Washington The idea that quick military triumphs in Afghanistan and Iraq inaugurated an era of American global empire died a quiet death Friday on Capitol Hill as Congress raked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the coals for mishandling the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. The United States must make do with less grandiose but more meaningful missions abroad.
The photographs of grinning goons in uniform taking pleasure in the sexual humiliation of Arab captives have inflicted "a world of hurt" on America's reputation abroad, Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a gentle scolding of Rumsfeld. The excuses of "just following orders" from guards or explanations that "the system worked" from the Pentagon's tone-deaf leadership fell as flat on the Hill as they have with foreign audiences.
The tough grilling that Rumsfeld received should do more to heal "the hurt" than the grudging apologies that he and President Bush have issued. This was the American system operating in antithesis to delusions of empire. It took only a sleazy, degrading prison episode to demonstrate that.
In an open and competitive political system, failures and problems in the "provinces" immediately sweep back into the capital as domestic politics and controversy. The management of empire -- or perhaps even of extended occupation -- has become impossibly complex. In Iraq, the administration now suffers at home for its willful negligence in failing to put Iraqis in charge of key institutions such as, say, prisons.
Americans face a hard task in separating the sordid aspects of the prison scandal from the military missions the nation has undertaken in Iraq and the greater Middle East. Citizens must look not only at, but also through, the furor of the moment to focus again on the ambitious use of self-defense through preventive war advanced by the Bush administration.
The administration cannot now take for granted that a majority of Americans accepts its sincerity or its competence in the wake of mounting casualties and its wavering direction on Iraq's political future. The once-domineering White House and Pentagon looked powerless last week confronted by a scandal that contains a self-sustaining critical mass of sex, violence and morbid sensationalism.
As displayed on big movie screens, hand-held video games or digital snapshots, which morph into scabrous front-page news photos, the pornography of war's images shocks and horrifies -- and titillates -- mass audiences.
This is heavy competition for something as abstract as a moral cause. "We grew tired of great causes," F. Scott Fitzgerald has the narrator of "The Great Gatsby" explain of the national flight from reality taken by Americans after World War I. It is possible that Americans in only 18 months have grown "tired" of Bush's vow to implant American forces and values in the breeding grounds of terrorism. The national attention span may have been dramatically shortened in and by the age of 24/7 instantaneous and unceasing communication.
"Are we organized to handle this kind of problem?" Rumsfeld was heard wondering aloud last week at the Pentagon. The fact that he had to ask suggests the answer to his immediate question.
Bureaucracies tip into death spirals at moments such as these. They feel compelled to defend themselves and the versions of reality they have put forward before, at a time when they should be adjusting their practices and expectations as well as their stories. "We can't get inside the news cycle," one frustrated administration official lamented last week. "We have a massive perception-management problem."
But it is worse than that. The claims the secretary and his senior uniformed officers made last week not to have fully read the military's own report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib made it seem that they weren't even trying very hard to manage its consequences.
We need to expand Rumsfeld's question: Is the most affluent, developed and fully informed society in history organized to wage an extended modern war that is and forever more will be captured -- in its every phase -- on cameras? "Not yet," is at best the answer. Again the administration deserves blame for not doing more to match goals and capabilities and to explain the path it follows in the Middle East.
The announcement last week in mid-uproar that the United States will keep 135,000 troops in Iraq through 2005 provides welcome evidence that Bush still believes in the ambitious cause he has set for the American nation, and can adjust his strategy. But it is only a first step in what must be a focused effort to understand and counter the strategic impatience that is now an American fact of life.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.