an administration operates without accountability, a moral catastrophe is
inevitable. By PAUL KRUGMAN
Didn't you know, in your gut, that something like Abu Ghraib would eventually
come to light?
When the world first learned about the abuse of
prisoners, President Bush said that it "does not reflect the nature of the
American people." He's right, of course: a great majority of Americans are
decent and good. But so are a great majority of people everywhere. If America's
record is better than that of most countries - and it is - it's because of our
system: our tradition of openness, and checks and balances.
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Bush, despite all his talk of good and evil, doesn't believe in that system.
From the day his administration took office, its slogan has been "just trust
us." No administration since Nixon has been so insistent that it has the right
to operate without oversight or accountability, and no administration since
Nixon has shown itself to be so little deserving of that trust. Out of a
misplaced sense of patriotism, Congress has deferred to the administration's
demands. Sooner or later, a moral catastrophe was inevitable.
us, John Ashcroft said, as he demanded that Congress pass the Patriot Act, no
questions asked. After two and a half years, during which he arrested and
secretly detained more than a thousand people, Mr. Ashcroft has yet to convict
any actual terrorists. (Look at the actual trials of what Dahlia Lithwick of
Slate calls "disaffected bozos who watch cheesy training videos," and you'll see
what I mean.)
Just trust us, George Bush said, as he insisted that Iraq,
which hadn't attacked us and posed no obvious threat, was the place to go in the
war on terror. When we got there, we found no weapons of mass destruction and no
new evidence of links to Al Qaeda.
Just trust us, Paul Bremer said, as he
took over in Iraq. What is the legal basis for Mr. Bremer's authority? You may
imagine that the Coalition Provisional Authority is an arm of the government,
subject to U.S. law. But it turns out that no law or presidential directive has
ever established the authority's status. Mr. Bremer, as far as we can tell,
answers to nobody except Mr. Bush, which makes Iraq a sort of personal fief. In
that fief, there has been nothing that Americans would recognize as the rule of
law. For example, Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's erstwhile favorite, was allowed
to gain control of Saddam's files - the better to blackmail his potential
And finally: Just trust us, Donald Rumsfeld said early in 2002,
when he declared that "enemy combatants" - a term that turned out to mean
anyone, including American citizens, the administration chose to so designate -
don't have rights under the Geneva Convention. Now people around the world talk
of an "American gulag," and Seymour Hersh is exposing My Lai all over
Did top officials order the use of torture? It depends on the
meaning of the words "order" and "torture." Last August Mr. Rumsfeld's top
intelligence official sent Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the
Guantánamo prison, to Iraq. General Miller recommended that the guards help
interrogators, including private contractors, by handling prisoners in a way
that "sets the conditions" for "successful interrogation and exploitation." What
did he and his superiors think would happen?
To their credit, some
supporters of the administration are speaking out. "This is about system
failure," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. But do
Mr. Graham, John McCain and other appalled lawmakers understand their own role
in that failure? By deferring to the administration at every step, by blocking
every effort to make officials accountable, they set the nation up for this
disaster. You can't prevent any serious inquiry into why George Bush led us to
war to eliminate W.M.D. that didn't exist and to punish Saddam for imaginary
ties to Al Qaeda, then express shock when Mr. Bush's administration fails to
follow the rules on other matters.
Meanwhile, Abu Ghraib will remain in
use, under its new commander: General Miller of Guantánamo. Donald Rumsfeld has
"accepted responsibility" - an action that apparently does not mean paying any
price at all. And Dick Cheney says, "Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of
defense the United States has ever had. . . . People should get off his case and
let him do his job." In other words: Just trust us.