THESE ARE TIMES when President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld could probably use some encouragement. They should ponder a short note by Anthony Eden to Winston Churchill. It was May 1941 and World War II was going badly. Churchill was Britain's Bush and Rumsfeld, prime minister and minister of defense. Eden was his foreign secretary and friend. There had been disasters in Greece and Crete, a discouraging naval battle with the warship Bismarck, and hard fighting in Iraq, where the British were battling Nazi-backed Rashid Ali and Luftwaffe bombers that were helping him out. "My dear Winston," Eden wrote, "This is a bad day; but tomorrow Baghdad will be entered, Bismarck sunk. On some day the war will be won, and you will have done more than any other man in history to win it."
By "tomorrow" he meant "soon"; his predictions all came true. But for now, it is indeed a bad day.
Too many Democrats and some Republicans are acting as if Abu Ghraib means that the Bush administration is in trouble. They are wrong. It means that America is in trouble. And when America is in trouble, every public official is required to help.
The bestial murder of Nicholas Berg has nothing to do with Abu Ghraib. Absolute evil is self-seeding; nothing causes it any more than we cause rats to spawn or the black plague to blossom. But certain conditions help it thrive--such as the worldwide seething toxic stink of America Hatred, or the ongoing struggle by so many thinkers (especially Europeans) to legitimize terrorism (all those torn-to-pieces Israeli innocents dismissed with a shrug or a smirk). Perhaps the murder of Berg--9/11 compressed into one single act, a black hole of infinite wickedness--will at last bring American moral showboating to an end. We all love to tell the world how much we care. It's so easy, so cheap. Perhaps we will now get serious.
Because of Abu Ghraib, America is (temporarily!) down and out and getting kicked in the head by every two-bit moralizing moron in the universe, while her thoughtful Euro-friends twist the knife by informing us that hundreds of dead American soldiers might just as well have stayed home; America's rule is no better than Saddam's. We need to hear from America's political leaders, loud and clear: "Yes, we abominate the Abu Ghraib crimes but will not accept your forgetting what America has paid to liberate Iraq, will not allow foreign nations to slander the United States, will not permit you to forget what we and the British have accomplished: a world without Saddam Hussein; a vastly safer, profoundly better world. And no one will be allowed to dishonor American soldiers and this nation by telling us 'you're just as bad as Saddam'; that lie will never go unchallenged."
We need to hear those things especially from Democrats. For the world to know that this nation is united, Democrats have to speak. They haven't. The message has not been delivered.
Let's go back a few weeks. What were we thinking? Maybe the war in Iraq was a mistake, or maybe it was fought the wrong way (I didn't think so, but many serious and discouraged Americans did)--but we all knew this for sure: Thanks to American and British sacrifice in money and blood, Saddam was gone and Iraq was on the road to being free, and we could all be proud of that. A blood-black stain on mankind's honor had been washed away.
Then some photographs appeared, and the world saw ugly crimes--crimes of the sort Americans particularly hate, bullying crimes of the strong against the weak. Of course it was right to denounce the criminals and demand investigations and accountability. Such sentiments were easy to express (how many people are in favor of prisoner abuse?), but public officials did need to express them. So far so good.
But there was something else these officials needed to express. "We will not tolerate the world's using the crimes at Abu Ghraib to smear America, or belittle the price we have paid in Iraq." In the prevailing climate of moral showboating, those sentiments were hard to express; and almost no one bothered.
The moment we saw those pictures we knew (every last American knew) that the punch in the gut is on the way. People who never cared a damn what Saddam did to his prisoners would be choking back tears of outrage. Americans hold themselves to a higher moral standard, of course. But most Americans suspected that the world's reaction had as much to do with America Hatred as it did with moral standards. We knew that people would forget what we have achieved in Iraq, and what it has cost us in arms and legs and eyes and blood. We knew our enemies would light into America and do their best to turn the world against us and against our troops--whom we had seen risking their lives to liberate Iraq and make it safe--not to mention the civilians who hazarded life and limb to get clean water flowing, oil pumping, power on, schools open, streets policed, the economy inching forward, and democracy coming steadily closer. We could all anticipate headlines like the one that appeared in the May 8 Irish Times: "The shaming of America. George Bush's boast of shutting down Saddam Hussein's torture chambers in Iraq rings hollow now." We knew our enemies would use those photos to smear our whole Army, our whole Iraq campaign, our whole nation. Much of the world (after all) operates on America Hate the way a car runs on gas or a tick on blood.
