The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, by George Packer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, October 2005. $26
Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, by Larry Diamond. Times Books, June 2005. $25
The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. Times Books, October 2005. $26
Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman. Norton, April 2003. $21 cloth, $13.95 paper
Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, by Mark Danner. New York Review Books, October 2004. $19.95 paper
If in fact journalists write the first draft of history, then the books under review should become required reading for historians who will write about September 11 and the subsequent events that culminated in the invasion of Iraq. Following the attack on September 11, the Bush administration declared war on al Qaeda and any state that provided support for the terrorists who had assaulted the United States. The immediate response to the war on terrorism led to the United States invasion of Afghanistan, which drove both Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts from the country. Because the Bush administration also believed that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as being in collusion with the perpetrators of September 11, the invasion of Iraq quickly followed, preceded by the administration’s campaign to convince the international community as well as the American public of Saddam’s perfidy. In the buildup to war the Bush administration revealed intelligence, which subsequently proved to be inaccurate, that seemingly substantiated its claim that Saddam was concealing WMD, including chemical and biological weapons as well as a nuclear program that threatened the security of the United States. The war was portrayed as urgent so as to prevent Saddam from delivering a nuclear device against the United States, an argument that resonated in post–September 11 America when most citizens were unwilling to question the administration’s assertions or trust the efforts of United Nations weapons inspectors to uncover evidence of WMD. The administration also sweetened the call for war by assuring the American people that following the overthrow of Saddam, we would be greeted by the people of Iraq with flowers and hailed as liberators rather than occupiers.
But underneath the hype for war was the conviction held by high administration officials that Saddam’s removal represented an opportunity to reshape the Middle East. Once his regime had been replaced, Saddam would no longer be a threat to American dominance in the Persian Gulf or to Israel. In fact, Iraq not only would become the United States’ main ally in the region, but would support efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A pro-American democratic Iraq would also allow the United States to establish a base in the area, thus replacing American troops from an increasingly unstable Saudi Arabia, and create stability for the flow of oil to the West. There was also the additional benefit that a democratic Iraq would become the catalyst for transforming the Middle East into a model of Arab democracy, which, in the words of then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, “is the only guarantee that it will no longer produce ideologies of hatred that lead men to fly airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington.”
From the moment of the invasion to the present turbulent situation in Iraq, however, the war and its aftermath met unexpected pitfalls, which led to heated debate over the reasons for the war and criticism of the administration’s handling of the occupation. The attack on the Bush administration was preceded by the discovery that many of the claims that led us to war were based on erroneous intelligence and careless decisions, which included the failure to find Saddam’s arsenal of WMD, the inability to prove a link between Saddam and al Qaeda, the failure of the Department of Defense to provide a sufficient number of troops to prevent the breakdown of law and order which followed the war, and its underestimation of the strength of the violent resistance to the presence of American and coalition forces in Iraq, the result of which was that Iraq became a hotbed of insurgency and subsequently the new battleground for the war on terrorism.
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George Packer, the author of The Assassins’ Gate, made four tours of duty in Iraq on assignment for the New Yorker, and his book details his impressions of what went wrong in a war that followed none of the optimistic predictions of the Bush administration in the weeks and months before the invasion. Packer notes that the roots of the Iraq War were first formulated during the first President Bush’s administration, enunciated in the Defense Planning Guidance document, which the New York Times published in 1992 and which was commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, with his undersecretary, Paul Wolfowitz, providing much of its intellectual content. The document addressed the role of America in the aftermath of the Cold War. In a world described as dangerous and unstable, the United States would preserve its preeminent power across the globe, prevent the reemergence of any new rival, and remain the only superpower, for its own security and for stability everywhere else. Nowhere in the document is the United Nations mentioned in the context of confronting threats to world peace; rather, the United States would rely on ad hoc coalitions, as in the Gulf War, not to last beyond the crisis being confronted. Packer observes that in its language about American dominance, ad hoc coalitions, and preemptive war to prevent threats from unconventional weapons, the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 foreshadows with uncanny accuracy the second President Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002, which laid the foundation for the Bush Doctrine of preventive war and its first test, the war in Iraq.
