Saturday, May 15, 2004

President Bush’s opponents are trying to make electoral hay over the Abu Ghraib prison nightmare. That’s predictable. But it’s unfortunate, too: The political broadsides tend to obscure the fact that, after a couple of tough weeks, things are going well militarily and politically in Iraq.

Worse, sowing politically motivated doubt about our wartime leaders discourages our troops and encourages the enemy — which has again revealed its true face in the ghastly execution of Nicholas Berg. If we’re not careful here on the home front, we’ll steal defeat in Iraq right from the jaws of victory — just as in Vietnam, where the war was lost not militarily, but politically, here at home.

Time for a little stock-taking. First, let’s look at the Abu Ghraib scandal.

c The abusive acts of a few Americans at the prison are inexcusable and downright un-American. These acts do not reflect the values of the U.S. military or the American people.

c The Pentagon erred in not “breaking” the story of these horrors first, leaving that task to network TV. A cardinal rule of crisis management is to get good news out fast, but bad news out faster. Always come clean as soon as possible — especially with the Congress.

• The incidents should be fully investigated, and those responsible duly punished. The investigations must be transparent, broad and thorough, examining those in charge who were aware of and sanctioned the abuse, as well as those in the chain of command who should have known.

cUltimate responsibility for the performance of the Defense Department lies with Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But he wasn’t party to the activities of a few bad seeds in Iraq. If there are no revelations of a cover-up, Mr. Rumsfeld should stay in place and soldier on. (Allegations of CIA officer involvement in the Abu Ghraib abuses mean Central Intelligence Director George Tenet has some questions to answer.)

cThe prison should be razed. It is a symbol of the darkest side of man’s soul. (Saddam Hussein’s regime tortured and executed tens of thousands there.) Move the detainees; tear down the walls, and let the Iraqi people move on.

On the battlefield, the situation has improved. The military’s patient strategy of dealing with Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala and rebel Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr has paid off to date.

We’re fighting the insurgency on our terms. We have brought Iraqi soldiers into the fight with the Fallujah Brigade and gathered allies among 100 or so senior Shi’ite clerics who publicly oppose Sheik Sadr’s radical policies and use of mosques as military bases. These are all very positive developments.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military continues softening up the enemy with raids by ground troops and precision strikes, to gather intelligence from agents, satellites and drones, and to prepare the battlefield, if an all-out urban assault becomes necessary.

By avoiding bloody, house-to-house fighting in places like Fallujah and Najaf, we have saved the lives of both innocent civilians and American soldiers.

To win politically and militarily, the insurgents need to fight. Inactivity is their enemy. By not going whole-hog into the cities to fight them, Coalition soldiers have left the insurgents no option but to abandon their defensive positions and engage us.

And every time the enemy comes out to do battle, it loses — badly. Scores of insurgents, terrorists and foreign fighters have been killed in suicidal raids on American forces in the last few weeks. Patience is a virtue in life, and sometimes in war.

On the political front, the United Nations is fully engaged in setting up the transitional government that will hold power until a full government can be chosen in national elections early next year. Soon, there will be an Iraqi face on a new Iraqi government, and Iraq will be a step closer to full sovereignty.

Despite the lingering strife borne of Fallujah, Najaf and Abu Ghraib, the situation in Iraq is overwhelmingly positive — and improving. With the exception of a few hotspots, the California-sized country is pacified and moving in the right direction.

Clearly, though, our job there isn’t done. Until it is, America’s elected officials and other second-guessers might consider spending more time and effort pondering how to win the war and less time and rhetoric trying to turn national setbacks to political advantage.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

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