Public outcry grows over Iraq abuse photos

President Barack Obama said yesterday he will try to prevent the court-ordered release of photos that depict U.S. troops abusing prisoners.

He said his sudden reversal reflected fear that the photos would “further inflame anti-American opinion” and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The administration had originally said it would not resist an appeals court ruling that set a May 28 deadline for releasing photos of military misconduct. Generals in the war zones have said their release would be harmful to “operations” in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“This is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or sought to justify inappropriate action,” Obama said of the photos. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”

The Pentagon says it conducted 200 investigations into alleged abuse connected with the photos in question. The administration did not provide an accounting of how they turned out. Obama’s switch on the photo release set off a wave of negative reactions from liberals, progressives and bloggers who said he was caving in to pressure from conservatives.

Several hours after he announced his reversal Obama made another statement: “I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib.” He added that he wanted to make it clear, again, that “any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.”

The controversy about the photos, former Vice President Cheney’s almost daily appearances on cable-TV shows admitting to and calling for the return of torture, and the attempts by Republicans to equate what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew or didn’t know and when she knew it with a Republican administration that authored the systematic policy of torture, have all served to divert attention from problematic developments regarding the war in Afghanistan.

So far there have been no benchmarks or conditions set on the $96 billion supplemental appropriation before Congress. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee had approved the supplemental, which includes war spending for Afghanistan. The bill has no timetable for withdrawal from Iraq or any restrictions on the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rep. David Obey (D-Mich.) is calling for a one-year deadline for “results.” Some congressional liberals are saying that, by then, it might be very difficult to withdraw from what is likely to be a much deeper quagmire than the one that already exists.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has proposed an amendment to the war supplemental that requires the secretary of defense to outline to Congress an exit strategy from Afghanistan by this December, six months after Congress has already been given the money needed to escalate the war.

The McGovern measure has fifty co-sponsors at present, but is meeting with administration resistance.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, herself on the hot seat for what and when she knew about waterboarding, is backing the administration by preventing the McGovern amendment from being voted on. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is not taking a position, at least for now, of outright opposition to any of the administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policies. The Caucus is, however, holding informational hearings designed to develop public policies for the region.

On the Senate side, also, there is not yet any open challenging of the military escalation in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The reason for all of this, of course, is a desire by liberals and progressives in both houses of Congress to avoid embarrassing the president and to give the administration as much “wiggle room” as possible while it tries to wind down the war in Iraq and simultaneously struggle with so many domestic issues connected with the faltering economy. Everyone wants to help in the effort to hold back a vicious right wing that seems determined to thwart the Obama administration and destroy the progressive forces that helped propel it into office.

Some of those backing the McGovern amendment, however, fear that when it is finally politically feasible to compel an exit from Afghanistan, we may be so deep in a quagmire there that getting out could be next to impossible. Some worry that military entanglement there could endanger the rest of a hopeful Obama agenda. Few have forgotten what the war in Vietnam did to smash hopes during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.