ABU GHRAIB LESSONS
By AMIR TAHERI
May 11, 2004 -- A TORRENT of often self- serving comment is pouring out of the Arab media. People who have never raised their voice against the systematic torture of prisoners by their own governments are having a field day attacking the United States for the alleged atrocities committed by some U.S. soldiers against Iraqi prisoners in the notorious Baghdad prison.
These commentators apply to the United States standards that they regard as unthinkable when it comes to their own governments - a roundabout way of acknowledging the moral superiority of the democratic system over the region's despotic regimes.
Beyond the heroes-on-the-cheap who roar like a lion when attacking America but squeal like a mouse when it comes to their own despots, reactions are mixed.
Many sincere Muslims see Abu Ghraib as a symbol of failure by all systems that have scripted religion out of politics: The prison was a place of abuse and torture ("the palace of the end") under Iraqi regimes that rejected religion in the name of secular ideologies such as nationalism or socialism - and now Abu Ghraib has proved that "godless democracy" is no better.
That widespread feeling renders the task of democrats in the Muslim countries more difficult at a time when Iraq has become the main battleground for rival ideological currents in the Middle East. The long-term potential damage goes far beyond the feeding frenzy of the traditional anti-American fringe.
At the same time, many in the region are beginning to notice the speed with which America (and Britain) are dealing with the scandal. The fact that the trial of the first of the seven accused GIs is scheduled to start next week is regarded by many as a sign that democracies can, and often do, correct their mistakes. It is thus important that this be a public trial, open to all, especially the Arab media.
Every encounter between rival systems exhibits a "mime" effect in which the adversaries imitate aspects of each other's character. In the ancient world, the Romans copied the monarchist system from their Persian rivals. The Persians, in turn, copied the Romans by setting up a standing army for the first time.
During the Cold War, the Soviets adopted the scientific and technological methods of their capitalist rivals. In exchange, the Western powers created or expanded secret services and learned to practice a range of dirty tricks in imitation of the NKVD and KGB.
It is impossible to wrestle with an adversary and not have one's sweat mixed with his.
How many U.S. and British soldiers were involved in the alleged atrocities? So far, seven Americans face investigation for alleged abuse against some 20 inmates, and four Britons are accused of having abused nine Iraqis.
If we are dealing with the abuse of a few dozen prisoners, out of a total of 7,000, the whole episode could be seen as an exception concerning a few unstable individuals who should not have been put in charge of prisoners.
But if a much larger number of prisoners were abused as part of a deliberate policy, we would be dealing with a classic case of becoming like an adversary worse than oneself. In that case, Americans and Britons should be very worried indeed not only about Iraq but about the long-term impact on the War on Terror on the democratic system itself.
The danger of becoming even a teeny bit like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein cannot be dismissed lightly. Saddam in his prison and Osama in his cave should not be given an opportunity to claim that their democratic adversaries are, after all, no better than them.
For, when all is said and done, it is the message of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law that represents the true strength of the democratic world.
American and Britain should persuade the International Committee of the Red Cross to make public its reports on the alleged abuses. That could set a useful precedent, allowing the ICRC to publish at least parts of its secret reports on Arab regimes' atrocities against their own prisoners.
How America and Britain deal with these soldiers' misdeeds could develop into an objective lesson in the merits of the rule of law in a region where governments are the first to violate their own laws. The writers now directing fire and brimstone at America may begin to think that one day, perhaps, they will also have to question the way their own regimes torture prisoners as a matter of routine policy.
This is why it is important to remain focused on the substance of the issue, rather than trying to score partisan points in an election year. The issue is not to nail Don Rumsfeld's scalp to the wall. In fact, the focus on lynching Rumsfeld could be regarded as a diversion that will cause further confusion in the region.
Nor should the scandal be used as a device to undermine the entire Iraq project. If Iraq is a success, in the sense of embarking on a process of democratization under a freely elected government next year, Abu Ghraib will fade away in history as a minor, though abhorrent, episode. If Iraq is allowed to slide into chaos or fall under a new despot, we will witness horrors to make Abu Ghraib look like a garden party.
It is important not to lose sight of the big picture. Rumsfeld or even President Bush could be booted out. But the unique opportunity to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as a democratic state must not be wasted.
Let us have all the Abu Ghraib trials we need. But let us not forget June 30, the date for the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government, and January 2005, the date for the first free elections in that country's history. http://www.nypost.com/postopinion/opedcolumnists/23932.htm