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US mission uneclipsed by a few bad soldiers

Has America lost its way? Like many other Americans, I've been pondering that question in the wake of the furor over abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail.

Has America lost its right to be an example and a beacon of light to an imperfect world?

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Militarily, it is clearly the most powerful nation in the world. Technologically, it is the most inventive and productive, drawing on the talents of immigrants of many nationalities and colors. Economically, it is an awesome powerhouse, currently booming after surviving recession and scandals.

But morally, has it become deficient and defective, its honor stained beyond repair? The answer is "No."

There are troubling trends at home. There is sometimes a lack of civility in public discourse. There remain saddening examples of discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities. There is a damaging culture of violence propagated by Hollywood.

But the spirit of America abroad is still better represented by Pat Tillman, the NFL player who gave his life in selfless service in Afghanistan, than by the twisted personalities who inflicted, or ordered, such inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

Most Americans deplore, not approve, the abuse. Their political and military leaders have apologized abjectly. Though the Pentagon was tardy in its handling of the political implications, the military is proceeding with investigations, punitive measures that should be severe, and remedial measures that should be drastic. Audiences around the world, especially in Muslim countries, were able to watch live last week as angry US legislators held Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top generals accountable.

This was a window on democracy in action pried open for observers in many lands where there is no democracy. True, some Americans cite the hypocrisy of foreign critics who are silent in the face of their own countries' inhumanity to man. But that hypocrisy is an ironic contradictory compliment. It means that America is held to a higher standard. It should be - and it is heartbreaking when some Americans fail. But it does not negate the heart-felt desire of most Americans to see the spread of their own freedoms to peoples presently denied them.

Iraq has been a hard lesson for America, costing much blood and treasure. A brilliant military campaign was succeeded by an ill-planned and muddled postwar process. The horrors at Abu Ghraib are the outgrowth of an occupation army over-stretched, and poor training of part-time soldiers assigned to guard vastly more detainees than anticipated.

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The weapons of mass destruction that were offered as one reason for going to war are apparently not there. But on the other hand, the bloody regime of Saddam Hussein has been removed and surely nobody can argue that that is anything but a resounding plus for humanity.

There may be harder times before an interim Iraqi authority takes hold June 30, and elections ultimately follow for a post-Hussein government. Both President Bush and Democratic contender for the presidency John Kerry are so far declaring themselves against any cut-and-run shift in US policy in Iraq. Such a precipitate departure would be a betrayal of the battlefield sacrifice already made there by many Americans, and a statement that Iraq, and the Arab world beyond it, are not worth saving.

The distinguished Princeton Arabist Bernard Lewis has written in his book "What Went Wrong?": "If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression. If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization."

By removing the shackles of Hussein that restrained them, the United States and its allies who supported the endeavor have given the people of Iraq the opportunity to make that choice. Iraqis may misuse it, but freedom is freedom to make mistakes as well as successes. Americans cannot make the choice for Iraqis, but they have, at considerable cost, given them the freedom to make it.

The poor judgment and inhumanity of some American soldiers at the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib cannot forever eclipse the nobility and morality of the American motivation in Iraq.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is the editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.