When we win

I've been wondering what, if anything, to say about Abu Ghraib. Commenting on the ups and downs of the war seems best left to the pros. I've been attentive to arguments that our security may not have been improved by invading, and could accept that the WMD intelligence was too flimsy to fully justify the war. But I've always bristled at the suggestion America had sinister motives for bringing democracy to the heart of the Mideast. I silently agreed with Toby Zeigler's blunt quote (from the West Wing last year) -- "they'll like us when we win."

But the atrocities at that Iraqi prison, I don't think I can believe that anymore.

Why is Abu Ghraib so much more devastating, in my mind, than setbacks in Fallujah or the WMD scandal or any of the bombings or mismanagement over the past 12 months? And what comes next? Andrew Sullivan has written an incisive, moving series over the weekend on these issues. Here's an except:

Yes, I know that the implications of this do not extend to our entire endeavor in Iraq; it is still a noble, important and worthwhile thing to accomplish. In fact, it is perhaps more essential that we get it right now and, by a successful end, remedy in part the unethical means of Abu Ghraib. But I cannot disguise that the moral core of the case for war has been badly damaged. It would be insane to abort our struggle there now because of these obscenities. But we will be changed even in victory. I believed the WMD rationale for this war and that still survives, though with greatly diminished credibility. But I believed in the war fundamentally on moral grounds. When doubts surfaced in my head before the conflict, I kept coming back to the inadequacy of the alternatives, i.e. keeping a crumbling Saddam in power, and to the moral need to replace a brutal dictatorship with freedom. By any objective standard, that rationale still holds. Iraq is a far better place today than it was as a police state, and its future immeasurably brighter. But what this Abu Ghraib nightmare has done is rob us of much of this moral high ground - and not just symbolically or in the eyes of others. But actually and in the eyes of ourselves...

...I want us to get over this but I also don't want us to get over this. The betrayal of our ideals is too deep to be argued away. Images in this media-saturated, volatile world can have more impact than any words. But the impact will, I think, be deeper on Americans than on an Arab street where hatred for this country runs high in any case. And that is how it should be. For these pictures strike at the very core of what it means to be America. We must expose, atone for, and somehow purge ourselves of this stain, while fighting a war that still must be fought. And it will not be easy.

This post is called "A Sleepless Night" but there are many others. Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: David Brooks delivers as well, complete with a shout-out to Reinhold Niebuhr!