Although the American public was led to believe that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD that threatened our security, and the administration justified the war as necessary to prevent “mushroom clouds from hovering over American cities,” there were those with more ambitious reasons for the invasion. Packer notes that high officials in the Bush administration promoted the idea of establishing in Iraq, through the force of arms, a beachhead of Arab democracy in the Middle East:
To put an American political and military stamp, with a friendly government and permanent bases, in the heart of the region where al-Qaeda drew most of its recruits. To bring the ballot box . . . to decaying sunbaked cities and tribal deserts. . . . By a chain reaction, a reverse domino effect, war in Iraq would weaken the Middle East’s dictatorships and undermine its murderous ideologies and begin to spread the balm of liberal democracy. The road to Jerusalem, Riyadh, Damascus, and Tehran went through Baghdad. . . . With will and imagination, America could strike one great blow at terrorism, tyranny, underdevelopment, and the region’s hardest, saddest problem.
Nevertheless, states Packer, throughout 2002, officials charged with Iraq policy were not talking about bringing democracy to the Middle East. The basis for war remained narrowly defined by the president in his State of the Union address when he warned: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Therefore, the United States must disarm or overthrow Saddam.
The next step in the evolution of American policy toward Iraq came soon after in President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, which followed the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Packer notes that this speech dramatically expanded the theater of war, but still on relatively narrow grounds. As Wolfowitz, now undersecretary of defense, told an interviewer after the fall of Baghdad: “WMD was the least common denominator. . . . The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction.” Wolfowitz, however, admitted that an alignment of American power and influence in the Middle East, divorced from theocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, and toward a democratic Iraq, was part of the larger picture for the future of the region.
Wolfowitz’s interview notwithstanding, analyzing the reasons for invading Iraq remains controversial. Packer contends that it still isn’t possible to ascertain the real motives behind the Bush administration’s launching of the war against Saddam. He writes: “Since the invasion, we have continued to argue, and we will go on arguing for years to come. Iraq is the Rashomon of wars.” What is certain, however, is that once the intelligence about WMD proved to be wrong, and the connection between Saddam and Osama bin Laden proved nonexistent, the president turned to the idea of creating a democratic Iraq as the central focus of the occupation.
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On January 20, 2003, President Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive No. 24, which gave the Department of Defense responsibility for administrating Iraq once Saddam’s regime was deposed. The unit created by the president to enforce the directive was the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general, was chosen to lead the agency but was subsequently replaced by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III as civilian administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which replaced ORHA following Garner’s dismissal. One of Bremer’s primary responsibilities was to oversee the selection of an Iraqi transitional government. But almost from the start of his tenure, Bremer faced additional formidable obstacles, including the shortage of troops to maintain security in a steadily deteriorating Iraq. Packer points out that studies made prior to the war by a who’s who of foreign policy think tanks concluded that security and reconstruction in postwar Iraq would require large numbers of troops for an extended period of time, and international cooperation would be essential. But these forecasts were ignored by the Pentagon and the Oval Office. Thus flush with the success of the war plan, the Pentagon under the leadership of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ignored the looting that followed the downfall of Saddam and the rising chaos in Baghdad. Given that the American troops in Iraq were too few to secure the country, Rumsfeld’s response to the general breakdown of Iraqi civil society was to belittle its significance: “Stuff happens,” and “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” The reality was, as Packer observed, that there never was a plan for postwar Iraq. The Pentagon worked on the premise that our troops would quickly decapitate the Iraqi regime and turn security over to the remnants of the Iraqi police and army, thus allowing most American forces to leave Iraq within a few months. Packer notes that there was no Plan B. None of those in the higher echelon of the Bush administration considered that there might be postwar conflict, and they were totally unprepared for the insurgency that followed America’s quick victory in Iraq, let alone the sectarian rift that characterized the relationship between the Shia, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds. Packer notes, “If there was never a coherent postwar plan, it was because the people in Washington who mattered never intended to stay in Iraq.” Their plan was to turn the country over to Iraqi exiles, such as Ahmad Chalabi, and let them deal with the problems that came up.
The failure of this strategy, argues Packer, served the interests of those Iraqis who had no interest in allowing a new society, under American guidance, to emerge from Saddam’s downfall. This opposition was inadvertently aided by decisions made by Bremer shortly after his appointment, which included the expulsion of all members of the Baath Party from government service and the abolition of the Iraqi army, which created a pool of 450,000 new recruits for the emerging insurgency that, at this writing, is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 American soldiers.
Packer concludes his critical assessment of the Bush administration’s failure to plan for postwar Iraq with these scathing comments:
I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.