"The shaming of America. George Bush's boast of shutting down Saddam Hussein's torture chambers in Iraq rings hollow now." The hell it does. Anyone who equates Saddam's bloody decades of torture and mass murder to the crimes at Abu Ghraib is the same kind of fool who once preached the moral equivalence of America and Soviet Russia, or of America in Vietnam and Hitlerism. Imbecility is eternal, perpetually reincarnated.
And it's hardly irrelevant that the Army did discover and announce the crimes itself. No one had to order any generals to investigate and prosecute the criminals. That was already happening. No cover-up; no chance of the criminals escaping. The military's record in recent years suggests that the opposite danger is more acute: Innocent soldiers might be punished because of a runaway public relations steamroller. Remember Tailhook and the naval careers it destroyed to make ideologues happy?
Think back to 9/11--America was in trouble; possibly official malfeasance was a factor, no one knew; but we did know that it was the duty of every U.S. public leader to speak for America, right away. (As someone shouted during the parliamentary hour-of-crisis debate that led to Churchill's promotion to the premiership: Speak for England!) And U.S. public leaders, Republican and Democrat, did speak for America. The country was proud to see Gephardt and Daschle roaming around with Lott and Hastert. The Democrats had lost the White House, but rose to the occasion. The world noticed; the nation was grateful.
When Abu Ghraib broke, America was in trouble again. Once again she needed all her government officials to do their duty, all public persons to stand up and defend her. But last week was no 9/11. The Democrats did not rise. They sunk. No one blamed them for condemning the criminals and demanding investigations. But we needed to hear more, and we didn't. Senator Tom Daschle said, "I think that is inexcusable. It's an outrage. It's wrong." And Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said, "We must have a full investigation to get to the bottom of this outrage." And Senator Carl Levin said, "The actions of these individuals have jeopardized members of the Armed Services in the conduct of their mission, and have jeopardized the security of this country." Which was all true. But it was not enough. And there was worse. Ted Kennedy, echoing America Hatred at its ugliest, said that "Saddam's torture chambers have reopened under new management, U.S. management." The world noticed; the nation was quietly heartbroken.
Republican smugness is not in order. It is a moment for Republicans to ask themselves: Have we ever, at any moment in recent decades, let the nation down like this?
I don't think so. But if somebody knows differently, tell me. (No crackpots, please.) This is not a time for party preening. It is one of the sadder moments in American history.
But as Anthony Eden reminds us: "Some day the war will be won."
THE PRESSURE on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is fierce, because Abu Ghraib hit at a moment when many people were certain that the Iraq war had bogged down. And it had bogged down. It is in the nature of wars that they bog down occasionally. But that is no reason to sack the man who has run this stupendously complex, difficult operation with (on the whole) amazing success and integrity. Perhaps Rumsfeld and other Bush officials did not make quite clear enough beforehand that war is no picnic. But many Americans had already heard rumors to that effect. And the record will show that the secretary has in fact admitted (possibly under oath) that he is not perfect. Republicans who hint around that the defense secretary may indeed have to be cut up and thrown to the dogs are doing the nation no service.
Churchill got into parliamentary trouble repeatedly during the Second World War, but thank God the House of Commons did not sack him. In the Second World War, Britain did not merely bog down, she lost--early and often. If 1940 and '41 had their awful moments, 1942 started out worse. In January the House took up a no-confidence motion that could have deposed Churchill--British troops were reeling before the Japanese advance, and worse was to come. Before long Singapore fell, "the greatest disaster in British military history," Churchill called it; 130,000 British and Allied troops were taken prisoner. And later the same year Rommel captured the Libyan port of Tobruk: A British garrison of 35,000 men surrendered to a smaller Axis force. "One of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war," Churchill said. On such occasions Britain was discouraged, disheartened, humiliated. Yet somehow Parliament managed to restrain itself and not axe Churchill.
Churchill is one of history's greatest leaders, almost certainly its greatest minister of defense and a genius writer and orator. So far as we know, Bush is no Churchill and neither is Rumsfeld; they haven't been tried as Churchill was. But until a bona fide American Churchill comes along, they are doing fine.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.