Loose Canons

Unacceptable and Un-American

There is a sense of disarray about Iraq this week.

By 5.5.04

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That's what Big Dog called the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and, as usual, he was dead right. Unfortunately, those words seem to describe more than the outrageous and illegal actions of a few soldiers and civilians there. There is a sense of disarray about Iraq this week, and those who want us to fail there are doing everything they can to magnify it. The Marines had the city of Falluja cordoned off for almost a month, and -- having paid for the real estate with blood -- they were ordered to pull back. We had one former Saddamite general put in charge of a small new Iraqi force going into the city to restore order and drive out the insurgents. But after a couple of days it was clear that this general -- Jasim Muhammed Saleh - was performing up to the standards of Hans Blix.

Saleh was chosen on the recommendation of some members of the Iraqi Governing Council. But we later discovered a small problem. Gen. Saleh had a role in crushing the Shia revolt America invited and then abandoned in 1991. Somehow, Gen. Saleh -- garbed in his old uniform and surrounded by red-bereted cohorts -- wasn't able to locate any of the foreign insurgents and dead-ender Baathists who have made Falluja a battleground that has claimed too many American lives. Exit Saleh, stage left.

Now we have another former Saddam general, Muhammed Latif, who is at the head of the 900-man Iraqi "force" in Falluja. The IGC and Ambassador Bremer have apparently done a better job of vetting this guy. Gen. Latif -- who spent seven years in jail for resisting Saddam's orders -- seems a slightly better bet than Saleh. But only slightly, because it's not clear that he can command any loyalty from the few troops at his disposal, or cooperation from the locals.

WE'RE FACED WITH one of the central dilemmas of this war: How do you instill a sense of freedom and democracy among a population that is -- at least partly -- tolerant of, if not sympathetic to, barbarians who murdered and mutilated four Americans who fell into their hands? As one Defense Department source told me, we have a 21st century military trying to restore order among a 12th century population without turning everything into a smoking pile of rubble. Every instinct tells me that we should have ordered all the women, children, and elderly out of Falluja quickly then systematically destroyed the pockets of insurgents that our scout-sniper teams were locating. A 500-pound precision-guided bomb does the job in a manner that won't need to be repeated, at least in regard to those within a half a block. We were doing that when a halt was imposed. Now we have chosen to test this "Iraqification" option. By doing so, we are pretending that we have obtained the results we should have in the past year, and haven't.

The Iraqis are unready. Thirteen months after the fall of Saddam's regime -- hell, six months after his capture -- Iraq is not ready for a new government, and a new government is not ready for Iraq. There's plenty of blame to go around, but that's for another day. (Or not. One wise man told me soon after L. Paul Bremer was appointed proconsul over Iraq: "If you want anything to be accomplished, never hire someone whose first name is 'ambassador.'") The issue now is how to push Iraq along. Face facts: June 30 will be a symbolic turnover, not a substantive one. American troops will be there for many years to come. Paul Bremer will leave on June 30, and John Negroponte - until recently, our ambassador to Kofi and the Kupcakes -- will take over in what may seem a lesser role. But he has his work cut out for him, as do the soldiers who will remain.

This Churchillian situation (Sir Winston once said that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing, but only after they try everything else) can't be fixed quickly. As we are discovering, you can't make up for lost time when you're nation-building. Lost time is just lost. The President tried to make up for it by making his most puzzling pronouncement to date: that the U.N.'s representative -- the anti-American Algerian, Lakhdar Brahimi -- will choose the new Iraqi government. Those of you who know what the acronym FUBAR stands for can derive my prediction for the U.N.'s success. We will waste another year at this, and then realize that we don't need more ambassadors and diplomats.

WE -- AND THAT MEANS Uncle Sam, and our real allies -- need to establish several things before Iraq can be stable enough to govern itself. First, it needs security. Which means we need to protect it from external threats coming from Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and get the Iraqis to the point where they are capable of dealing with the internal mess themselves. Second, it needs a functioning legislature and courts, which means it needs something like the Afghan "loya jirgha," an assembly of local leaders who choose the new government and can pass laws and establish courts. ASAP. Third, it needs to provide evidence of the functioning government including the security, but also services, schools, and hospitals. The $18 billion in construction money should be spent now to employ restive Iraqis and help get their economy going. That is more than enough for our new representative to Iraq, John Negroponte, to deal with after June 30. The prisoner abuse matter makes everything worse. It has energized every opponent we have and makes our continued presence in Iraq more difficult, though not less essential.

One general has been suspended, six soldiers are facing courts-martial, and a number of others, including a military intelligence colonel, will probably be prosecuted. The military justice system is, in truth, better than its civilian counterpart. There are at least six investigations ongoing, and there will be trials. They can't happen fast enough, be public enough, or impose sentences severe enough. Those few -- those miserable few -- have dishonored the service of tens of thousands of devoted, brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and made their jobs even more dangerous. Think of the next American soldier captured by the insurgents. His -- or her -- fate will be horrible, and the insurgents will say it is payback for what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The Blixiecrats in Congress and our pals in the Arab press are in full cry. Teddy and Carl Levin are harrumphing because they weren't told about the investigation before it was leaked to the press. They are trying to make things worse by saying that the problem is much more widespread than any facts indicate. But the seriousness of these incidents is not to be underestimated. At this writing, there are new allegations that at least two prisoners were murdered, and there may also have been abuses in Afghan jails.

The military justice system is cranking along, and it will meet out justice to the perps. Those not under military jurisdiction will have to face Iraqi justice. At least three civilians are implicated, and one of them may have participated in one of the murders. They should be held in Iraqi jails, and tried in Iraqi or Afghani courts. Until then, they should remain in the Abu Ghraib jail or the Afghan equivalent. As prisoners, not as jailers. They are certain to be treated better than were the prisoners they are accused of abusing.

[Nota Bene: On Tuesday, the junior senator from Massachusetts was said, by his Vietnam-era Navy boss, to have been a "loose cannon" while in the war zone. Said junior senator is in no way connected to this column, the proper spelling of its banner, or its author. Except as to be hoisted on its petard.]

TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of the forthcoming book, Inside the Asylum: How the U.N. and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.