status to many of the detainees held in camps from both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, says James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. That could be one way to try to convince Arabs that the US truly is a nation of laws.

Others say there may be a broader lesson in this scandal for the US public itself. Wars may be necessary, but they are not necessarily good. Even average Americans, plunked down in a strange land full of people who are trying to kill them, are themselves capable of cruelty.

"Every time we go to war, we lose a little veneer of civilization," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

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