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Squandered Victory, by Larry Diamond, is equally critical of the Bush administration’s decision-making process in Iraq. Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, served as a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad from January to April 2004. In particular, Diamond is disparaging of Bremer’s tenure as administrator of the CPA. He notes that if Bremer was sincere about bringing democracy to Iraq, it was to be achieved at his own pace and in his own way.
Diamond cites an early example of Bremer’s high-handedness when he recounts the ambassador’s response to Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who on Bremer’s arrival in Baghdad suggested that he appoint a strong mayor to run Baghdad. It was expected, Diamond writes, that Bremer would meet with Iraqi leaders to discuss the formation of an Iraqi interim government. Instead Bremer, implementing a decision made in the White House before his departure, responded to Iraqi leaders that the idea of an interim government with real sovereign authority had been indefinitely postponed. Bremer informed them that the Americans and their allies would remain in control under the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority, led by himself, exercising all executive, legislative, and judicial authority. Diamond reflects:
Gradually I realized that Bremer and his most trusted CPA advisors simply did not grasp the depth of Iraqi disaffection, suspicion, and frustration, even among many of our partners and philosophical allies within the Iraqi political class. Thus they simply imposed a transition plan on the Iraqi people and political class, rather than engaging in an open, broad-based dialogue that might have generated wider consensus. . . .
Incidents such as the above fueled the fears held by many Iraqis that the liberators would become occupiers. Indeed, Diamond notes, the longer-term American occupation had begun.
If Diamond is critical of Bremer, he is no less unsparing of the Bush administration. He notes that the administration was not willing to consider any options that would slow the rush to war or require from the American people a larger mobilization and a greater degree of sacrifice. The Bush administration wanted it all, states Diamond: a war to eliminate Saddam, a normal life for the American people, and a program of sweeping tax cuts. Diamond cites the columnist Thomas Friedman, who called this approach “We’re at war—let’s party.” Like Packer, Diamond argues that American forces in Iraq were undermanned and that had the administration listened to the counsel of think tanks such as the Rand Institute or the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, General Shinseki, who was “retired” from active service for advocating a large invasion force on the order of 400,000 troops, the result would have been an immediate mobilization of the military reserves and National Guard. The administration feared, however, that this would alarm the public into questioning the costs and feasibility of the war.
Despite disparaging the manner in which the Bush administration prepared for the war and its aftermath, Diamond acknowledges that the United States and its coalition partners accomplished a number of important things in Iraq. He cites the aid extended to a wide array of Iraqi civil society organizations and political parties, many of them democratic in orientation, which allowed them to organize. In addition, Diamond states that more than 300,000 Iraqis had participated in democracy dialogues and training sessions. In some areas of Iraq, organizations for democracy were strengthened (as in the Kurdish north) or created largely anew (as in the South Central region, Baghdad, and Basra). Diamond also notes that in the interim constitution, women were significantly represented in the assembly. Also under the guidance of the CPA, a new education system was introduced which was free from Baathist ideology and the relentless glorification of Saddam. In addition, more than 3,500 schools were refurbished, and more than seventy health-care facilities were built.
Despite this record of achievement, the collapse of public order in the aftermath of the war had devastating, long-term consequences which, states Diamond, not only undermined Iraqis’ confidence in the United States, but fanned the suspicion that the United States did not want a strong, independent Iraq. The disorder opened Iraq’s borders to infiltration by al Qaeda, suicide bombers, Iranian intelligence agents, and the general insurgency, which continues to threaten the emergence of a stable Iraq. Diamond cites a speech in October 2004 in which Ambassador Bremer admitted, “We paid a big price for not stopping [the looting] because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness.”
Despite the successful turnout of voters in Iraq’s recent election, which for the first time included large numbers of the Sunni population, it is still too early to judge whether the country is on the road to creating a democratic form of government. It is yet to be determined whether the population voted as Iraqis or as Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds. Meanwhile the insurgency continues to engage in its furious assaults against both American troops and the Iraqi population, with no end to the violence in sight, despite administration claims to the contrary. In addition, Sunni and Shiite militias battle each other, bringing the country ever closer to a civil war.
Given the fragile nature of the new Iraqi political system, Diamond concludes his book with the argument that international support for a democratic Iraq is one thing, but the effort to manipulate Iraq’s future is another. He warns that as long as the United States retains tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, they will remain a lightning rod for resistance.
Yet if they depart before a viable state emerges . . . then Iraq will slide into civil war, or Iranian domination, or very likely both. As a matter of . . . pragmatic interest, the United States should promote the kind of dialogue and accommodation with the insurgency that would enable American forces to withdraw sooner rather than later. In addition, we need to avoid the imperial temptation to shape Iraq’s destiny to our liking. Such intervention is likely to backfire in the end.
The New York Times reported on January 7, 2006, that American officials were talking with local Iraqi insurgent leaders to exploit a rift that had opened between homegrown insurgents and radical groups like al Qaeda, and to draw the local leaders into the political process.
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The insurgency, which threatens to undermine the democratic process in Iraq, includes Saddam loyalists; Iraqi nationalists, who view the American troops in Iraq as an occupation force; Baathists; former members of the Iraqi military; and foreign fighters, including Islamic jihadists such as al Qaeda in Iraq, led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Indeed, Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, the authors of The Age of Sacred Terror (2002), who served on the National Security Council staff, state in The Next Attack that the American invasion of Iraq has turned the country into the main center for the jihadist struggle against the West. Islamic radicals, the authors contend, have found in Iraq a more secure sanctuary and training ground than they had in Afghanistan. The authors note that although the loss of its training camps in Afghanistan hurt the jihadists, the “on-the-job training” that they have received in Iraq has more than made up for that setback. Furthermore, the terrorist capabilities of the jihadists have developed with unprecedented speed, drawing on the experience of their fighters from Afghanistan, Chechnya, and the Middle East. This situation has also resulted in the introduction of weapons that range from Explosively Formed Projectiles to suicide bombers. The result is that under the leadership of Zarqawi, the jihadists have become a formidable foe for the coalition forces in Iraq.
Soon after the invasion, Zarqawi initiated a wave of kidnappings and decapitations, beginning with the beheading of Nicholas Berg in May 2004. By the summer of 2005, he directed the bombings and other attacks that killed scores of Americans and Iraqis. The authors note that although initially in opposition to Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden came to believe that Zarqawi was capable of attacking the American presence in Iraq for him. Benjamin and Simon explain that the objective of the jihadists is to kill Americans, as well as all foreigners allied with or supporting them. Iraqis who support the coalition forces are also targeted for death. Ultimately the jihadists hope to drive the United States out of Iraq, prevent the emergence of a democratic, Western-oriented government, and possibly ignite a civil war between Sunnis and the majority Shiites. The last objective has much to do with Zarqawi’s visceral hatred of Shiites, whom, in a letter captured by coalition forces, he described as “a greater danger and their harm more destructive to the nation than that of the Americans.” The authors state that Zarqawi’s eagerness to slaughter Shiites fits perfectly the jihadist strategy, which is
to inflict so much harm to the Shiites that they fight back against the Sunnis. This would lead either to the United States intervening against the Shiites or withdrawing from a hopeless civil war. . . . To a disturbing degree, Zarqawi has been advancing a strategy toward a civil war, which may well destabilize the surrounding region. . . .
Like Packer and Diamond, Benjamin and Simon find that the Bush administration made many blunders in planning for postwar Iraq, including not anticipating the intensity of the insurgency. But they also state that it is an open question whether the invasion could have been done “right.” By this they mean whether the administration, even under the best conditions, could have established public order and commenced the work of establishing a new government well enough to preempt the insurgency that followed. What is clear, however, is the authors’ contention that the Bush administration’s failure to do a better job compounded its initial error of underestimating the jihadist threat.
Had U.S. forces been deployed throughout the country in strength and had they clamped down on any early violence or disorder, it would have been harder for the insurgency to gain momentum. Instead the administration created a wide-open field for the radicals. By failing to provide real security, the United States demonstrated a lack of concern for the fate of ordinary Iraqis, and as a result, some undoubtedly turned against us.
Benjamin and Simon cite the de-Baathification program and the precipitous dissolution of the Iraqi army as contributing factors in creating a large pool of allies for the insurgents. Nevertheless, the Bush administration, which has not admitted tactical mistakes in Iraq until recently, and only in response to the president’s unfavorable polling figures in regard to his handling of the war, insists, “We’re staying on the offensive. We’ll strike the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home.” Which raises the question: why has there not been a second September 11?
