In the annals of transparency and accountability, the Arab world (which is already weak at the knees when it comes to either standard) will probably not want to remember the scandal over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. That’s a pity, because despite the sordidness of the episode, it was, even for some Arab commentators, a democratic eye opener.
For all intents and purposes the prisoner scandal was entirely an American affair. It was first publicized by the television show 60 Minute II, it was propelled by two searing articles by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, and it became front-page fare in all American newspapers, large and small, for weeks. It shook the Bush administration to its very foundations, threatening the future of high officials, at a crucial time in an election year. If Iraqis one day must retain anything from the post-war situation in their country, it would preferably be the images of US officials apologizing for the mistreatment at Abu Ghreib – particularly the once untouchable Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Saudi columnist Mashari al-Zaydi, writing in the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, marveled at the “summoning of the defense secretary of the world’s greatest power, before the cameras, so that he could sit in a hot seat in the American congress and be criticized, scolded and held accountable.” One recalls, by way of sinister contrast, the story of how Saddam Hussein, upon hearing a junior officer’s criticism about the management of military affairs during the Iran-Iraq war, drew a pistol and shot him. And yet the officer, like Saddam’s hundreds of thousands of other victims, could never dent the dictator’s standing in Arab eyes, precisely because he made it a point never to apologize.
Much about the situation in Iraq suggests that if anything compels the US to leave the country, it will be the American penchant to let free minds speak. Indeed, the turning mood of the public in the United States, while nowhere near a “Vietnam moment” characterized by collective despair, is emerging as the greatest threat to the success of the democratization project in Iraq. As Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami recently wrote in the opinion page of the WALL STREET JOURNAL: “It is in Washington where the lines are breaking, and where the faith in the gains that coalition soldiers have secured in Iraq at such a terrible price appears to have cracked. We…are now ‘dumping stock,’ just as our fortunes in that hard land may be taking a turn for the better.”
Ajami went on to conclude: “We haven’t stilled Iraq’s furies, and our gains there have been made with heartbreaking losses. But in the midst of our anguish over Abu Ghraib, and in our eagerness to placate an Arab world that has managed to convince us of its rage over the scandal, we should stay true to what took us into Iraq, and to the gains that may yet be salvaged.”
There is distinct pessimism in that phrase, and a sense that the US is preparing to abandon ship at the worst possible time for everyone involved in Iraq. That would suggest that democratic states, for all their strengths, can take far less punishment than autocracies. Perhaps, but accountability and the benefits of free minds are also the only truly new things the US can offer the Iraqis, and the only weapons it can use effectively. Indeed, had the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) only provided more of it, its credibility in Iraq might have been enhanced. Take for example a leaked March memorandum written by an unidentified CPA official and whose contents were published by the VILLAGE VOICE. The author of the memo mercilessly deconstructed American errors in Iraq, highlighting the scourge of post-war corruption. He wrote: “We need to use our prerogative as occupying power to signal that corruption will not be tolerated. We have the authority to remove ministers. To take action…would win us applause on the street…We do share culpability in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. After all, we appointed the Governing Council members. Their corruption is our corruption.”
In many ways that’s a philosophy the US must enforce in Iraq, where the rule of law must be made to prevail, whether for the occupier or the occupied. As Ajami put it best: “We ought to give the Iraqis the best thing we can do now, reeling as we are under the impact of Abu Ghraib – give them the example of our courts and the transparency of our public life. What we should not be doing is to seek absolution in other Arab lands.”
That’s a moral no amount of car bombs or videotaped decapitations will be able to undermine, and it’s one that the Iraqis, so used to seeing American military power in their streets, will appreciate as its encouraging antithesis.