If there was one incident that led to the decline in support for the Iraq War at home and abroad, it was the 2004 publication of pictures of U.S. soldiers taunting and abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Those photos, broadcast endlessly into homes around the globe, depicted grinning American soldiers, male and female, next to naked Iraqi prisoners stacked in piles on the floor. Others showed snarling dogs intimidating prisoners. And perhaps the most infamous revealed a female soldier, cigarette dangling from her curled lips, leading a naked prisoner by a dog collar around his neck.
The soldiers who engaged in this rogue, illegal conduct were tried, convicted, and went to prison. But the damage they did can never be fully expiated. Now, a freedom of information filing by the American Civil Liberties Union threatens to open this old wound. The ACLU filed suit in 2003 to obtain the release of all photos related to military detention, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found in its favor last September. The Bush administration sought to reverse the ruling, but the Obama administration said in April it would not fight the release of the photos. Then, President Obama reversed course this week, instructing the Justice Department to challenge the release in court on the grounds of national security.
President Obama now says that the publication of these photos "would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals." He added that the most direct consequence of releasing them "would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger." He did not come to this conclusion without help -- namely from Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Gen. David McKiernan, outgoing American commander in Afghanistan, who pushed Defense Secretary Robert Gates to urge the administration to fight the release of the photos.
Better late than never. Obama's reversal comes after weeks of controversy over his Justice Department's decision to release Bush administration memos giving legal justifications for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on enemy combatants. While the two actions strike some left-wing critics as contradictory, in fact they demonstrate the fine line Obama is trying to walk on Bush-era decisions.
On the one hand, Obama seems eager to punish Bush political appointees for aggressively prosecuting the war on terror. On the other hand, he's nervous about doing anything that might provoke more violence against American troops, especially if it might redound to the detriment of his own reputation and that of his administration. If Obama acquiesces in the release of the photos and terrorist acts against American soldiers or civilians abroad follow, he knows he'll be blamed.
But the Obama decision also reflects the larger shift on the left from blaming soldiers for their involvement in a sometimes unpopular war to trying to show some respect for military personnel while still attacking the political leaders who sent them to war. Although Obama is not old enough to remember the Vietnam War personally, he's nonetheless learned some of the lessons from that era.
Anti-Vietnam War protestors spat on American soldiers, literally and figuratively. Many burned the American flag, urged the victory of the communist guerillas, and ignored the torture of American prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Some, like Obama friend and political ally William Ayers, went further, engaging in grotesque acts of violence against military installations in the U.S. and later against the police. The American people overwhelmingly rejected the excesses of these protestors, electing Richard M. Nixon twice.
With some exceptions -- notably Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who blamed American troops of committing atrocities in Haditha before investigations and courts martial cleared them, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who accused American troops of terrorizing Iraqi children -- most Democrats have tried to sound supportive of American soldiers. I'd like to think this support is sincere, that they appreciate the sacrifice of the men and women who serve this country so the rest of us can be safe. But even if President Obama's decision not to release the photos was simply a cold, political calculation, we should be glad he made it.