Sunday, May 23, 2004

Why Abu Ghraib is more important than Nick Berg's execution

Earlier this week my less-than-favorite newspaper published an editorial explaining why the Abu Ghraib is much more important than the story of Nick Berg's execution at the hands of Arab terrorists. Since I disagree with their take on things, I'd like to make a few comments about it. The complete editorial can be found here (free registration required). What follows are quotes from the editorial (in italics), followed by my comments.

Editorial: Berg, Abu Ghraib/Why the focus is on the prison

Not even the barbaric beheading of Nicholas Berg, seen in sickening photos and video worldwide, has derailed the scandal over U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. That has left some Americans puzzled, especially those who found in the gruesome murder of the innocent young idealist from Pennsylvania a justification for Abu Ghraib. Why focus on the abuse, they ask, when what happened to Berg was infinitely worse and wholly unjustified.
For some, the question is disingenuous; they want the focus away from Abu Ghraib for political reasons, and Berg's death became a lever they could use. But some truly are puzzled about why such energy is going into the prison scandal. There are several reasons, some of them mundane, some more complex.

The main problem here is the attempt to discredit the people asking the question. First is the implication that a significant number of Americans believe that Nick Berg's murder justifies the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. I haven't seen that opinion anywhere, so how did the Star Tribune get the idea that kind of opinion is widespread enough to matter? They are also implying that the people who are most questioning of the focus on Abu Ghraib are those who approve of the abusive conduct there. Rather a nasty thing to say about folks who disagree with them, what?

At the level of mundane is this: The prisoners abused at Abu Ghraib weren't the same people as those who killed Berg. They weren't even from the same country. Berg was butchered by Al-Qaida, the real enemy in the war on terror.

The fundamental answer is simpler: Americans are not like Al-Qaida, and we're not like Saddam Hussein. The United States simply doesn't behave as they do, and efforts to find some moral comparison between the prison abuse and the murder of Berg suggest that it should.

Moreover, Al-Qaida doesn't worry about its reputation, but the United States must. It was Karl Rove, President Bush's political adviser, after all, who lamented that the Abu Ghraib scandal will take decades to undo in the Arab world. That damage has serious implications for the American economy and American security.

This part isn't totally unreasonable, except they continue to propagate (along with the Democratic Party) the idea that Al Qaida is the only enemy. The Bush administration has made it clear all along the enemy is all terrorist organizations with international reach. From President Bush's address to both houses of Congress on September 20th, 2001:

"I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. (Applause.) The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.

Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

-George W. Bush, September 20, 2001

Then they continue on with the following:
But there's another reason this story is gathering, rather than losing, steam: Top civilian and military officials in the U.S. government, many of them Republican, are fueling it. They were sickened by the abuse and the stains it has left on institutions they care about, and they are fed up with the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush administration. They have resented for a long time the cabal of neoconservatives who call the shots in this administration and who are responsible for the failures in Iraq.

The editors at the Star Tribune seem to think this story is fueled by government disgust with 1.) the Bush administration and 2.) neoconservatives. First, they just state (without a shred of supporting evidence) that the Administration is incompetent and arrogant, as if those opinions are established fact. The voting public will decide that in November. Second, I don't think they would recognize a neoconservative if one walked into their offices, introduced him/her self, and presented them with 'Neoconservatism for Dummies'. After this stuff, they present a semi-chronological account of the events in Iraq, basing some of it on the Seymour Hersh story in the New Yorker. They finish up with the following:

The most fanatical supporters of Bush have started beating the drum that the whole mess is a creature of liberals and the media, who would like to see Bush lose more than they would like to see the United States win in Iraq. Some also add that the International Committee of the Red Cross is a liberal outfit whose reports on prison abuse can't be trusted.

All of that is patent nonsense. Abu Ghraib and the failing Iraq occupation get conflated into a general charge that the Bush administration has shown itself to be wholly incompetent. Much of the harshest criticism is coming from old-line conservatives and Republicans. That's why Abu Ghraib remains in the news: Washington leaders of various political stripes are finding common ground in rising up against the neoconservatives and their delusions of grandeur that have bequeathed the United States the looming disaster it now confronts in Iraq.

The last couple of paragraphs is a contentless attack on the Bush administration. The Star Trib responds to criticisms of the media's handling of this affair by accusing their critics of being fanatical Bush supporters. Well, the Star Trib editorial board is a group of fanatical Bush haters, given the content of their editorials. That hardly makes them objective observers. They then say Abu Ghraib plus the 'failing' Iraq occupation proves Bush to be incompetent. (Of course, the well-executed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq can't be evidence to the contrary.) They state their opinion of the occupation (that it's failing) as fact, when jury is still out on the question. And then we have the standard 'evil, deluded neocons' argument. Sloppy,sloppy, sloppy.

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