U.S. Occupation of Iraq Unravelling

AFTER DAYS on end of disgrace, fear and loathing, even recycled good news can feel welcome. So when Jessica Lynch spoke last week at a college graduation ceremony in Montgomery, W. Va., the media turned out in force.

U.S. Occupation of Iraq Unravelling

AFTER DAYS on end of disgrace, fear and loathing, even recycled good news can feel welcome. So when Jessica Lynch spoke last week at a college graduation ceremony in Montgomery, W. Va., the media turned out in force. For Americans, the 21-year-old's tale of survival after being captured last year by Iraqi troops had been one of the war's defining, uplifting moments - embellishments and all. But no sooner had Lynch finished her speech than current events intruded: how, a reporter asked, did she feel about that other defining icon of America's beleaguered mission - Pte. Lynndie England?

Good question: both Lynch and England hail from West Virginia, both are 21, and both had chosen the military as their route out of the boondocks. But Lynch could be forgiven for killing the storyline with a curt "no comment." While her own canonization proceeds apace, with movie offers and US$1-million book deals, England's disgrace ranks as one of the most complete in U.S. military history. Photos showing the reservist grinning and pointing at the genitals of Iraqis imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, or holding a naked inmate by a leash, have appeared in newspapers around the world.

Now, she and Lynch are bookends to a mission gone horribly awry: while the latter's rescue in April 2003 marked a high point in the U.S.-led invasion, bringing hope and optimism as troops prepared to enter Baghdad, England is now the face of a corrupted and compromised occupation - a woman whose prospects worsen by the day. Less than 24 hours after she defended herself on a Denver TV station, claiming she'd been following the orders of superiors, new photos emerged of England with fellow prison guards. "She was having sex with numerous partners," one member of Congress said after viewing the pictures in a closed-door session. "It appeared to be consensual."

The flow of horrific evidence didn't stop there: lawmakers said some photos show inmates cowering naked before dogs, or lying on the floor with what appear to be bloody bite marks. Others show Muslim female inmates being forced to bare their breasts. "It was significantly worse than I had anticipated," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. "Take the worst case and multiply it over several times."

And by then, of course, the world had just such a yardstick: last week's on-camera execution of Nicholas Berg, the American contractor beheaded by Islamic militants, set off a firestorm of debate. Critics of the Bush administration cited the murder as proof of an occupation spinning out of control, while right-wing partisans saw a reminder of a terrorist scourge worth fighting. "They are not to be respected, they are not to be protected, they are not to be understood," a near-foaming Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience. "They are to be eliminated."

THE SCANDAL has been, in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a "body blow" to the military, calling into question everything from army discipline to the insidious influence of military intelligence officers on untrained troops. But the more pressing concern is its effect on Washington's trouble-plagued efforts to build a stable, peaceful Iraq: with each new revelation, George W. Bush and company endure fresh vitriol from Iraqis and mounting calls at home to cut and run. "We now have the choice of less-than-desirable options," says Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy and defence expert at the Washington-based Cato Institute. "I think the least worst is a rapid-exit strategy, measured in months not years, transferring real authority to an interim Iraqi government."

The reasons, he says, are obvious. Recent polls in Iraq suggest eight out of 10 Iraqis disapprove of the occupation, with some 57 per cent favouring an immediate withdrawal of troops. Some 30 per cent think attacks on U.S. forces are justified, suggesting resistance is changing from a guerrilla war into something resembling a popular uprising. The safest option, Carpenter argues, is a full withdrawal of the 135,000 American troops by next January, when Iraqis are supposed to elect their first government.

It's hardly an attractive strategy - possibly opening the door to another Saddam-like strongman, or a radical Islamic regime backed by Iraq's Shia majority. But it's one an increasing number of Americans appear to favour. In a poll released last week, some 54 per cent said they believe the war had not been worth the cost, while nearly half endorsed withdrawing some or all of the country's troops. The odd thing, says Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is the failure of either national party to harness voter skepticism. "We have this irony where Bush and John Kerry actually agree with each other on most aspects of Iraq policy," he says, "They're advocating staying the course, yet they're increasingly isolated across the country in that conviction."

O'Hanlon believes many Americans are waiting for either leader to propose a new, creative plan that offers even a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Last week, the U.S. responded only to their most pressing crisis, freeing nearly 300 detainees from Abu Ghraib. It was not exactly a PR coup, with prisoners accusing guards of abuse within hours of their release. But at a time when obscenity in the military trumps obscenity in the media, and when Lynndie England bumps Jessica Lynch from the spotlight, Americans will take any good news they can get.

Maclean's May 24, 2004