The Bush administration's piecemeal response to the Abu Ghraib scandal is a metaphor for its overall policy in Iraq. The United States has gone from an incremental entrance to an incremental withdrawal, in each case driven by domestic politics. For Iraq, the results have been disastrous.
There is no viable process for transferring sovereignty. Security remains precarious. Economic reconstruction has ground to a virtual halt. And now we have the gruesome pictures of Americans abusing Iraqi detainees in the very prison Saddam Hussein used to torture his victims.
All of this has further undermined whatever credibility or legitimacy the U.S. presence in Iraq may once have had. Any political leaders the United States may endorse in the future would be tainted. In Iraq today, America no longer offers a solution. It has become part of the problem.
To restore America's credibility in Iraq and beyond, and to have a chance to save Iraq itself, the United States must face reality and move boldly to a new strategy whose whole is larger than the sum of its parts. This is no longer merely desirable. It is now clearly necessary.
Start with the issue that dominates the headlines: the maltreatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Courts martial of the individuals directly involved are necessary, but on their own they will smack of scapegoating. It is past time not only for accountability among senior officials but also for acts of responsibility.
That is why the defense secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, both patriots, ought to do the patriotic thing and resign. The sickening brutality happened on their watch. It is not enough to proclaim responsibility; it is necessary to take it as well.
But a change in the Pentagon's leadership alone will not be sufficient to restore America's credibility. It is also necessary to change the underlying legal policies that made the maltreatment possible in the first place.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration rushed to free itself from the constraints that the rule of law imposes on states, both domestically and internationally. In Guantanamo Bay, within the United States and elsewhere, prisoners have been arbitrarily classified as "unlawful combatants" and denied the most basic legal protections. This created the climate that allowed the kind of lawless behavior we have recently witnessed.
Who can now seriously argue that the resulting damage to America's position is outweighed by any intelligence that may have been gathered through these brutal acts? It must ensure that everyone, whether in America, Guantanamo, Iraq or Afghanistan, is accorded the full protection that the U.S. Constitution and international law are supposed to provide.
But while addressing the issue of Abu Ghraib, the United States should keep its eye on the prize – an effective strategy for Iraq. The only way America can ever withdraw without leaving chaos behind is to help create a legitimate – that is, an elected – government capable of meeting the most immediate political, security, and economic needs of the Iraqi people.
The holding of elections, however, would require security at a level that calls for far more troops than those simply needed to hold on against the insurgency. It is also necessary to make a more robust effort to train an Iraqi police and military force that will eventually take over. Without such a build-up before the elections, the United States cannot create the conditions for building down after them. None of these steps is possible if America continues to act largely on its own. Washington no longer has the credibility and the Americans in Iraq lack the legitimacy to succeed alone.
Real internationalisation of the political authorities and the security forces is desperately needed now. That means more than asking the United Nations and Nato to help. It means actually transferring real power and authority to a U.N.-authorised international mission and a NATO-led security force.
The Bush administration's incrementalism in Iraq, so reminiscent of what earlier administrations did in Vietnam, has predictably produced disastrous consequences. The abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners that have now come to light have made matters still worse. But we must hope that the revolting photographs of maltreatment can provide the shock of recognition needed for a drastic change of course.
Ivo Daalder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and special advisor to the Center for American Progress. Anthony Lake, professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, was President Clinton's national security adviser from 1993 to 1997.
This column first appeared in The Financial Times (UK) on May 13, 2004.