May 17, 2004 | Op-ed

The Damage is Done, Now Here’s How to Fix It

Authored by Andrew Apostolou

The News that American soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison is being treated as a knockout blow for the U.S. war in Iraq.

Commentators are exploiting Abu Ghraib to question the entire attempt to build a democratic Iraq. Just weeks ago commentators proclaimed that the uprisings in Iraq were evidence that Iraqis were not ready for democracy.

Now the shame of Abu Ghraib, the despicable and repugnant behavior of identifiable members of the U.S. military, is being manipulated to make Abu Ghraib a symbol of post-Saddam Iraq. In the wake of the revelations of abuse, there are many who would like to see an abject U.S. surrender, an abandonment of Iraq and all efforts to build a democracy there.

Instead of giving in to them, what the United States must do is address the Abu Ghraib scandal in a manner that promotes the very project of a free and just Iraq, the very goal that the behavior of some U.S. soldiers has harmed.

How the U.S. apologizes and how it investigates are as important as both the apologies and investigations themselves.

The U.S. should make no comparisons with Saddam Hussein's regime, either to condemn what the soldiers did and thereby smearing the U.S. military, or to excuse their vile conduct by minimizing their crimes in relation to the recent and atrocious Iraqi past.

Rather, the United States and its allies must be as generous in their apologies as they are in their commitment to staying the course in Iraq, as forceful in their refusal to accept the pathetic excuses of the soldiers and their sniveling lawyers as they are in their punishment of these individuals.

The United States should continue to be clear that nothing can explain away the conduct of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was admirably unequivocal on April 29, 2004, when he told CBS that “this is wrong, this is reprehensible.”

Many of those who today compare the abuses of some U.S. soldiers to the monstrous crimes of Saddam Hussein last year opposed the war to liberate Iraq. These critics are not genuinely interested in the welfare of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib prison. Rather, they preferred the Iraq in which Saddam Hussein was running Abu Ghraib, the Iraq in which abusers were rewarded and promoted, not shamed and prosecuted.

By contrast, Iraqis from across the political spectrum have rejected parallels with Saddam. Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and member of the Governing Council who opposed the war, was plain as to why such analogies are unacceptable: “Saddam Hussein's prisoners were not only tortured but executed.”

Barham Salih, a leading Kurdish politician who supported the war, told National Public Radio on May 4 that “we are adamant that this will not be allowed to taint the reputation and the contribution that so many Americans have made to our freedom in Iraq.”

The United States has made much of transforming Iraq into a model for the Middle East. Now, a part of that model must be how the United States repairs the damage of Abu Ghraib by showing that it can fairly run prisons in Iraq.

To prove its humanity, the United States has to open up Abu Ghraib and the investigation into the abuses and so set a new standard for the rest of the Middle East. The story must become how a democracy puts right its mistakes, not the excuses of soldiers and their families, nor the ill-informed views of talking heads.

The decision to open the court martial to the public is unprecedented in a region where trials are often held in secret. But the United States can and should go further. Allowing the television cameras into court will pre-empt the conspiracy theorists who will claim that the United States has something to hide.

An open trial will demonstrate that the U.S. government understands that public opinion in the Middle East is more sophisticated than the experts tell us. Contrary to the consensus, the Muslims of the Middle East are not single-emotion stereotypes reacting with anger to any news – be it the removal of Saddam Hussein or the disgrace of Abu Ghraib.

Middle Easterners are wise enough to contrast the congressional hearings and the courts martial with the lack of accountability in their own countries.

It does not take much curiosity to ask why al-Jazeera will gladly devote hours of coverage to Abu Ghraib but never ask the Emir of Qatar for access to his prisons. Others may wonder, if Abu Ghraib prison is open, then why not the Meze prison near Damascus?

By holding up the trials as a model of how democracies examine their own failings, the U.S. can make the point that while the crimes may have been all too familiar, the transparency of the American inquiry is unprecedented in the Islamic Middle East.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,