WASHINGTON -- Democrats calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation invoke the principle of ministerial responsibility: a Cabinet secretary must take ultimate responsibility for what happens on his watch. Interesting idea. Where was it in 1993 when the attorney general of the United States ordered the attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco that ended in the death of 76 people?
Janet Reno went to Capitol Hill and said, ``It was my decision, and I take responsibility.'' This was met with approving swoons and applause. Was she made to resign? No. And remember: this was over an action that did not just happen on her watch, but that she ordered -- an action that resulted in the death of, among others, more than 20 children.
Given the fact that when they were in power Democrats had little use for the notion of ministerial responsibility, their sudden discovery of it over Abu Ghraib suggests that this has little to do with principle.
This is, of course, about politics. And for the administration, the politics are simple: Cabinet members are there to serve the president, and if they become a political liability, they should fall on their sword for the greater good of the administration.
If that were the case here, I am sure that Rumsfeld, who does not need this job or any job, would resign. He should not. Throwing Rumsfeld to the baying hounds will only increase their appetite.
Remember that when the scandal broke, there was lots of murmuring among the chattering classes about the inadequacy of the president's initial response because, for all his remorseful groveling on al Hurra and al Arabiya, he had not invoked the magic phrase: I'm sorry. So what happened when shortly after, in the presence of King Abdullah of Jordan, he explicitly apologized? ``They've Apologized. Now What?'' (Headline, New York Times, the very next Sunday.)
In the Rumsfeld case, the ``Now What?" is obvious. Democrats will pocket the resignation, call it an admission of not just ministerial responsibility but material responsibility at the highest levels of the administration, and use that to further attack the president.
In any case, the whole Rumsfeld debate is a sideshow. For partisans it is a convenient way to get at the president. And for those with no partisan agenda but shocked by the Abu Ghraib pictures, it is a way to try to do something, anything, to deal with the moral panic that has set in about the whole Iraqi enterprise.
This panic is everywhere, and now includes many who have been longtime supporters of the war. The panic is unseemly. The pictures are shocking and the practices appalling. But how do the actions of a few depraved soldiers among 135,000 negate the moral purpose of the entire enterprise -- which has not only liberated 25 million people from 25 years of genocidal dictatorship, but has included a nationwide reconstruction punctuated by hundreds, thousands, of individual acts of beneficence and kindness by American soldiers?
We are obsessing about the wrong question. It is not: Is our purpose in Iraq morally sound? Of course it is. The question today, as from the beginning, remains: Is that purpose achievable?
Doability does not hinge on the pictures from Abu Ghraib. It hinges on what happens on the ground with the insurgencies. The greater general uprising that last month's panic-mongers had predicted has not occurred. The Sadr insurgency appears to be waning. Seniormost Shia clerics, local leaders and demonstrators in the streets of Najaf have told Moqtada Sadr to get out of town. Meanwhile, his militia is being systematically taken down by the U.S. military.
As for Fallujah, we have decided that trying to fully eradicate Sunni resistance is too costly in U.S. lives. Moreover, this ultimately is not our job, but one for the 85 percent of Iraqis who are not Sunni Arabs -- the Shia and Kurds who will inherit the new Iraq. We have thus chosen an interim arrangement of local self-rule in the Sunni hotbeds. And if that gets us through the transition of power to moderate Iraqis, fine.
This seems entirely lost on the many politicians and commentators who have simply lost their bearings in the Abu Ghraib panic. The prize in Iraq is not praise for America from the Arab street nor good will from al Jazeera. We did not have these before Abu Ghraib. We will not have these after Abu Ghraib. The prize is a decent, representative, democratizing Iraq that abandons the pan-Arab fantasies and cruelties of the Saddam regime.
That remains doable. What will make it undoable is the panic at home.