Posted: May 11, 2004 12:00 AM

 What the Rumsfeld-must-go crowd doesn't seem to understand is that it is not the Pentagon's job to make it more difficult for the American-led coalition to win the war in Iraq. That's why the majority of the American people don't share the left's outrage that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon brass didn't broadcast photographs of American prison guards abusing Iraqi prisoners.

 Some people in this country understand that America is at war and that the secretary of defense is not likely to release information bound to incite violence against American troops. That's probably why a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that a large majority of Americans think Rumsfeld should not resign over abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.

 Let me be clear. America cannot win in Iraq by mimicking the cruelty of Saddam Hussein's regime. The mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners only serves to further turn people against the U.S. effort. Worse, if allowed to continue, it threatens to transform young U.S. enlistees into brutes who enjoy inflicting pain.

 Thus, it is important for America to find out: How far up did the rot go?

 According to The Wall Street Journal, the Red Cross complained to U.S. officials about abuses of Iraqi prisoners as early as February. They reported that detainees in custody of military intelligence were subjected to "ill treatments ranging from insults and humiliation to both physical and psychological coercion that in some cases might amount to torture." While some complaints resulted in rapid improvements, the Journal reported, "the U.S. military was sometimes slow to respond to Red Cross complaints and ignored them in a few cases."

 For the military's part, one of the U.S. military chiefs in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, ordered an investigation into abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison on the day after Army Spc. Joseph M. Darby informed his superiors of abuses. That's no cover-up.

 While some Democrats happily pin the blame for the abuses on Rumsfeld, there's reason to believe these abuses had nothing to do with Pentagon policies. Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, who led the military police battalion assigned to Abu Ghraib, told The New York Times that all the photos were taken between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., according to camera time codes. "If they thought these acts were condoned, then why were they only done a few nights between 0200 and 0400 instead of during any time between 0600 and 2400 when there were many others around?"

 "We can't tell the world that we're going to be responsible 16 hours of the day," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a Democrat from California. "There's somebody in charge 24 hours a day."

 It may be that higher-ups are to blame for what went wrong. But, if it turns out the abuses were perpetrated by a few rogues, Tauscher's remarks represent another example of Congress beating up on those fighting the war, thus making an impossible and grueling job that much more thankless.

 Tauscher, of course, is aiming at the top, even if she hasn't called for Rummy's resignation. She faults the Bush administration for not sending enough troops, which led to overworking the troops on the prison detail. On this point, I agree with her.

 I wouldn't be so high and mighty as Tauscher in asserting that things would be hunky-dory if the Pentagon ceded its authority in Iraq to State Department bureaucrats. When you have diplomats in charge of making decisions on military matters, problems are not eliminated. There are just different problems.

 Tauscher also cites the U.S.-led coalition's lack of "international legitimacy." It never matters, you see, that troops from the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy and Poland fight and die with us. The critics only recognize the international coalition when Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic leave. Then, as Tauscher did, they use the defections as proof that the coalition they never recognized is, egads, falling apart.

 How is the United States supposed to win a war if even congressional leaders who voted for the war frame every setback as proof that Bush cannot win the war?

 Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., understood this when he said last week that he could not help but notice that "Those who have killed hundreds of Americans in uniform in Iraq working to liberate Iraq and protect our security never apologized."

 Tauscher now wants the Pentagon to release the remaining prison-abuse photos. She's right; it's better to get the photos out once and for all rather than to "die by a thousand cuts."

 But after the disclosure, it's time for the left to start supporting the war instead of using every bit of bad news as another rope to wrap around President Bush's neck. Tauscher is among the Democrats who voted for this war -- they ought to want to win it.