Prague, 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- To resign or not to resign? As Shakespeare might have said, that is the question hanging over Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. A panel that he himself appointed concluded this week that poor planning and mismanagement by the Pentagon's top civilian leaders helped create the conditions in Iraq that led to the Abu Ghurayb prisoner abuse scandal. That scandal did serious damage to America's international image.
The four-member panel, led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, faulted the Pentagon leadership for setting the stage for violations at the Baghdad prison. These included cases of extreme physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Photos of the incidents shocked the world.
The panel also found Pentagon leaders responded too slowly to the Iraqi insurgency, as analyst Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute in Washington tells RFE/RL.
"The report notes that they [Pentagon leaders] didn't have a detailed or coherent strategy for dealing with detainees in Iraq. And that reflects the point that they didn't expect to be fighting a counterinsurgency war. They didn't expect to have large numbers of detainees. And that's a very serious misjudgment at the highest possible level," Carpenter said.
"I think apologizing does actually help, because what it does is it shows that you are aware of a problem and you are dealing with it in the most responsible and mature way."
In such cases, resignation is often seen as the only way for a senior official to take responsibility. It's what presidential candidate John Kerry urged Rumsfeld to do, saying yesterday: "It's not just the little person at the bottom who ought to pay the price of responsibility."
Yet Schlesinger and other members of the panel told a news conference in Washington on 24 August that Rumsfeld should not resign.
"You've raised the question of the secretary of defense. Let me say that his resignation would be a boon to all of America's enemies. And consequently, I think that it would be a misfortune if it were to take place," Schlesinger said.
Rumsfeld and his Pentagon colleagues had further bad news yesterday when another report -- this one from a U.S. Army investigation -- concluded that senior military intelligence officials had a key role in directing and carrying out abuses at Abu Ghurayb.
The conclusions of that report, led by Major General George Fay, contradict the contentions of Bush administration and military officials that the abuse was largely the result of isolated foul play by low-level military police guards, seven of whom are now being tried in the case.
But the Army report implicates at least 30 military intelligence soldiers, including two senior officers, in at least 44 cases of abuse between July 2003 and February 2004.
General Paul Kern, presenting the report in Washington, called the cases of abuse "a deviation from everything" that Americans have been taught about how to behave.
"I think the most horrific one that we found, from my perspective, is a case where M.P. [military police] dog handlers were subjecting two adolescents to terror from the dogs, with the purpose of playing a game between the two dog teams to see how poorly they could get these kids to behave -- specifically, to see if they could get their bowel movements and urination to work," Kern said.
Reports say Rumsfeld is unlikely to resign over the scandal, particularly as that could amount to an embarrassing admission of fault just two months before President George W. Bush hopes to be reelected.
Moreover, resignation is just not part of the American political tradition, according to Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington.
Carothers, an expert in democratization and human rights, tells RFE/RL that European democracies more frequently face resignations over mistakes than does America.
Carothers says he doesn't believe Rumsfeld would accomplish anything by stepping down and that he would rather see a full investigation that would hold the guilty parties officially accountable. Yet Carothers believes nothing can really fix damage already done.
"Neither his resignation nor that kind of investigation inquiry and punishment is really going to change the fact that the United States took a huge hit in terms of its standing as a promoter of human rights and democracy in the world, as a result of these scandals," Carothers said.
Short of resigning, what else can a top official -- particularly in a democratic society -- do to demonstrate genuine accountability for grievous errors?
Apologizing never hurts, says Fredrik Barton, a former deputy United Nations high commissioner for refugees and now a professor at America's Princeton University.
Bush and Rumsfeld offered public apologies over the abuse scandal last May. Barton, who backs the opposition Democrats, believes after the latest reports a fuller and more vocal apology from the Republican administration would be in order.
"I think apologizing does actually help, because what it does is it shows that you are aware of a problem and you are dealing with it in the most responsible and mature way. If you don't, then the feeling that you are not on top of things festers. And I think that's what's happened in this case," Barton said.
For his part, Carpenter of the Cato Institute said there's been what he calls a massive "erosion of the culture of responsibility" in American public life in recent years. Because of that, he says, public officials are highly unlikely to take responsibility for failures.
But Barton said it is rare, in any country, for leaders to admit fault.
"People who have taken responsibility, whether it's Abraham Lincoln [on the issue of slavery] in our society or Kofi Annan for [the murder of Muslim men and boys under UN protection at] Srebrenica and the Rwandan genocide and the UN response -- those tend to be singular moments that tend to make a huge impression on people. You would think that more leaders would learn that there's real value to it," Barton said.