Stephen M. Walt

Torture and empire

Torture and empire

I haven’t said anything about President Obama’s decision not to release additional photos of detainee abuse, and the related stories suggesting that the Bush administration tortured detainees in large part to find some link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that would justify invading Iraq. But I agree with those who believe the Obama administration can’t put this behind us by “walking forward,” or trying to sweep it under the rug. And if Jack Goldsmith is correct to say that Obama is keeping most of the elements of the Bush “war on terror” in place, then the president may be inviting more trouble than just the disappointment of MoveOn.org.

First, as I suggested in another context last week, the only way that a country can regain its reputation in the aftermath of serious misconduct is to stop the wrongdoing, express regret for it, and not do it again.  Americans have wondered “why do they hate us?” ever since 9/11, and there is abundant survey and anecdotal evidence confirming that anti-Americanism is mostly a reaction to U.S. policies and not a rejection of American values, culture, or identity. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, for example, “antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically.” Similarly, the State Department’s Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy found that “Arabs and Muslims…support our values but believe our policies do not live up to them.” And they wrote that before we knew about Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, or the full extent of the torture regime.

It follows that we aren’t going to fuel more anti-Americanism by fully acknowledging and coming to terms with past abuses, because most people already understand what happened under Bush and Cheney. We are talking here about filling in details and holding people accountable. What Obama needs to do is draw a sharp break from these practices, to signal to the world that what happened under his predecessors was an aberration and not “business as usual.” The more features of the Bush order that he retains, the more incidents he tries to cover up, and the more people he insulates from exposure or prosecution, the harder it will be to characterize the recent past as a shameful episode that is unrepresentative of America’s true character. Other countries will doubt things have really changed, and with good reason.  

Second, although I’m even more skeptical of “blue-ribbon” commissions than Frank Rich, I’ve come to believe that a credible commission offers the best way forward at this point. But let’s not just populate it with a bipartisan group of the usual Washington insiders and toothless politicos. There’s enough evidence to suggest that some powerful Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew what was going on and said nothing, which means that both parties are to some degree implicated in this scandal.  Inside-the-beltway careerists are part of a political culture where mutual back-scratching and excuse-making are well-established norms, and thus a commission dominated by the usual familiar faces is unlikely to produce a serious report and won’t have sufficient credibility at home or abroad. The 9/11 Commission or the 2004 Schlesinger Report on DoD detention procedures (undertaken in response to Abu Ghraib) are cases in point: although both panels produced some useful information and identified certain errors, each pulled a lot of punches too.  

One need only recall the contribution that iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman made to the presidential commission on the space shuttle Challenger disaster to recognize the value of appointing smart people who are willing to challenge powerful institutions, incumbent leaders, and orthodox thinking. So instead of an investigative commission dominated by well-known Washington insiders, I’d like to see one whose ranks include a substantial number of well-qualified critics and independent thinkers. Along with the usual (yawn) suspects, how about including Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, blogger Glenn Greenwald, conservative law professor Richard Epstein, Congressman (and former presidential candidate) Ron Paul, or former MacArthur Foundation president Adelle Simmons?

Last point: we also need to reflect on the connection between U.S. grand strategy and these sorry episodes. It is tempting to blame this whole problem on the misguided machinations of Bush, Cheney, and their minions, who took advantage of the post-9/11 climate of fear to implement a torture regime, but that convenient explanation is a bit too simple. In fact, this sort of abuse is likely to be repeated as long as the United States maintains a highly interventionist foreign and military policy. If the United States continues to send military forces and lethal armed drones to attack people in far-flung lands, some of the people we kill will be innocent civilians — thereby fomenting greater hatred of the United States — and the people we are going after will try to hit us back. Our enemies will use our actions to recruit sympathizers — just as Osama bin Laden did — and every time some terrorist group gets lucky and get through, the U.S. government will be tempted to adopt even harsher measures to try to stop the next attack.  Not only does this cycle threaten civil liberties here at home, but it tends to embroil us in social engineering projects in societies that we do not understand (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc.). We can also be confident that other potential rivals are secretly thrilled to see us squandering lots of blood and treasure on lengthy occupations and open-ended counterinsurgency operations.

Unfortunately, history also shows that prolonged occupations and counterinsurgencies always lead to significant abuses. It is the nature of the beast. This is what happened to Britain in the Boer War, Belgium in its central African empire, France in Indochina and Algeria, Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Israel in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, and the United States in Iraq. The United States may not be as heavy-handed as some earlier imperial powers, although our treatment of native Americans was horrible and our handling of Japanese-Americans in World War II is a dark stain on our past. The key point is that the idea of a purely benevolent “empire” is a contradiction in terms and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can run one.

Bottom line: if you don’t like Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, waterboarding, etc., the best way to make the problem go away for good is to get out of the business of occupying and trying to govern other countries.

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images