Abuse, apologies and America's struggle to recover its lost authority

08 May 2004

The grainy picture of a female American soldier dragging a naked Iraqi prisoner on a lead is certain to become one of the defining images of the catastrophe that is now the US occupation of Iraq.

Just as the image of the terrified girl fleeing a napalm attack came to define the Vietnam War, so the frozen shame of Lynndie England and her humiliated captive may even come to define the whole disastrous adventure that this supposed war of liberation has become. "Abhorrent" - President Bush's word - expresses only a fraction of any civilised response. Reprehensible, degraded, immoral, dishonourable testimony to the cruelty that one human can inflict on another... Any description is inadequate.

Every day of this week, new photographs and new revelations emerged to compound the US dishonour. And for all the pleading of American officials that the conduct immortalised in the photographs is not the real face of America, for all the apologies that have tumbled, ever more desperately, from US departments of government and from the White House, the photographs say something different. This is the only America many thousands of imprisoned and besieged Iraqis know. What was supposed to be liberation became occupation; it is now humiliation and oppression. For Washington, and the Western world it is widely perceived to exemplify, the damage will take decades, perhaps generations to repair.

The one slim hope must be that the shock from this week's revelations may be profound enough finally to shake the US administration out of its stubborn self-righteousness. For months now, as the waves of disappointment, resentment and anger have spread out from Iraq across the Arab world and Europe, opinion in the United States and among its political elite remained almost indifferent. President Bush had only to invoke the charmed words "US national security" for most critics to fall silently into line behind the flag. This week, there have been the first signs of change. In a culture where the visual image dominates, the pictures of Lynndie England and her comrades have sown the first seeds of doubt.

The Bush administration has until now been remarkable for its ideological certainty and the dogmatic pursuit of its objectives. Mr Bush presented the war with Iraq not just as a pre-emptive war to draw the sting of a weapons threat that now turns out not to have existed. He presented it also as a moral exercise, a civilising mission to implant freedom and democracy in Iraq - and thence across the region. How unrealistic, how arrogant, those American ambitions appear now.

It is all too easy for armchair "liberators" and war critics in Europe to exclaim over the obvious mistakes committed by the occupiers. There were nonetheless moments at which key decisions went the wrong way, even after the biggest mistake of all - to go to war in the first place - had become irrevocable. Most egregious was the failure to make the security of the population the first priority. Securing the oil ministry and other government buildings even as law and order broke down progressively elsewhere conveyed the wrong message about US priorities and constituted a dereliction of the statutory duty of an occupying force. The swift and nimble force sufficient to win the military victory proved completely inadequate to impose law and order.

The occupation authorities failed to set up any means of radio or television communication with Iraqis until their credibility was hanging by a thread. They failed to restore supplies of electricity and water in good time. De-Baathification was patchy and inconsistent - as admitted, and reversed, by the US authorities last month. The disbanding of the Iraqi armed forces then left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men with their weapons, but without work or pay. A further error, an all-out military assault on Fallujah, was revoked last week. But any respite US forces might have earned was already being negated by the evidence of US abuse at Abu Ghraib.

However abject the US apologies, though, however uncharacteristic the cases of abuse may be across the occupation as a whole, and however swiftly the US authorities bring those responsible to justice, it becomes daily more apparent that the administration has barely grasped the true extent of the damage. In Iraq and the Arab world they have been greeted with the contempt they deserve.

Three immediate changes are imperative. The defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, as architect of a mismanaged occupation and head of the department responsible for the military prisons, must resign. Abu Ghraib must be closed; detainees must be properly screened and placed under international supervision. Finally, the US must subject its whole detention policy to a rigorous review. None of this is enough and none of it will restore the good name of the United States, either as a just force of occupation or as a credible missionary for freedom and democracy. The earliest chance for the US to start recovering at least some of its lost authority may well be if the disorder and misconduct in Iraq cost George Bush the election.