Where Did You Say
The Buck Stopped?

By Terrell E. Arnold
Harry Truman minted the model of presidential responsibility when, more than fifty years ago, he posted the sign on his desk: The Buck Stops Here. Truman,s political history was hardly as pure as the driven snow, having emerged from a Midwest political machine through the flakey compromises that identify Vice Presidents. He was almost a terrorism victim himself when Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate him in front of Blair House"he was walking across the street from the White House. Truman made some tough decisions, including A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he took his share of flak, e.g., for war in Korea, but he never wavered from the principle of his sign.
The White House is a complicated place. Popular TV versions of it depict high-level power users and abusers constantly doing crisis or priority or personal things, some of them in the national interest. But the White House staff version of The Buck Stops Here is: We cannot afford to be uninformed about anything that matters to the presidency. That statement is not a mantra; it is the main driver of every White House staffers job description from clerk to chief of staff. Their task is to serve the President at all times on anything that may require a decision or just presidential awareness. It is exhausting, mostly thankless work, but staffers do it.
Now about Abu Ghraib. The only way to determine exactly what and when the President knew about what went on in that American run prison is to be inside his head. Ample evidence exists, however, that there was an almost constant flow of information to the White House on prisoner abuses in Iraq. It began as early as mid 2003 when the International Committee of the Red Cross began to file reports with US government officials. That flow heightened in late 2003/early 2004 when senior officers began to submit a series of investigative reports. Rumsfeld has said he informed the President of the abuse reports in February 2004. Moreover, recent articles, notably Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, call attention to a special access program led by Rumsfeld that calls for means that rely on torture for extracting information from prisoners. There was indeed fire where the Red Cross said there was smoke, and an ICRC report of multiple abuses was hardly the low level complaint of a non-entity, especially when the ICRC report said the abuses were systemic and "tantamount to torture.
Despite all the complaints about the lack of information sharing across agency lines, even the agency stovepipes-their protected lines of communication upward--reach the White House. Therefore the ICRC complaint would have been reported back through the chain of command to Washington, and it would have appeared without fail in the baskets of the national security and/or public affairs staffs in the White House. At this point, the well-honed reflexes of the staff would have assured that a summary report of the problem would be provided to the President. His Chief of Staff could have withheld it, but why?
President Bush is saying, however, that he knew nothing about the problem until he saw the report on Sixty Minutes. Basically he is saying "The Buck Did Not Even Get Here. There are several ways to view that assertion: (1) It is true because nobody told him, (2) staff submitted a report but he did not read it; (3) He read the report but did not remember it or think the subject was serious; or (4) His actions and statements were considered easier to defend if he were ignorant than if he were informed. Maybe we can be kind and assume Rumsfeld, s report to Bush was not actually a Buck. However, based on the evidence, knowledgeable people in Washington conclude that he knew about Abu Ghraib, he knew that what went on there was part of a special access program for gathering intelligence, but he thinks he can defend himself better by denying it. In short, he and his campaign handlers think it would hurt his presidential re-election chances less if he pleaded ignorance.
But what about the national interest? Right now, more than at any point in the Bush presidency, we need a leader with good judgment and integrity. The whole Abu Ghraib performance says both are lacking. Ever since Bush,s carrier declaration that combat was over in Iraq the situation has gotten worse. It has gotten worse for two reasons: We have been trying to beat the Iraqis into submission; and they make increasingly clear they won,t have it. In simple terms, the Coalition war strategy went from "shock and awe in the air to "brutalize or kill on the ground. Things have gone downhill at each step on this path. In the war for hearts and minds, our strategy is upside down.
Experienced analysts are saying this is a make or break moment for the United States, and not only in the Middle East. It is certainly not a golden moment for the Greater Middle East Initiative the United States is promoting as a means to modernize Islamic countries. If we can come forward with good explanations of what happened at Abu Ghraib and other prisons; if we clean up our act, including ditching the neo-con architects of this policy; if we voluntarily compensate those individuals and their families who bore the brunt of this misbegotten approach to war; if we honestly turn Iraq back, not to our obviously chosen instruments but to its own people; and if we leave as gracefully as possible, the situation can be retrieved.
Our leaders must start restoring our country,s pre-Iraq standing in the world community. However, the task of bringing the United States back to its place of leadership in the family of nations will take new leadership, even a new brand of leadership in Washington. We need someone who is prepared to admit and act on the facts. We need someone who is prepared, not to set our values aside, but to show that our system works to protect us. The buck truly does stop at the Oval Office.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome comment at



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