Indict Rumsfeld - Gary Younge
- Calls for resignation are meaningless without any changes in policy
The Guantánamo abuses wouldn't stop were Donald Rumsfeld to go -
politicians must be made accountable in other ways
Monday May 1, 2006
If the war on terror is a plan to preserve and promote the values of
the civilised world against barbarism, then nobody told Mohammed
al-Kahtani. Since Kahtani has been incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay, he
has been stripped naked and straddled by a taunting female guard, made
to wear knickers on his head and a bra, and told that his mother was a
whore. He has been shaved, held on a leash and forced to bark like a
dog, put in isolation for five months in a cell continuously flooded
with artificial light, deprived of heat, treated to a fake kidnapping
and pumped with large quantities of intravenous liquids without access
to a toilet so that he urinated on himself.
"Just for the lack of a camera, it would sure look like Abu Ghraib," a
military investigator, Lieutenant General Randall Schmidt, told the
army inspector general in 2005, referring to Guantánamo.
But unlike Abu Ghraib, responsibility for Kahtani's abuse could not be
dumped on a group of working-class part-timers. According to sworn
statements by Schmidt that were obtained by Salon.com, the US
secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was "personally involved" in
Kahtani's interrogation and spoke every week with the Guantánamo
commander involved. Schmidt did not believe that Rumsfeld authorised
the methods used against Kahtani, but he did argue that the open-ended
policies Rumsfeld pursued had created the conditions for the abuse to
As George Bush reshuffles his cabinet in an attempt to resuscitate the
flagging fortunes of his second term, Rumsfeld's position looks safe.
But until recently he was the weakest link. A posse of retired
generals joined forces to torpedo his political career. They never
mentioned Kahtani. Instead, they slammed Rumsfeld for "his absolute
failures in managing the war", for "ignoring the advice of seasoned
officers", for "a casualness and swagger" that had "alienated his allies".
The desire to see Rumsfeld resign is one that many share. But the
schadenfreude of seeing him having to fight for his political life has
to be weighed against the specific nature of the attacks and the
motivations of those attacking him. For whether it is Rumsfeld or
Charles Clarke, the reflexive yearning for the demise of loathsome
politicians can, at times, override consideration about the long-term
consequences of the terms of their departure. There are some who hover
at the scene of every detestable public figure floored by scandal like
shameless undertakers, ready to chase the ambulance in the hope that
each journey will end in a fatality. Confusing principle with payback,
they seek not accountability but revenge - regardless of what sparked
the crisis and who will gain from it. And so the personal becomes
political and the political becomes perverted.
Take the generals. Most of them were arguing not that Rumsfeld was
wrong to take the US to war, but that he should have fought it with
more soldiers and greater firepower. A few, like Lieutenant General
Gregory Newbold - chief of operations for the joint staff during the
early planning of the invasion - did have reservations about the
entire enterprise. "I now regret that I did not more openly challenge
those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were
peripheral to the real threat - al-Qaida."
Fair enough. But those concerns are political, not military. The
correct place for Newbold to express those views would not have been
in the White House situation room but on the street with the rest of
us. This is no small point. Civilian control of the military is one of
the key features that distinguish a democracy from a dictatorship.
Rumsfeld's head is simply not worth sacrificing for many of the
principles involved here.
The same is true of Clarke and the revelation that more than 1,000
foreign criminals were not deported once they had served their
sentence. These people had already been punished. Some of them
reoffended and should be punished again, just like native-born
criminals. But if their crimes had nothing to do with immigration,
what justice is there in deporting them? Clarke is being slated
because he did not discriminate against foreigners enough. But the
real problem here is not that Clarke did not implement the deportation
law, but that the law exists at all. Sadly for him, his incompetence
brought together two easy targets in one lurid tabloid headline:
"foreigners" and "criminals".
None of which is to say either that Rumsfeld and Clarke should stay,
or that we should shed a tear for them if they go. But it is far more
important why they go than that they go. Just as Clarke followed David
Blunkett, some other reactionary could easily follow him. And there is
no shortage of thuggish warmongers in Bush's entourage who can take
Rumsfeld's place. Resigning can often be the easy option. Take Peter
Mandelson. He resigned twice and ended up in a better job with even
If it is a progressive shift in policy and politics, rather than
personnel, that we seek, then we need progressive pressure from below
to make that happen. If Clarke were to be forced out because of public
pressure over ID cards or his anti-terror legislation, that would
demand a change in government thinking.
The same would be true for Rumsfeld and the White House if there had
been a huge upswell of outrage over the Abu Ghraib revelations that
had a similar effect on the Bush administration. But - five months
after the atrocities were exposed - the issue did not feature in the
presidential election. The fact that people were unable to muster a
sufficient outrage to ensure the ouster of both Clarke and Rumsfeld is
regrettable - but we can't short-circuit that process by riding the
coat-tails of generals and xenophobes and rejoice because they
resigned for something else.
What has been lacking on both sides of the Atlantic - particularly
over the past three years - has been accountability. The issue is not
so much that these people don't resign, but rather that those who stay
refuse to take responsibility for anything they do. Holding leaders
accountable demands linking their individual acts to the institutional
cultures that made the acts possible. That might result in
resignation, but the ramifications are more far-reaching - for the
issue in question and for the democracy at large - than the fate of
Which brings us back to Kahtani. By all accounts, the Saudi national
is no angel. Described by military investigators as the "20th
hijacker", he was allegedly booked on the flight headed for the White
House that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Before he was arrested in
Afghanistan they say he met several times with Osama bin Laden and had
been trained in al-Qaida camps. Whether all this is true or not is
irrelevant. Al-Qaida never signed the Geneva convention; the US did.
By violating both the letter and the spirit of international law
regarding the treatment of detainees, Rumsfeld effectively turned
himself into a war criminal. The fact that terrorists stand outside
international norms of combat and democratic oversight is what
separates "them" from "us". Erase that distinction and the war on
terror morphs into a war of terror.
"The question at this point is not whether Rumsfeld should resign,"
Joanne Mariner, of Human Rights Watch, told Progressive magazine.
"It's whether he should be indicted."