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The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

By Jackson Murphy
web posted May 10, 2004

A hooded and wired Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison who reportedly was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off a box
A hooded and wired Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison who reportedly was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off a box

The reports and images coming out of the Abu Ghraib prison have thrown another very large monkey wrench into the war in Iraq. The treatment is simply horrible and nothing can or should excuse it. But does this really mark the beginning of the end of American presence in Iraq?

You can hear the basic reaction to the situation in Sunday's New York Times. In not so many words, Frank Rich describes the events of the past week -- from the "Nightline" report on the war dead to Abu Ghraib -- as a "flashback to 1969." In case you don't automatically relate everything to Vietnam, Rich is talking about the My Lai massacre story and the Life magazine cover which told the story of "The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week's Toll."

For Rich, "The dense 48-hour cloud of bad news marked the beginning of the real, involuntary end of America's major combat operations in Iraq, come hell or June 30."

"Abu Ghraib is not My Lai. Nothing like the infamous massacre of Vietnamese civilians took place in the Iraqi prison," writes Rich's fellow Times man Roger Cohen. "But it is assuming something of the mantle of that tragedy - a vivid stain on America's conscience. How the United States can recover the moral authority with which much of the world still yearns to vest it will depend on its choices over the next few weeks."

This scandal has created another opening to question the war and certainly the post-war process. Fareed Zakaria, in Newsweek, writes a devastating summation of the post-war situation in Iraq. "Leave process aside: the results are plain. On almost every issue involving postwar Iraq—troop strength, international support, the credibility of exiles, de-Baathification, handling Ayatollah Ali Sistani—Washington's assumptions and policies have been wrong. By now most have been reversed, often too late to have much effect. This strange combination of arrogance and incompetence has not only destroyed the hopes for a new Iraq. It has had the much broader effect of turning the United States into an international outlaw in the eyes of much of the world."

These sentiments on the heals of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal come only a short time after the hard fighting in Fallujah and when some very vocal backers of the war are beginning to speak out critically. "We cannot prevail in this war as it is going today," said Rep. John Murtha (Pennsylvania), a conservative Democrat and decorated Vietnam veteran. "We either have to mobilize or we have to get out."

Other commentators are suggesting that the scandal at Abu Ghraib undermines the efforts in Iraq completely and worse that this, like the enterprise in Vietnam, will affect America for decades to come.

David Brooks reminds us that this self doubt will not help the situation - it won't help us, Iraq, or the world. "Unfortunately, states will still fail, and world-threatening chaos will still ensue. Tyrants will still aid terrorists. Genocide will still occur. What are we going to do then? Who is going to tackle the future Milosevics, the future Talibans? If you were one of those people who thought the world was dangerous with an overreaching hyperpower, wait until you get a load of the age of the global power vacuum."

One thing the past few weeks has done, is completely ignore the situation as a whole. The situation in Iraq seems to be on a course to improvement whether it is reported or not. Rebuilding a nation so scared from a dictator was never going to be easy, or quick. But the fact that the country has signed an interim constitution and has remarkably more electricity, clean water, and functioning schools plus better sewer systems, fully functioning hospitals, and modern medicine is something to be proud of.

This says nothing of the rise of business in Iraq too. Over 300,000 people now have cell phones, 20 per cent more have phone access than before the war, and later this year an updated fiber network to allow for more communication though greater internet access and bandwidth. There is a single and stable currency actually appreciating in value against the U.S. dollar and a streamlined tax system with a maximum marginal rate of 15 per cent on individuals and corporations.

But there is more still.

Although delayed, the Iraq Stock exchange is set to reopen its doors in May. Oil production and exports have surpassed their pre-war levels, the port of Umm Qasr has re-opened and can handle even bigger ships and more cargo, over 3,000 new companies have registered since April 2003, a lively free press has flourished in over 200 newspapers across Iraq, a judicial system is working and established, elections have taken place in major cities and city councils established.

All signs of a pretty spectacular recovery are following, not only a major conflict, but three decades of destructive misrule by a bloody thieving tyrant.

Are there security issues? You bet. Is there embarrassment and shock over what has taken place at Abu Ghraib? Absolutely. But let's not take our eyes completely off the ball here and let the actions of a relative few tarnish the mission as a whole. This is probably just the end of the beginning of our time in Iraq and there will be good days and bad days ahead. Taken as a whole, if this is the miserable failure of U.S. occupation I would bet that many nations around the world wouldn't mind a little occupation too.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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