May 25, 2004
Anyone who watched President Bush's May 24 speech and expected him to be contrite, or to come clean, or to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal was out of luck.
And anyone expecting Bush to present a convincing argument for why the transition of power will succeed was left with only a hope and a prayer.
All Bush said about the abuse was that it amounted to "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."
But this scandal is not about a few sadistic soldiers.
Something much more disturbing, something much more systemic, is going on, but Bush did not even come close to describing the magnitude of the problem, much less accept any shred of responsibility for it.
Bush did not mention White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who sent out a memo after Sept. 11 that said the war on terrorism "renders obsolete" the "strict limitation on questioning of prisoners" that the Geneva Conventions require. In that memo, Gonzales referred to some of the Geneva protections as "quaint."
Bush did not mention Rumsfeld, who insisted that the Taliban in Afghanistan did not merit the protection of the Geneva Conventions. According to Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, Rumsfeld gave these interrogators a free hand in Afghanistan and then sent them to Iraq to pry out information from the detainees there.
Bush did not mention his own culpability for unleashing the CIA. "The president has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary," one senior official told Bob Woodward in a Washington Post article on Oct. 21, 2001. "The gloves are off."
In his speech, the president tried to put a shine on the upcoming transfer of power on June 30. A couple of times, Bush promised that the Iraqi people would be gaining "full" sovereignty, which is different from the "limited sovereignty" that some of the members of his administration had been talking about.
But how "full" will that sovereignty be?
Unlike Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said that if the new Iraqi government wants U.S. troops to leave then they'll leave, Bush said, "After June 30, American and other forces will still have important duties. American military forces in Iraq will cooperate under American command as part of a multinational force authorized by the United Nations." And Bush said, "We'll maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary." He even hinted that the number may rise.
What kind of sovereignty is it that has a massive foreign army in its midst?
And what kind of sovereignty is it that has to accept the privatization of the economy that Bush insisted upon? Bush lauded the Iraqi Governing Council for approving a law Washington drafted "that opens the country to foreign investment for the first time in decades." This law allows for 100 percent repatriation of profits: a dream come true for U.S. corporations.
Bush said "the U.S. occupation will end" on June 30 -- but it will still be a de facto U.S. occupation.
Nevertheless, he played up the prospects of the interim government that U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is feverishly trying to cobble together.
But Bush gave no reason why the turnover of power will go smoothly. Quite the contrary: He said there will be more violence before and after the turnover. And he provided no realistic basis for expecting that the resistance to the U.S. occupation will fade.
Instead, he tried to foreshadow troubles to come. "There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic," he said.
That may be the understatement of the year.