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May 8, 2004

The Mideastization of the US, or: Rumsfeld Must Resign

by Juan Cole

The Bush administration keeps talking about bringing democracy to the Middle East, but a key element in democracy is always the accountability of public officials to the public. That is why we have elections, that is why we have a division of powers, that is why Congress can impeach the executive and the Supreme Court could order Nixon to hand over his tape recordings. When high officials commit improprieties, they must resign. When they run a loose ship and it founders on the shoals of scandal, they must resign. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz must resign. It is the only way the United States can recover even a shred of credibility in the wider world, at a time when this country desperately needs the esteem and the cooperation of allies and friends.

Not only would their resignations begin to restore credibility to the United States, it would be an important step toward resolving the Iraqi crisis. The Bush administration has been paralyzed in going forward in Iraq by Rumsfeld's foot-dragging on Iraq. He insists on trying to run the place himself. Putting a private army of unaccountable commandos in there was his idea. Empowering corrupt expatriates like Ahmad Chalabi was his idea. Using disproportionate force and disregarding civilian casualties were his ideas. Trying to keep Defense Department control of the $18 billion in reconstruction aid was his idea. Most of the ways in which Iraq as an enterprise has gone badly wrong are the result of his ideas. Removing him will allow the State Department to do its job in Iraq starting July 1, without continued disastrous maneuvering from Rumsfeld.

The Bush administration has from its inception stood against accountability. When Ambassador Joe Wilson blew the whistle on the phony Niger yellowcake story that Bush put in his state of the union address to stampede us all into war, someone high in the Bush administration took petty revenge by revealing that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA operative. Plame's specialty was attempting to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. When the Bush administration revealed her name to the public, it compromised all her contacts in all the countries she had ever worked, and set back the fight against proliferation. This action was high treason. Bush could demand that the individual responsible come forward. He has not done so.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, no Bush administration official was asked to resign. The main purveyor of false intelligence on Iraqi WMD was Vice President Dick Cheney. He has not been asked to step down, even though he was largely responsible for taking the country to war based on a falsehood. Scooter Libby, David Wurmser and John Hannah were up to their necks in hyping bad intelligence on Iraqi WMD. None of them was asked to step down. They were supplied the bad intelligence by Undersecretary of Defense for Planning Douglas Feith and his rogue Office of Special Plans. No one associated with this scam has been asked to resign.

It is clear where the buck stops with regard to torture by the US military. It stops with the Secretary of Defense (and with the President, but he in any case is facing accountability in November). Moreover, Rumsfeld is not an innocent bystander in all this. His policies have consistently aimed at creating spaces for prisoners to be outside any judicial jurisdiction, so that anything can be done to them with impunity. I remember seeing a news conference where a British journalist complained about the US practice of hooding prisoners as a form of torture. Rumsfeld absolutely ridiculed her. "Hooding?" He asked sarcastically. The torture of POWs at Abu Ghuraib was not carried out by a handful of rogue MPs. It was the result of ordinary practices of US military intelligence, practices that just haven't usually been photographed. Rumsfeld set the tone in which military intelligence felt justified in behaving this way.

Democracy is about more than elections. Most Middle Eastern countries already have elections. Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, all of them hold regular elections. They have parliaments, parties, campaigns. Two things make them nevertheless not democracies. The first is that their presidents manipulate the elections so that there is never any doubt that they will win the election and that their party will dominate parliament (even if space is made for minority parties to win a few seats). Second, their regimes have no accountability to the public. No one in Hosni Mubarak's government has ever had to resign because he performed his duties poorly. He might have to resign because he fell out with the president. But if he is buddy buddy with the head of state, then he can do no wrong.

You really wonder whether the Bush plan to Americanize the Middle East isn't being turned on its head. We now have an unaccountable government not elected in accordance with the will of the majority of Americans, which victimizes critics like Joe Wilson and engages in torture. Bush and Co. are emulating the worst aspects of the military governments of Egypt and Yemen. They have no credibility to push the latter toward democracy.

Bush says he is annoyed with Rumsfeld for not informing him about those photographs of tortured Iraqi prisoners. I personally find it difficult to believe that Rumsfeld did not brief him on them at a time when Gen. Richard Myers was discussing the timing of their release with Dan Rathers! But if this is true, it demonstrates that Bush is not really president. He has allowed Cheney, Rumsfeld and others to usurp his presidency, hide key information from him, manipulate him, and tell him what to do. Bush says he won't fire Rumsfeld. That gives the Democrats one more thing to run on.

By the way, the US press is reporting that Bush apologized for the torture of Iraqi prisoners at his news conference Thursday with King Abdullah II of Jordan. The moderate Saudi daily published in London, al-Hayat, however, points out that all Bush said was that he was sorry the incidents had happened. That isn't really apologizing for them, the newspaper insisted. Asharq al-Awsat did a story in which it argued that while some Iraqis appear to be somewhat mollified by Bush's statements, most in the Arab world are not. Not all Iraqis are, either. It quotes one man who complains that of 50 Iraqi parties, not one has mounted a demonstration against the US over the photos, because they are all in America's back pocket. (This allegation is not entirely true. The Board of Muslim Clerics, a fundamentalist Sunni group, did hold a demonstration at Abu Ghuraib on Tuesday).

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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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