Trail Mix: Losing The Moral High Ground

At a pancake breakfast yesterday morning in Lucas County, Ohio, George W. Bush struck the high note--and the low note--of this presidential election. After lampooning rival candidate John Kerry for some of his seemingly contradictory statements (like whether or not he owns an SUV), the president turned to his own character. "It's very important for the president of the United States to speak clearly, and when he says something, mean what he says," Bush declared. "In order to make the world more peaceful and the world more free, when an American president speaks, he'd better speak with authority, clarity and certainty."

Credibility has become the central battleground in the war against Kerry. It also happens to be, as the president correctly points out, a critical part of the war against terror. Last week it was Kerry who was surprised to find his credibility under fire as he drove around the battleground states of the Midwest. This week it is Bush's turn to watch the wheels fall off his campaign bus as he tours some of those same states.

That's not because of a campaign snafu, as it was with Kerry last week. Kerry dug himself into the hole of questionable credibility as he fumbled over his Vietnam war protests. Campaigns are a unique stress test, firing all sorts of flak at those who are foolhardy enough to want to be the world's most powerful man. The stresses may be real or unreal. But what's important is how you react to them. For his part, Kerry reacted poorly, looking wounded on TV and sending out his surrogates too late to stop the bleeding.

For George W. Bush, the stresses are all too real. As a sitting president, we can measure his performance by what's happening in the outside world--not the world inside the bubble of bus tours or high-school rallies. And that's where the president's credibility is under intense pressure right now. The pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. forces further undercuts the president's policy in the greater Middle East and his case for invading Iraq. They jeopardize his plans for Iraq's future and they vastly complicate the work of the thousands of honorable American troops on the ground. In other words, the shocking pictures of the Abu Ghraib prisoners are far more than a little local trouble caused by a few bad military police.

Why do they affect Bush's credibility? There were many reasons for invading Iraq, and one of the few that survives is human rights. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who inflicted dreadful suffering on his people. Whatever was done in Abu Ghraib falls far short of Saddam's horrors. Yet it still has the power to shake Bush's standing--and the reputation of the entire Coalition--in Iraq and the region.

Standing in the Rose Garden last week, the president marked the anniversary of his landing on the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier by defending what he has achieved in Iraq. "A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier, saying that we had achieved an important objective, that we had accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein," he told reporters. "And as a result, there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq." Yet now American soldiers face charges of sexual abuse and assault, while there are investigations into suspicious prisoner deaths. For sure, they are not mass graves.

But once you lose the moral high ground, it's very hard to claim it back. You certainly don't reclaim it by waiting for the media to break the story, more than two months after a Pentagon report details prisoner abuse. Otherwise you find yourself expressing your "deep disgust" about prisoner abuse for the first time in the Rose Garden--less than a minute after you condemned Saddam's human-rights abuses.

You could dismiss the pictures--and the Arab reaction to them--as an isolated incident. You might even dismiss the suggestion that such pictures feed into every outrageous rumor about American abuses across the region. After all, those rumors would circulate anyway. But it's hard to ignore the way the Coalition has failed to establish the rule of law in Iraq. The prisons are just at the bottom of a pit of lawlessness that includes violence on the streets, an almost nonexistent system of courts and judges and a police force that flees at the first sign of trouble.

The president of the United States says that he means what he says. But in recent weeks, he has failed to follow through on the two most pressing security challenges in Iraq. At his White House press conference last month, he all but promised to arrest Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who has led a Shia uprising from his base in Najaf. "Al-Sadr must answer the charges against him and disband his illegal militia," Bush said in the East Room. That arrest has yet to take place. Then last week, the president promised to pacify Sunni insurgents even as the Marines were negotiating to hand security over to one of Saddam's former generals. "Whether it be in Fallujah or elsewhere, we will deal with them, those few who are stopping the hopes of many," the president said in the Rose Garden.

This is not just a credibility problem for George W. Bush. Since John Kerry supports the occupation, it would be his problem too as president. And it certainly is a huge challenge for other Coalition leaders, especially Britain's Tony Blair. All of them are fully signed up to a policy of spreading Western democracy and the rule of law to the Middle East. That was a tough sell before the Abu Ghraib pictures; it's even tougher now. After June 30, when a "sovereign" Iraqi government is due to be in place, the landscape will be even more hostile to American notions of law and order.

How will this feed back into the presidential campaign? It's too early to tell. The impact of the pictures has taken several days to develop, as news has dribbled out about military investigations and further allegations. In any case, voters may not punish either candidate for the mess in Iraq. But the pictures will only heighten the anxiety about the occupation and the role of American troops in Iraq. Opinion polls strongly suggest that most voters want U.S. troops out of Iraq in less than two years. Is it really possible to train Iraq's judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and prison guards in that time?

For Bush and Kerry, the lawless state of Iraq requires something more than an expression of disgust or a plan to fight the insurgents. Kerry suggested last week that Iraq needed "a massive training effort to build Iraqi security forces" including international support. That would be fine if the Bush administration hadn't tried--and failed--to do the same thing. Kerry argues that only a new president (in other words, President Kerry) would be able to secure the world's help to do the job right. That may be true. But another Abu Ghraib would erode the chances of any president to correct Iraq's course and establish the rule of law. It's not just Bush's credibility that's at stake in Iraq; it's America's.