Published on Friday, May 21, 2004 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
Winning Back Lost Trust
by Jonathan Zimmerman
This week, an American military court convicted the first of seven soldiers accused of mistreating Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. After Pennsylvania resident Jeremy C. Sivits pleaded guilty to three counts of abuse, American officials promised an energetic prosecution of the other defendants and a thorough investigation of events at the prison.
But nobody in the Middle East believed that. Now we say we'll discipline the Abu Ghraib miscreants, and we pretend that the world will nod its head in happy agreement. But it isn't. As soon as Sivits pleaded guilty, Arab television and radio stations complained that his penalty was too light. They also wondered why America was punishing only soldiers, rather than the higher-ups who supervised them.
"Those who are executing the laws and the orders are not the problem," declared one Iraqi on Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite network. "Punishment of the officials who gave the orders is what matters."
Who is responsible for the crimes at Abu Ghraib? Was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responsible for an atmosphere that permitted brutal interrogation tactics in Iraq, as articles by Seymour Hersch in the New Yorker recently have suggested?
It won't do to reply that our international critics often looked the other way when Saddam Hussein and other Arab tyrants butchered their own people, even though that's clearly true. Nor does it help to repeat ad nauseam that our abuse of Iraqi prisoners contradicts "American values." The issue is not our values and beliefs but what the world believes. And the world has lost faith in America.
How can we win it back? It won't be easy, but here's a start. Do something everyone thinks we'd never do. Turn the defendants over to the International Criminal Court. Then ask the court to launch a full investigation of American prisoner abuse in Iraq, examining not just the soldiers at Abu Ghraib but also the officials in charge of them.
Former President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Rome Treaty that established the court in 2000, but the Bush administration withdrew the following year because the treaty didn't provide enough protection for American soldiers accused of war crimes.
True, the court would have the power to launch investigations without approval of participating governments. But the Rome Treaty also allows the United Nations Security Council to suspend any prosecution by the court - and the United States owns a permanent seat on the council.
Whether or not we sign the treaty, moreover, the new Iraqi government might sign it. (Hussein didn't sign, of course, which puts America in some pretty bad company.) If Iraq wasn't satisfied with our investigation of the crimes at Abu Ghraib, it could then ask the court to begin a new probe of them. Wouldn't it be a good idea to engage the court now, of our own accord, rather than wait for further embarrassment?
Meanwhile, giving our accused war criminals to the international court would boost our shattered international credibility. No matter how zealously we examine the abuse at Abu Ghraib, millions of people around the globe simply will not believe the outcome of an American military investigation. We need to restore the world's trust. And one way to do that, right now, is to place our trust in the world.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University, lives in Narberth and is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools."
Copyright 1996-2004 Knight Ridder