The New York Times

May 10, 2004

[The house Apologist says:]
U.S. Must Find a Way to Move Past Images of Prison Abuse


WASHINGTON, May 9 When President Bush travels to the Pentagon on Monday morning for a classified briefing on the Iraq war, the subtext of the conversation will have little to do with the commanders' latest assessments of whether insurgents can be routed from Falluja and Najaf.

Instead, some of Mr. Bush's senior aides conceded in conversations over the weekend, the far larger question hanging over Mr. Bush's encounter with his embattled secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and the nation's military leaders is whether the revelations of prisoner abuse have so undermined American political objectives for remaking Iraq that the military challenges have suddenly become a secondary problem.

Even some of the most vociferous enthusiasts of Mr. Bush's plan to make Iraq the cornerstone of a freer, more democratic Middle East are now conceding privately that their early optimism has been shattered.

Just weeks ago, some of these same officials expressed cautious confidence that once the insurgents were captured or killed, the occupation authority would somehow stumble through the next seven weeks, cobbling together a transitional Iraqi government and making the transfer of sovereignty the crowning symbol of how America liberated a nation from tyranny. But now, they say, the main issue is regaining American political legitimacy as the power behind that transition.

With Arab television stations broadcasting images of the abused prisoners and only snippets of Mr. Bush's vow to punish those responsible, some of Mr. Bush's aides say they fear many ordinary Iraqis can no longer take the risk of backing any plan that carries the American imprimatur.

Worse, aides fear the images are becoming recruiting posters for the insurgents. It is a problem, one senior aide said over the weekend, "that you simply can't solve with the First Armored Division."

Another senior official, insisting on anonymity, put the ugly turn in the American occupation more starkly. "If in the coming months Iraq looks relatively stable and on some path to democracy, this whole issue of abuse will be a tragic problem that was addressed and solved," he said.

But, he continued, "If the wheels come off in the next few months, then it will be an example of how our discipline broke down, and it will be regarded as a signpost on the road" to far worse troubles.

The question facing Mr. Bush, aides say, is a narrow one. Should he order the release of the remaining photographs and videos even if they contain graphic images, as rumored, of assaults or rapes?

No matter how Mr. Bush handles the question of the graphic evidence, the bigger issue for the war, and for his re-election campaign, is whether he can undo the damage that the revelations have done to his broader political goals for Iraq.

It will be months, maybe years, before anyone will know for certain whether the image of a hooded Iraqi prisoner connected to electrical wires that was splashed across the world's magazine covers last week will become the symbolic image of the American occupation the way the photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running from an American attack helped turn opinion against American action in Southeast Asia.

But clearly, the prisoner abuse issue is affecting how Mr. Bush talks about the liberation of Iraq. He still tells audiences, as he did in Pittsburgh last month and Cincinnati last week, that "because of our actions, because of the actions by our coalition, Saddam Hussein's torture chambers are closed." But he no longer dwells on such comparisons, perhaps mindful that Mr. Rumsfeld found himself last week rejecting any comparisons between the prisoner abuses and the systemic use of torture at Abu Ghraib and other prisons under Mr. Hussein's rule.

In fact, the American abuses appear more a product of poor training, a breakdown of command authority and astoundingly bad judgment than any premeditated plan.

One of Mr. Rumsfeld's most skilled bureaucratic opponents inside the administration, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, drove the point home on CNN last week when he said, "For many of our European friends, what they saw on those horrible pictures is tantamount to torture, and there are very strong views about that." He added, "In the Arab world, there is general dismay and disgust, but in some places we were not real popular to start with."

If Mr. Bush has a strategy for undoing that damage beyond the television appearances he made on two Arab networks last week, White House officials freely admit they cannot describe it.

"I'm not sure such a strategy is possible," one senior official said late last week. "The facts are simply not with us."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company