Rumsfeld warns of photos depicting worse abuses
ANALYSIS: Is the nation nearing turning point in support of war?

Marc Sandalow, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Saturday, May 8, 2004

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle


Washington -- Not since the Vietnam War a generation ago has the credibility of top U.S. military commanders been challenged as aggressively and openly as it was Friday on Capitol Hill.

For more than six hours and with television cameras broadcasting the event around the world, members of both parties -- those who support the U.S. war in Iraq and those who don't -- expressed alarm over the Pentagon's seemingly snail-paced response to the gut-wrenching photographs that one Republican House member characterized as the public relations equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that he had personally previewed more pictures, and that the worst is yet to come, many fear that the nation may be reaching a tipping point in its tolerance for what already has been the deadliest U.S. military conflict since Vietnam.

"I'm gravely concerned that many Americans will have the same impulse as I did when I saw (these) pictures, and that's to turn away from them," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a strong supporter of President Bush's policy in Iraq.

"We risk losing public support for this conflict. As Americans turned away from the Vietnam War, they may turn away from this one unless this issue is quickly resolved,'' McCain said.

With no weapons of mass destruction found, few signs of democracy blossoming and now graphic evidence that the abuse of Iraqi civilians -- at least in isolated incidences -- did not end with the ouster of Saddam Hussein, "the whole logic of the war is gone,'' said former Sen. Gary Hart.

Often, certain moments galvanize American opinion in times of war. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Tet Offensive in 1968, the dragging of American corpses through the streets of Somalia in 1994 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 had profound effects on America's resolve for battle.

For many, the pictures of U.S. soldiers seeming to derive pleasure from brutalizing Iraqi detainees has shaken the widely held belief that the U.S. cause in Iraq is just and that Americans -- even in times of war -- rise above such blatant cruelty.

"People are not confident that we are winning. Nor are they confident that we are doing the right thing,'' said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Public opinion on the war has reached an all-time low. The latest polls, conducted earlier this week, find Americans evenly divided over whether it was a mistake to have started the war in Iraq, and support has eroded steadily since the war began last year, when an overwhelming majority said it was the right thing to do. The numbers today are nearly identical to what they were in 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive, as public opinion began to turn against the Vietnam War.

Americans typically are reluctant to say going to war was a mistake. A majority supported the Persian Gulf War in 1991 through its conclusion, and it took until 1968, several years after heavy U.S. involvement in Vietnam, for a majority to turn against that war. It was not until 1973, after President Richard Nixon had withdrawn nearly all the troops, that as many as 70 percent of Americans said the Vietnam War was a mistake.

But as casualties mount in Iraq and the rationale of the war has eroded, so has public support.

Just last week, Bush said that as a result of removing Hussein, "there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq.''

Yet even if Hussein's oppression was incomparable by its order of magnitude, there are now pictures of mass graves in a soccer field in Fallujah, of torture at the hands of U.S. captors and, as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned Friday, videos that may contain images of rape and murder.

Rumsfeld repeatedly drew contrasts between the American occupiers and Hussein, noting that no apologies or investigations ever sprang from his dictatorship.

"People do bad things to other people,'' Rumsfeld said, "(but) we have a free, open system. We're not an evil society. America is not what's wrong with the world."

Yet some members of Congress openly challenged Rumsfeld's willingness to cooperate with them.

"I see arrogance and a disdain for Congress,'' said Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

"I see misplaced bravado and an unwillingness to admit mistakes. I see finger-pointing and excuses. Given the catastrophic impact that this scandal has had on the world community, how can the United States ever repair its credibility? How are we supposed to convince not only the Iraqi people, but also the rest of the world, that America is, indeed, a liberator and not a conqueror, not an arrogant power?'' Byrd asked.

As in the Vietnam era, the credibility of the Pentagon has been jeopardized. Members of Congress were incredulous that after months of internal investigations and months of warning from such agencies as the International Red Cross, Rumsfeld said he didn't have enough information to take to Congress.

"Mr. Secretary, there was no other way for you to find this out? You were not aware of concerns offered by the Red Cross?'' asked Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D- Walnut Creek.

The political consequences for the Bush administration are uncertain.

"If Mr. Bush fires Mr. Rumsfeld, the voters may well conclude it is time to fire him,'' warned an editorial in Friday's Wall Street Journal.

What seems more certain is that the revelations of the prison abuse and the questions they raise will hurt the U.S. mission in Iraq.

"Do you think this incident will have any effect?" Democratic Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, the House delegate from Guam, asked Rumsfeld.

"Of course,'' Rumsfeld said.

"In what way?'' she inquired.

"Harmful,'' he responded.

E-mail Marc Sandalow at

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle