When other aspects of the Iraq War have long been forgotten, the images of American soldiers torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison will still be remembered. No, the soldiers who committed the abuse are not representative of Americans in Iraq, but the torture itself is representative of the perversion of American ideals and collapse of expectations in this misconceived war.
Before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration promised it would be an easy war: militarily easy because Saddam Hussein's army was so weak, financially easy because the country's oil would finance its own reconstruction, and morally unambiguous because Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and perpetrated abuses of human rights. And here we are, more than a year later--our troops still taking casualties, billions more being spent, the weapons never found--and we discover that torture has continued in one of Hussein's prisons. Only now Americans were responsible.
As each of the promises of the Iraq War has unraveled, the administration's apologists have offered a story about why the responsibility is not really the president's. The fighting continues in Iraq, we are told, because of remnants of Hussein's regime and foreign terrorists--not because the occupation itself predictably stirs antagonism. The reported weapons of mass destruction were never found, the excuse goes, because of faulty intelligence--not because the White House distorted the data to fit its al ready fixed intention to invade Iraq. This spring, with the revelation that President Bush received a warning a month before September 11 that Osama Bin Laden was seeking to strike within the United States, we had more excuses: The warning wasn't specific enough; it was old news; there were "structural" problems in coordinating intelligence. No one--certainly not the president--was really responsible.
Who in the chain of command bears responsibility for the torture at Abu Ghraib isn't yet clear. Some of the soldiers say that military-intelligence officers told them to break the prisoners' will, but the responsibility of leadership doesn't stop in the middle rungs.
As Anthony Lewis has argued, the Bush administration from its highest levels has encouraged a culture of disregard for law. It has denied that the Geneva Conventions apply to the "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo Bay and claimed that the president can designate anyone, including an American citizen, an enemy combatant and hold that person indefinitely without charges. …