"I am accountable," Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday at hearings on the Abu Ghraib scandal. "I take full responsibility."
By that standard, the defense secretary should certainly resign.
Someone at the top must take responsibility for this blot on the honor of America and our military. These revolting photos have left America standing naked before the court of world opinion, like the emperor without any clothes.
Yes, it's true that many of the harshest critics are Mideast pundits or politicians whose prisons make Abu Ghraib look like the Hilton. But the shock of those infamous photos has disgusted people all over the world.
It should disgust them. President Bush justifies his whole Iraq venture on the premise that America is bringing democracy to Iraq, as a model for the Mideast region. But how can we promote democratic institutions in Iraq if we don't properly monitor our own?
Rumsfeld notes that military investigations are under way, and he rightly praises Joseph Darby, the soldier whose January protest triggered the inquiries. But the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib represents a systemic failure, not some aberration of a few perverted reservists. If Rumsfeld didn't know about it earlier, he should have. Plenty of information was out there. Clearly, prisoner maltreatment wasn't high on his priority list.
The International Committee of the Red Cross repeatedly complained to top administration officials about abuses at Abu Ghraib. So, reportedly, did occupation czar Jerry Bremer and Colin Powell.
These abuses were ignored for months, apparently because military intelligence wanted more leeway to question prisoners. In August, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller was sent with a team from Guantanamo to Iraq to recommend changes in interrogation methods. Miller recommended that military guards -- like the very reservists you see in the photos -- "set the conditions" for interrogations. After that, treatment of prisoners worsened. Miller was put in charge of Iraqi military prisons last month.
Was anyone paying attention? Not Rumsfeld, who famously disparaged the Geneva conventions when it came to Guantanamo. Yes, it's true -- as he said in the Senate hearings -- that interrogators need information from prisoners in order to prevent attacks on Iraqis or U.S. soldiers.
But the prisoners in Abu Ghraib are not Taliban seized from the battlefield. Many were innocent bystanders rounded up in sweeps. Rumsfeld said Friday they were officially entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions. Yet they languished for months without charges or visitors -- just like the prisoners at Guantanamo.
How can the United States claim to be promoting democracy in Iraq, if it ignores the basic rules of due process when it comes to Iraqi prisoners? What lessons does Rumsfeld think this imparts to Iraqis?
The secretary didn't insist on being shown the photos, even after learning about their existence. He didn't alert the president. "I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels," he told the senators.
Rumsfeld knew about the pictures of naked prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers and yet failed to appreciate their importance? Did he, like Rush Limbaugh, think this was nothing but a fraternity prank?
If this was Rumsfeld's first such mistake, perhaps it could be excused. But it is the latest in a series that have undercut American's interests and image abroad.
Rumsfeld's sharp tongue needlessly alienated NATO allies, including Britain, in the crucial months before the Iraq war. He chastised Army chief Gen. Eric Shinseki, who insisted more troops would be needed for postwar Iraq. He debunked the importance of postwar looting in Iraq, with his famous aside about the "untidiness" of freedom.
The Pentagon's lack of planning for the postwar period -- for which blame lies at the feet of his top lieutenants, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith -- has led to the current chaos. The list of errors could go on.
But voters will have a chance to judge the administration as a whole in November. The issue at hand is how to show the world, and Iraqis, that America does mean what it says about rule of law and due process.
At the hearing, Rumsfeld urged the world to "judge us by our actions" and to "watch how a democracy deals with the wrongdoing ... and the pain of ... correcting our own mistakes." Then let him set an example.
If he wants to counter the slander of those who claim these photos represent America, he should demonstrate that our system does demand accountability. Far from rewarding Osama bin Laden, this will show that the United States stands by its principles.
So make your next-to-last act in office the order to tear down Abu Ghraib, Mr. Secretary. And then step down.
- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.