Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Day by day, the scope of the prisoner abuse crimes grows. The number of prisoners suspected of being murdered by US guards and interrogators has now risen to 14. President Bush pled his case on a pair of Arab news channels today, Al-Arabiya and the new US-funded channel Al-Hurra. (Al-Jazeera was not granted an interview – apparently the Bush administration would like to reduce A-J’s market share in any way that they can, even at the cost of getting their message out to fewer people in the Arab world.)

The Washington Post today wrote in an editorial that the crimes were the result of certain institutional failures. The Post specifically cites Rumsfeld’s decision two years ago to institute “a system of holding detainees from Afghanistan not only incommunicado, without charge, and without legal process, but without any meaningful oversight mechanism at all,” in addition to the fact that Congress has “neglected its responsibility to oversee the administration’s conduct.”

But I suspect that the source of the failure is far deeper. One of the Bush administration’s guiding principles since entering office has been that international rules and norms do not apply to the US. (Just think about the Kyoto Protocol, treaties governing nuclear proliferation, and the International Criminal Court at the Hague, for examples.) The Bush administration has taken the following lesson from the fact that the US is the world’s lone remaining superpower: since no one in the world has the military or economic leverage that the US does, the US has no reason to heed the opinions of the rest of the world. The attitude conveyed by Bush has been that the US is accountable to no one. In other words, the US has the ability to be a bully among nations, and under the leadership of George Bush has in fact acted like one in many situations.

This zeitgeist, this sense that it’s okay for the US to use its overwhelming might to do what it wants without fearing the consequences, has percolated down through the pay scale of the government, and probably throughout the nation in general to some degree. The soldiers in the prison of Abu Ghraib were thus simply putting into practice the Bush administration’s doctrine of bullying the rest of the world, albeit on a very small scale. But it was the exact same doctrine. Responsibility for the crimes at Abu Ghraib thus lie squarely at the feet of the man who sets the tone of the US’s international dealings – George Bush.