The authors note that in the months following the attack, it was universally believed that the next onslaught was forthcoming. Indeed, one can argue that the president was reelected in 2004 primarily because most Americans viewed him as a strong leader who would prevent another September 11. Benjamin and Simon offer several reasons why the anticipated assault did not happen. The first is that the country became too difficult a place for terrorists to operate, especially since the tightening of immigration controls made it harder for individuals from Muslim countries to enter the United States. The authors also cite the greater consciousness of the threat that animated the nation’s law enforcement personnel, public officials, and private citizens to become more vigilant. The result is that post–September 11 America has become a much more formidable target for the jihadists to penetrate.
Benjamin and Simon also advance the possibility that the jihadists are getting what they want elsewhere. By inflicting casualties on Americans in Iraq, they are demonstrating to the worldwide Muslim community (umma) that they are the champions of Muslim rights. Finally, the authors consider the theory—one cited by most counterterrorism experts—that the jihadists may perceive a need to outdo what they have done before. Mounting an operation that can kill thousands can take a long time, and as the events of September 11 revealed, al Qaeda spent years planning its offensive. Thus it is conceivable that another attack may occur, and if it happens, it will come only when the jihadists are certain of success. Benjamin and Simon note that the American Muslim community has been inhospitable to the jihadists. Drawing on the 9/11 Commission Report, which revealed the solitary path the nineteen hijackers had in America, the authors conclude: “that they could pull off such an attack is obviously bad news. That no local network was found to support them is good news.”
The perpetrators of September 11 were acting on grievances that had long festered in the Muslim world. According to Paul Berman, however, the “Terror War” is not new or unprecedented. In Terror and Liberalism, Berman, a political and cultural critic, argues that the war against al Qaeda and the Islamic jihadists is linked to Europe’s earlier struggles between liberalism and totalitarianism. Citing the excesses of the Jacobins during the French Revolution, the fanaticism of Hitler, and the dogmatic ideology of Lenin, Berman notes that the jihadists share European fascism’s opposition to the achievements of liberal civilization, such as democratic freedom, social justice, social equality, and scientific rationality, which they view as a “gigantic lie.”
Liberal civilization seemed to them a horror. Liberal civilization was exploitation and murder—a civilization that ought to be destroyed as quickly and violently as possible. And so, the newly mutated mass movements set out on a path of radical destruction—the path that Lenin liked to describe, with a comradely nod at Saint-Just and the guillotine, as “terror.”
Our response to the September 11 attacks therefore marked the start of a new global war against an ideology as apocalyptically destructive as Nazism and communism. For Berman, the war in Iraq is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, but the arena in which the conflict between liberalism and its totalitarian enemies is being fought. For students of Russian history and literature, Zarqawi’s and Osama bin Laden’s counterparts are all too familiar and could be found in the nineteenth-century nihilism of the Russian revolutionary Sergei Nechaev or the fictional character of Stavrogin in Dostoyevsky’s The Devils.
Although there was no link between Saddam Hussein and the jihadist perpetrators of September 11, Berman notes that Iraq’s Baath Party and the Islamists were two branches of Muslim totalitarianism, which he argues is a variation of the European idea. For Berman, the jihadist counterpart of the European fascist critics of liberalism was the Egyptian-born Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966). Qutb, the author of Milestones and In the Shade of the Qur’an, promoted the concept of Islam as a totality in which the umma, or community, was linked by the belief of all Muslims that “there is no God but Allah.” To live “in the shade” of the Qur’an was for Qutb a rich experience which gave meaning to life and made it worth living.
As Qutb contemplated the West, he took aim at the place accorded to religion in liberal society. He rejected the idea of the separation of church and state: “The whole purpose of liberalism was to put religion in one corner, and the state in a different corner, and to keep these corners apart.” Qutb argued that a liberal society restricted God’s domain to the heavens, and “by doing so, ‘such a society denies or suspends God’s sovereignty on earth.’” As Berman interprets it, Qutb’s purpose was to alert Muslims to the danger that, if tolerance and open-mindedness were accepted as social values, the new habits would crowd out the divine. Qutb reminded Muslims that in Islam, the divine is everything, or it is not divine. “He wanted Muslims to understand that God cannot be shunted into a corner . . . that, if God is the only god, God must rule over everything.”
