The rapidly emerging conservative line on Abu Ghraib is that Congress and the news media are exploiting the story in order to discredit the Bush administration. "Clearly, the images are serving the political agenda of many newspapers," sniffed Col Allen, editor-in-chief of the New York Post, to the New York Times. Until this past Saturday Abu Ghraib was kept off Page One of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Post, proving that the Post's loyalty to right-wing politics is greater than its not-inconsiderable loyalty to Fleet Street-style tabloid journalism. Murdoch publications have downplayed Abu Ghraib even more than the rest of the conservative press. The Weekly Standard's Web site had nothing to say until yesterday, and the Times piece quotes Fox News executive producer Bill Shine saying he's "dialing back" on use of the photographs.
But other conservative commentators, while less skittish about discussing Abu Ghraib, have adopted more or less the same argument. Torture is bad; liberal outrage against torture is worse. "Like reporters at a free buffet," intoned the Wall Street Journal editorial board on May 6, "Members of Congress are swarming to the TV cameras to declare their outrage and demand someone's head, usually Donald Rumsfeld's." Shame on Congress for wanting to hold the defense secretary responsible for losing control of the troops he sent to Baghdad! It's an "ersatz scandal," Midge Decter, author of a hagiographic Rumsfeld biography, pronounced in the May 7 Los Angeles Times. In an editorial headlined "A Few Bad Men," the Weekly Standard, which turned against Rumsfeld months ago for messing up its pretty war, has now come to his defense. The idea that anyone in addition to the prison guards currently facing court martial should bear any responsibility for the mayhem at Abu Ghraib is, the Weekly Standard says, a con perpetrated by defense lawyers.
The prison guards were badly trained, we hear; they thought they were doing what the interrogators/contractors/CIA wanted them to do; they were cogs in a corrupt military machine. We might say something like that if we were being paid to defend these lowlifes. And, yes, there do seem to have been lamentable weaknesses in training and command. But "sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light" is evidence of a lack of humanity, not a lack of training. And consider this lovely detail: The Washington Post reports that there is "a new batch of photographs similar to those broadcast a week ago [which include] pictures showing crude simulations of sex among soldiers." Did the CIA encourage them to do that, too?
No, but the utter chaos that apparently prevailed at Abu Ghraib might have something to do with a lack of oversight. The military moved quickly to investigate after Gen. Antonio M. Taguba filed his report, but better still would have been sufficient supervision to prevent the abuses from becoming widespread in the first place. (For additional details, see this Feb. 2004 Red Cross report.) A May 9 story by Scott Higham, Josh White, and Christian Davenport in the Washington Post makes clear that one of the reasons the guards were out of control at Abu Ghraib was that there weren't enough of them:
At Abu Ghraib, the guard-to-prisoner ratio was about one to 15, with one battalion guarding 7,000. Army doctrine calls for one battalion per 4,000 enemy soldiers. In civilian prisons, one guard per three inmates is considered ideal.
Why weren't there enough guards? Why aren't there enough American soldiers performing any other vital tasks in Iraq? Because Rumsfeld wouldn't spare them. Until last week, the Weekly Standard was justifiably exercised about this. Here are Robert Kagan and William Kristol in the April 26 issue:
The shortage of troops in Iraq is the product of a string of bad calculations and a hefty dose of wishful thinking. Above all, it is the product of Rumsfeld's fixation on high-tech military "transformation," his hostility to manpower-intensive nation-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and his refusal to increase the overall size of the military in the first place. … The question is whether Rumsfeld and his generals have learned from past mistakes. Or rather, perhaps, the question is whether George W. Bush has learned from Rumsfeld's past mistakes. … If his current secretary of defense cannot make the adjustments that are necessary, the president should find one who will.
If this dump-Rummy analysis was correct on April 26, why isn't it now? Because Abu Ghraib has made it more scathing than Kagan and Kristol ever intended.
In the May 7 National Review Online, Kate O'Beirne was so offended by congressional outrage over Abu Ghraib that she abandoned rational thought altogether. Shame on "the Republican leadership in the House, who never got around to condemning the savage videotaped execution of Daniel Pearl," O'Beirne inveighed. Instead, they passed by "overwhelming approval … a redundant resolution condemning 'the abuse of persons in U.S. custody.' " To state the obvious: Congress did not have oversight authority over the terrorists who killed Pearl. Congress does, however, have oversight authority over the Baghdad occupation. It is therefore morally and diplomatically necessary for Congress to condemn the humiliation and torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Chatterbox, who sat beside Pearl for a few years in the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau, can assure you that Pearl would have been outraged to see his name invoked to silence protest against American war crimes. What decent person wouldn't?
Not even President Bush can escape conservative criticism for apologizing (albeit belatedly and clumsily) for the Abu Ghraib horrors and for urging the Iraqi people not to conclude that Americans are barbarians. How paternalistic, complains Jonathan V. Last today on the Weekly Standard's Web site. When Iraqis slaughtered military contractors in Falluja and desecrated their corpses, did Americans conclude that Iraqis were "savages or evildoers"? Um, yes. To be more precise, Americans concluded that Iraqis (Sunnis, anyway) were consumed by a dangerous and unceasing hatred toward Americans. But Last argues, absurdly, that the massacre was merely "[t]he product of a few deranged, dangerous men." If that's true, what was the military battle for Falluja all about? And why did we lose it?
Conservative Abu Ghraib denial reached its crudest expression today, at a Senate hearing, when Sen. James Inhofe, R., Okla., pronounced, "I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment. … I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations, while our troops, our heroes are fighting and dying."
Deny though it may, the right can't avoid forever any engagement with the ugly things that happened at Abu Ghraib. It will have to grapple with what the prison guards did and what made them do it. But all is not lost. Conservatives have forgotten the most important rule from the neoconservative playbook. When all else fails, blame the 1960s. The sexual abuse, the exhibitionism in photographing it, and the general breakdown of moral authority, are all legacies of … what, Class? The moral relativism and flight from responsibility that gained legitimacy when liberals surrendered to the radicals in the 1960s. (Or, if you're David Frum: the 1970s.) It's a cheap and shameless argument, but when did that ever stop the culture warriors? Hell, two years ago the Wall Street Journal blamed Enron on the 1960s. The Abu Ghraib argument is actually slightly less ridiculous than that one. Yet searching the Factiva news database for "Abu Ghraib and 1960s and liberalism," Chatterbox comes up empty. This is usually Decter's area of expertise, but obviously her allegiance to Rumsfeld has put any condemnation of Abu Ghraib out of bounds, no matter what the argument. Where have you gone, William J. "Death of Outrage" Bennett? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.