Jewish World Review May 5, 2004/ 14 Iyar, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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Taking a ba'ath with the enemy | As outrageous as it is — and John McCain is right, a decent man quickly runs out of "adverbs and adjectives" strong enough to express his outrage — the abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war has not done half the damage to the allied cause as American dithering in Fallujah.

The timing of the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison, the most infamous of Saddam Hussein's gruesome torture palaces, could not have been worse because the photographs blazed across the Arab world just as Washington is promoting Saddam's former generals to positions where they can resume Ba'athist goonery.

You have to wonder where Washington finds such incompetence. Abu Ghraib Prison has been notorious for years in Iraq as a symbol of atrocities that only Saddam Hussein could be capable of; Abu Ghraib could have been leveled at war's end to the cheers of Iraqi millions. Instead, a tone-deaf American bureaucrat with the sensibilities of a cypress stump took one look at the modern cellblocks and administrative offices and decided that this would be just the place for interrogation of prisoners of war. Would such bureaucrats have seized the up-to-date facilities at Auschwitz or Buchenwald for interrogation of prisoners at the end of World War II? (Alas, we think we know the answer.)

But what has all the marks of debacle at Fallujah will have a more lasting effect because it suggests to the Iraqis and the Arab world beyond Iraq that the Americans may not be the tough guys everyone thought they were. This is a slander on the courage and competence of the U.S. military, but perception is reality in the Middle East as well as inside the Beltway.

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The Iraqi perception of American resolve in Fallujah will inevitably be that when the going got tough, the Americans got going: Under the pressure of an approaching election, the Bush administration surrendered the city, where the Marines were prepared and poised to do whatever it took to rid the city of Ba'athist goons — and hand it over to ... Ba'athist goons. Truce after truce was shredded by the Saddamite forces inside Fallujah until Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a Ba'athist general, was selected to command the terrorists who would be charged with eliminating the foreign fighters inside the city. Never has been a mission accomplished so quickly: Gen. Saleh told Reuters: "There are no foreign fighters in Fallujah."

But wait. Maybe the Americans didn't really appoint the general, anyway. Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent most of Sunday on the television interview programs, explaining that the Iraqi generals put in charge had not actually been approved by the Pentagon. "They have not been vetted," he said. "They are not in charge." The decision to form a Ba'athist brigade and put a Ba'athist general in charge was made from "the bottom up." Now, Gen. Myers said, "we have to have a policy to catch up with what is happening on the ground."

And there's the rub. The general and his men on the ground are not at fault for SNAFU in Fallujah. This Vietnamization of the Iraqi strategy — two steps forward, one step backward and three steps to the side — is a war strategy that could only have been born in a Republican White House. Richard Nixon's Christmas bombing of Haiphong put the North Vietnamese on the run in 1969. And then, in a fit of deadly compassion, the White House stopped it. The rest is shameful history.

But what looks like chaos and incompetence smells more like politics. The Pentagon defeated Saddam Hussein and then the State Department's Arabist legion, ever eager to protect the Saudis and the status quo, defeated the Pentagon. Jay Garner, the retired general chosen by Donald Rumsfeld to administer Iraq, lasted three weeks. His successor, Paul Bremer, was selected by State. He'll no doubt eventually wish that he could have got out in three weeks.

The State Department's solution now is to turn it all over to the United Nations, to empower Kofi Annan's man in Baghdad to appoint a new interim government. This should be swell. Lakhdar Brahimi's most attractive credential, both to the U.N. bureaucrats and the Arabists in Foggy Bottom, is that he despises Israel, which he has characterized as "the poison in the Middle East."

The soldiers and Marines in Iraq, and the cause they were sent 10,000 miles from home to fight for, deserve better than a SNAFU like this. Much better. George W. Bush can be grateful to the gods, if not to G-d, that he's running for re-election against John Kerry. A credible Democratic alternative might ride the Fallujah foul-up right up Pennsylvania Avenue.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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