How I misjudged the Americans

I wish these pictures were the result of a bad night-shift in Abu Ghraib.

Johann Hari

07 May 2004

A GI with a lacerating grin and empty eyes drags a collapsed, naked Iraqi on a leash like a dog. A cellophane-and-ice-packed Iraqi corpse with a broken nose and empty expression lies on a slab. "So this is the freedom and democracy you have been cheer-leading for," an anti-war friend says, as she waves the pictures in my direction.

Part of me wants to explain that under Saddam, torturers were rewarded, promoted, venerated. At least these torturers will be shamed and punished. But it feels like a hollow, debased excuse. It's not as though overthrowing Saddam gives the allies a certain amount of moral credit in the bank for it to draw on. They can't do everything short of gassing the Kurds, all the while protesting that - hey! - we're not as bad as Saddam. Every fresh human rights abuse - from the day of the liberation on - is unnecessary and savage.

And these pictures are only a small part of the story. I wish they were the result of negligible "rogue elements" within the US army, a bad night-shift in Abu Ghraib. They are not. Amnesty International said yesterday, "Our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident... [We have] received frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by coalition forces during the past year. Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and detention ... Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities."

"So," my friend said, "are you finally prepared to admit you were naive to think we can ride the beast of US power for human rights ends?" Back in 2002, when an invasion first loomed, we were looking at a three-piece jigsaw - Iraq, Britain and America - and I still think I judged two of the pieces right. On Iraq, it was correct to say two things that ran against the received wisdom of the anti-war majority. There would be no "peace" for Iraqis with Saddam left in power, and a majority of Iraqis wanted the invasion to proceed. (Even Hayder Sabbar Abd, the torture victim who has spoken out over the past few days, wanted the invasion to proceed.)

On Britain, it was right to say that Blair was motivated partly by a genuine desire to help Iraqis, despite his nonsense about WMD. Look at his 1999 intervention in Sierra Leone to see his sincere - and accurate - belief that sometimes military power can be used for humanitarian ends.

But I misjudged - badly, terribly, offensively - the biggest piece: the Bush administration. What I should have realised was that there was a passing coincidence between the interests of Iraqis and the interests of US state power. Nothing more. It was right to exploit that coincidence to get rid of Saddam; however bad things are today, the Iraqi future looks better now than if Saddam was still in power and Uday and Qusay were lined up to take over. But I implied that the Americans were doing this, in large part, for humanitarian reasons. That was wrong.

To see George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as the praetorian guard of Amnesty International - as American propaganda would like us to believe - is lunacy. They arm, fund and support some hideous dictatorships. For example, several recent books have extensively documented the relationship between the House of Saud - one of the most stinking tyrannies on earth - and the House of Bush, reaching back for decades. If they were motivated primarily (or even incidentally) to spread human rights, their policies towards - to name a few - Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, the IMF and Venezuela would be very different.

Any humanitarian gain as a result of the invasion of Iraq was - in the US-held territories - a collateral benefit. The US government mounted this invasion for geo-strategic reasons of its own. It may be that one of those reasons was to burst the bubble of tyranny in the Middle East that they have created and fostered for more than 50 years - not because they have had a Damascene conversion, but because it backfired horribly on 11 September. But that has yet to be proven. The interests of Iraqis and the US government converged for a moment. I always said that when they parted, we should keep siding with Iraqis. That parting has now happened: a majority (57 per cent) of Iraqis in the latest poll want - for the first time - the US troops to leave within two months. If the left-wingers who backed the war for human rights reasons do not now side with the Iraqis, then all the accusations against us - that we were simply shallow apologists for US power - will be vindicated.

So where do we go from here? Bush has the power to stop the torture immediately. The solution is not for the President to warble barely coherent semi-apologies to Arab reporters. It is to address the US troops and private contractors directly. He should say: "This is your Commander-in-Chief. I am going to give you a binding order. If you think you are being told by your superiors to commit acts of torture, ignore them. Disobey. I am your ultimate boss, and I am telling you now - torture is not the policy of the US Army. If you are caught breaking this rule - and you will be - you won't just be sacked from the army. You will be jailed for a very, very long time."

Anything less than this should be mocked as insincere, incomplete or incompetent. But to say it, Bush would have to decide that the dubious benefits the US accrues from using semi-torture, extra-judicial detentions and deliberate "heavy handedness" are far outweighed by the damage to America's reputation when these techniques are exposed. This is a clear political choice.

The best long-term solution - as ever - lies with backing a majority of the Iraqi people. They wanted the invasion and, for a year, they wanted the troops to stay. (I am using the opinion polls here. Do you have a better way to find out what Iraqis want?) Now Iraqi opinion has turned in favour of an imminent withdrawal. If the Americans had done as many of us urged and opted for elections on 30 June, their clear will could have been realised.

It's not too late: a constitution and election could still be organised quite quickly. Sure, international troops might still be needed to protect a democratic Iraq from being overthrown by internal totalitarians - but that is a judgement call for a democratic Iraqi government.

Of course what the Bush administration anticipated was that it would establish a neat client state in Iraq that would provide a steady supply of oil and a location for US bases in the region. It needs to admit now that it is engaged in damage limitation. The situation in Iraq has not and will not unfold as Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz anticipated.

Iraq cannot wait until January for an election, as the United States proposes. Nine months of ruling a population that no longer wants the allied forces there - including a long, hot summer - will be disastrous. They must set a date for elections - full, free, open elections - very soon. Give up on the hope of US bases, and bank on a democratic Iraqi government trading its oil. The allies have a choice now between a democratic withdrawal and quagmire. If there are more photos of KKK-style humiliations and frozen corpses - with no end to the occupation within months - then Iraq will burn.