“The unthinkable is becoming thinkable,” neoconservative pundit Robert Kagan despaired recently in the Washington Post. What has Kagan worried is actually welcome: In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, a national debate is emerging about withdrawing US forces from Iraq; even some of the war’s firmest backers suggest it is now a lost cause. “We cannot prevail in this war as it is going today,” conceded hawkish Democratic Representative John Murtha, while conservative columnist David Brooks claimed that he and other supporters of the war had been “blinded by idealism.” As the Post reported on May 9, a growing number of US commanders share this pessimism, not because opponents like the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr cannot be crushed militarily but because each American assault serves only to deepen Iraqis’ resentment of the occupation. And then there are non-Iraqis like the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is reportedly behind the grisly videotaped beheading of Nicholas Berg, the first of many promised acts of revenge for Abu Ghraib. “Dead Man Walking” is how one Pentagon consultant described the mood among US generals about the situation in Iraq. “It is doubtful we can go on much longer like this,” said a senior commander. “The American people may not stand for it–and they should not.”

The unthinkable has become thinkable because the unimaginable is today all too real. Every day, more horrific photographs and videos come to light–a naked detainee led on a dog leash, another naked man screaming in terror as attack dogs menace him–lending bitter irony to the claim that America’s ultimate mission in Iraq is to export our values. (Ironic, too, is the fact that Berg was likely still in Iraq only because he’d been in detention, held for “suspicious activities,” until the day after his family filed a suit charging that the US military was holding him without due process.) Every day, we read the names of more dead soldiers, their mission now tarnished not by “a few bad apples” who acted on their own but by an Administration that has brazenly dismissed international law and refuses to take responsibility for its actions, instead claiming that its critics are the ones who are out of line.

It is now clear that as early as January, Jakob Kellenberger, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, complained directly about the abuses to top US officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Starting last fall, Senator Patrick Leahy likewise wrote the CIA, FBI and Pentagon to demand clarification about interrogation methods, receiving in response “reassuring statements by officials in Washington that were repeatedly ignored in the field.”

Even as George W. Bush was congratulating Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for “courageously leading our nation in the war against terror,” an editorial in the Army Times, an independent weekly widely read in the military, demanded accountability from those at the top. “The entire [Abu Ghraib] affair is a failure of leadership from start to finish,” the editorial declared. “Accountability here is essential–even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war.” The words “failure of leadership” were also used by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated the abuses in Iraq, in his testimony before Congress.

John Kerry, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has echoed this, suggesting that responsibility “clearly goes beyond a corporal and a sergeant.” But Kerry has yet to articulate the bolder critique voiced by some of his advisers. “We now have to admit that the American position is untenable,” Kerry campaign adviser Richard Holbrooke told the New York Times in an article that indicated Holbrooke favors a handover to the United Nations and a phased withdrawal. With polls showing that half of Americans now think the Iraq war is a mistake, and with the Muslim and Arab world seething over Abu Ghraib, we hope Kerry summons the courage to call for a similarly bold change in course.