The ineptness of the Bush administration in the so-called war on terror is something to behold. One would not have expected the seasoned politicians and bureaucrats around President Bush to be so bumbling and tone-deaf. That they are both offers a valuable lesson: so-called experts are often worth less than any nonexpert with common sense.
The bungling began with the presumptuously named Operation Infinite Freedom (eventually changed) and the ill-advised use of the word “crusade” in reference to the early efforts to root out al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Moving on to Iraq, there was the blunder of staging the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue by Americans, not Iraqis, preceded by the placement of an American flag on the statue’s face. (That mistake was recognized fairly quickly, but the image endured.)
The prisoner-abuse scandal has been the occasion for more examples of such ineptness. Even if monstrous actions were confined to only a few soldiers, we should not overlook the fact that the U.S. military chose to hold Iraqis in Saddam’s hated Abu Ghraib prison, the site of some of the very horrors that Bush claims he was rescuing the Iraqi people from. Why on earth did the military do that? (Indeed, why is the American viceroy, Paul Bremer, holed up in one of Saddam’s old palaces?) In the wake of the abuse revelations, some commentators are calling on the American administrators in Iraq to destroy the prison. That’s exactly the wrong way to handle things. Let Iraqis destroy it. No U.S. personnel should go within miles of that place.
In any catalogue of ineptness, who could neglect to include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers’s confession last week that they had not read the Taguba report on the prison abuses? This ranks up there with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s ignorance of the number of American deaths in Iraq. (Don’t ask him about Iraqi casualties.)
It is bad enough that Rumsfeld and Myers apparently delayed telling Bush and the Congress, not to mention the American people, about the prison misconduct. Their public nonchalance defies belief. As the appalling pictures of sadism and humiliation at the hands of U.S. military men and women circled the globe at the speed of light — blackening America’s name even further in the Arab and Muslim world — the top men in charge of the U.S. armed forces couldn’t fit this report, prepared last February, into their busy schedules. Rumsfeld said it was too big a pile of papers to complete and he hadn’t been “briefed” on it. It was a mere 53 pages. Perhaps by now he’s had a chance to read Seymour Hersh’s account in the New Yorker. Or maybe someone has briefed him on it — if he hasn’t been too busy with other more pressing matters.
What we have here is evidence that attitudes in the administration and military reflect outward behavior. The U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East looks like imperialism. Some supporters of the policy concede that. The difference, they say, is that despite appearances, “we” are not seeking to build an empire. “We” are well-meaning. “We” want only good things for the people of the region. “We” want them to have freedom, democracy, and prosperity. “We” are different.
The recent revelations make that case look a lot weaker, because they betray an arrogance, callousness, and condescension. Did the attitude spawn the policy, or did the policy spawn the attitude? It’s hard to say, and it really doesn’t matter. Even if the intentions were good, the policy — which, let us not forget, entailed bombing, killing, and maiming innocent people — could be expected to brutalize those who executed it. “The end preexists in the means,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said. Or as another wise man, Lord Acton, put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”