By Walden Bello

The scandal now shaking the Bush administration over Iraq is testimony to the truth in the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  There are, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warns, more pictures to come, and according to reliable sources, they include photos and videos showing the murder and rape by US troops of Iraqi male and female detainees.  In fact, some websites have already displayed photos of US troops gang-raping an Iraqi woman and forcing another to perform oral sex o­n a soldier. 

The investigative report of abuses at Abu Ghraib concentration camp by US Major General Antonio Taguba speaks of  “extremely graphic photographic evidence,” some of which cover the following acts: forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing; forcing naked male detainees to wear women's underwear; forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped; placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee's neck and having a female soldier pose for a picture; positioning a naked detainee with a sandbag o­n his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture; a male MP guard having sex with a female detainee; using unmuzzled military working dogs to frighten and bite detainees; and “sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and possibly a broomstick.”

Systematic Lawlessness

American officials take pains to stress that these abuses are the work of a few bad eggs and that they do not stem from US policy.  Really?  According to human rights organizations, some 10,000 Iraqis were killed over the last year, most of them civilians from arbitrary and indiscriminate firing, and very few US troops, if any, were ever investigated and prosecuted.  Rumsfeld has himself often said that the captives in America's “war against terror” do not enjoy the protection of the Geneva Conventions.  Even more important, the invasion of Iraq was unauthorized by the United Nations Security Council and thus in violation of international law.

With their leaders acting unilaterally and illegally, the army jailers of Abu Ghraib had very good role models in their treatment of Iraqis.  Where they were different from Bush and his top lieutenants is that they were not hypocritical.  Washington speaks about “liberating” the Iraqis while devastating them and their land with invasion and occupation.  The Abu Ghraib jailers dispensed with the moral cant and treated the Iraqis without civilized restraints.  All they knew was the prisoners were the enemy, and enemies have no rights.  The fact that they were brazen enough to take digital photos of their depredations indicates that they did not feel they were doing anything wrong.  As the Taguba report reveals, many soldiers regarded abuse of detainees as standard operating procedure (SOP), while others said there was no SOP at all.

Formula for Defeat

The combination of the people's uprising in Falluja and other cities and the total collapse of any legitimacy to the invasion and occupation triggered by the photos have turned the tables o­n the US in Iraq.  With the US population rapidly turning against the war, Bush and his associates are now desperate for an exit strategy that will preserve some modicum of US influence in Baghdad.  They are not likely to find o­ne, and so we are faced with a replay of the last years of the Vietnam War, where the American presence drags o­n until the troops are finally and definitively evicted.  Defeat in Iraq will come but it will be protracted.

The Iraq debacle is likely to make future US interventions more difficult owing to their unpopularity with US public.  It may even push the US into a new isolationist phase, looking inward and refusing to be engaged internationally.  That will be good for the rest of the world, which has been destabilized too long by this lawless superpower.

The Abu Ghraib horror show provides the perfect excuse for members of the US' Coalition of the Willing to withdraw their troops from Iraq.  But saying no to Washington will take moral courage, and that, unfortunately, is something that is in short supply among the ruling regimes in London, Rome, Tokyo, Seoul, and Manila.