The Meaning of Abu Ghraib


By Paul Starr
The American Prospect, June 2004

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 already 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. The Department of Justice swept aside legal objections when it seized aliens after 9-11 (some of whom were abused in prison), kept secret their identities, and denied them public trials.

The conditions created by administration policy at Abu Ghraib invited prisoner abuse. Determined to keep down troop levels, the Department of Defense assigned too few American soldiers relative to the number of prisoners. The soldiers had little supervision and no training for the work they were performing. None of this excuses the prison guards who engaged in torture. But the president, not just the secretary of defense, is responsible for the policies that lay behind this disaster and for the general attitude that the urgent demands of the "war on terrorism" require us to put aside law and liberty.

The irony is that this supposed tough-mindedness has ended up damaging American power and security, too. And that has been the lesson repeatedly during the past two years. The doctrine of preemptive war and the dismissive attitude toward international law and institutions have all undermined American legitimacy and influence. The images of torture at Abu Ghraib have had deep resonance around the world because they fit a pre-existing picture of an America that has no respect for the decent opinions of mankind.

The Abu Ghraib scandal may, however, yet bring one positive result. The morning before CBS News disclosed the pictures of torture, the Supreme Court heard arguments in cases involving two U.S. citizens declared by the president to be enemy combatants and held without any of the rights constitutionally guaranteed to citizens. Just a week earlier, the Court heard an appeal on behalf of prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay. According to the government's position, the courts have no jurisdiction in these cases; in effect, the president has asked the Supreme Court to ratify a sphere of unlimited executive power, beyond the reach of U.S. or international law. The justices no longer have to speculate about the potential dangers of such unchecked power. They can just look at the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

Copyright 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "The Meaning of Abu Ghraib," The American Prospect, June, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.