The link between Qutb and the appeal of bin Laden among Islamic jihadists rests in their fear that liberal ideas would spread from the Western societies into the Muslim world. Qutb, like bin Laden, believed that evil people in the Muslim world together with evil people in the West were mounting a serious effort to achieve such an objective. In Milestones, Qutb called for the creation of a “vanguard” that would work to reform Islam and protect the umma from liberal ideas and heathen customs. Qutb was critical of “the false Muslims or ‘hypocrites’ who ruled the Muslim world . . . who acknowledged Islam one day a week and ignored it on the other days.” These, he argued, “were Islam’s bitter foes,” whom he called jahili, or barbarians. Thus, to live a proper Islamic life was to engage in a jihad for Islam with full force against these people, without moderation or reservation. Qutb paid with his life for his call to violence against the jahili, when President Gamal Abdul Nasser had him executed in 1966.
Defeating the jihadist component of the Iraq insurgency will not remove the terrorist threat in the Middle East. Berman states that Qutb recognized that Islam’s truest enemy was not a military force, but an insidious penetration of cultural influences and ideas, which in his mind threatened to “exterminate” Islam. Thus, as long as the Bush administration promotes in Iraq the ideas of constitutional government, secularism, and human rights, let alone women’s equality, it is advancing the language of liberalism. If Berman’s analysis is correct, Islamic totalitarianism and liberalism will continue to engage each other in the foreseeable future, be it in Iraq or on another battlefield. Berman is pessimistic about the outcome of this struggle, as his cautionary conclusion indicates: “Today the totalitarian danger has not yet lost its sting, and there is no wisdom in claiming otherwise. The literature and language of the mid-twentieth century speak to us about danger of that sort.”
The ability of the insurgency to recruit followers to oppose the American presence in Iraq does not depend, however, on the appeal of Islamic fundamentalists such as Sayyid Qutb. American forces have inadvertently helped the cause of the jihadists by the disclosure of photographs that revealed the humiliation suffered by Muslim detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth is an indispensable compilation of photographs, documents, and reports on Abu Ghraib, as well as the deliberations of American officials over the use of torture on Iraqi detainees. It also includes documents which frame the debate in the Bush administration as to whether al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners were protected by the Geneva Conventions and how far the US could go in interrogating them. Danner, who is a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and the Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, has also included essays on Abu Ghraibwhich he wrote for the New York Review of Books.
In the spring of 2004, the nation was shocked by the publication of graphic photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American soldiers in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Danner notes that these were not isolated events, nor were they the work of a few “bad apples.” Rather, Danner cites documents that reveal that American officers, under “enormous pressure” as the insurgency increased in intensity, felt the need to extract more information from prisoners. Danner states that from our knowledge of the interrogation methods of the American military and intelligence agencies, what happened at Abu Ghraib did not depend on the sadistic ingenuity of the prison interrogators. He notes:
Different soldiers, different unit, different base; and yet it is obvious that much of what might be called the “thematic content” of the abuse is very similar: the hooding, the loud noises, the “stress positions,” the sexual humiliations, the threatened assaults, and the forced violations—all seem to emerge from the same script. . . . All of this . . . suggests a clear program that had been purposely devised . . . with the intention, in the words of General Sanchez’s October 12 memorandum, of helping American troops “manipulate an internee’s emotions and weaknesses.”
The bureaucratic construction which allowed for the Abu Ghraib scandal, states Danner, followed from President Bush’s controversial decision on February 7, 2002, to withhold the protection of the Geneva Conventions both from al Qaeda and from the Taliban in Afghanistan. The decision rested on the argument, as stated by then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, that “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war,” which rendered obsolete the Geneva Conventions’ strict limitations on the questioning of enemy prisoners. This, Danner argues, made possible the adoption of the various “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have been used at CIA prisons and at the US base at Guantánamo Bay (New York Times reporter James Risen, in his new book State of War, found evidence of “a secret agreement among very senior administration officials to insulate Bush and to give him deniability” regarding the harsh new interrogation tactics).
Danner cites a report from military intelligence that in their estimation between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq, and presumably exposed to interrogation, had been arrested by mistake. For the insurgency, the Abu Ghraib scandal became a powerful recruitment tool. Jihadists would point to the Abu Ghraib images as symbols of the degradation inflicted on Muslims by the American occupiers. As Danner notes:
In this sense the Hooded Man and the Leashed Man fill a need, serving as powerful brand images advertising a preexisting product. . . . [W]hat better image of Arab ill-treatment and oppression could be devised than that of a naked Arab man lying at the feet of a short-haired American woman in camouflage garb, who stares immodestly at her Arab pet while holding him by the throat with a leash?
Danner concludes that had bin Laden sought to create a powerful trademark image for his global jihad, he could scarcely have done better hiring the cleverest advertising firm on Madison Avenue.