How We Betrayed Our Own History in Iraq

News Abroad

Mr. Melancon is Associate Professor of History, Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

The scenes of torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib illustrate why the Enlightenment is so important to the history of the West.  A small group of intellectuals dared to challenge" common sense" notions of security, arguing that limiting the arbitrary power of government creates a safer society.  Since the American and French revolutions, westerners have struggled to rein in the violence of the state.  The philosophes insisted that the state act in a measured, rational manner.  They realized, however, that individual humans could not be trusted to restrain themselves and that society needed to create systems to check the power of the government.  The American prison system in Iraq violated all of the principles of an enlightened government.

One of the most important checks on the government was a revolutionary judicial system.  In the old system government officials could imprison and torture a person based upon suspicion.  The pre-Enlightenment governments knew the answer to a question and could use any means necessary to demonstrate the truth.  Caesar Beccaria in Crime and Punishment (1764) argued that punishment comes after, not before, conviction of a crime.  Conviction rested upon independently verifiable facts. "When the proofs of a crime are dependent on each other, that is, when the evidence of each witness, taken separately, proves nothing, or when all the proofs are dependent upon one . . . they all fall to the ground."  Imprisonment should not be used to prove a crime rather it is used as punishment for demonstrable crimes.  Furthermore, the U.S. Defense Department has designed a prison system in Iraq designed to cause the inmates to fear their guards.  Beccaria also cautions against this type of justice: "The fear of the laws is salutary, but the fear of men is a fruitful and fatal source of crimes. Men enslaved are more voluptuous, more debauched, and more cruel than those who are in a state of freedom."

Another key principle of the Enlightenment was the idea that government was a res publica, a"public thing."  Monarchs and aristocrats argued, on the other hand, that affairs of state were a private matter.  The security of the state required trials and deliberations to be held behind closed doors.  Secrecy, however, invites abuse of power.  The"Shock and Awe" generated by the Abu Ghraib pictures would have been avoided in a more open system.  Obviously, the public does not need to know the specifics of each case, but it should know what the U.S. government does in the name of the people.  Beccaria went farther and described the results of secret accusations on the community under investigation:

Secret accusations are a manifest abuse, but consecrated by custom in many nations, where, from the weakness of the government, they are necessary. This custom makes men false and treacherous. Whoever suspects another to be an informer, beholds in him an enemy; and from thence mankind are accustomed to disguise their real sentiments; and, from the habit of concealing them from others, they at last even hide them from themselves. Unhappy are those who have arrived at this point! without any certain and fixed principles to guide them, they fluctuate in the vast sea of opinion, and are busied only in escaping the monsters which surround them: to those the present is always embittered by the uncertainty of the future; deprived of the pleasures of tranquillity and security, some fleeting moments of happiness, scattered thinly through their wretched lives, console them for the misery of existing.
Secret judicial proceedings thus destroy the very nature of civil society, namely the public trust and confidence that is necessary for happiness.

Finally, Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), argued that tyranny arose from a concentration of powers:"there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor." 

The cause of liberty thus requires a separation of powers, and western citizens have demand constitutions which eliminate the potential for abuse.  The war on terror has reinvigorated the pre-modern notion that government officials have the authority to arrest, detain and punish individuals without outside oversight.  As the U.S. government made clear in the recent cases before the Supreme Court, not only are suspected terrorists held solely on the authority of one branch of government, but there is no review process within that branch.  Individuals are not allowed to argue their innocence with or without the aid of counsel. Those same counselors, however, might have acted as a deterrent to the abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners and spared the United States the shame of recent weeks.

The American"justice" system in Iraq then undermines the very goal of the mission. The United States wants to demonstrate to the world that its system of government is better than all others. How can this claim be tested when the United States refuses to abide by the foundations of that system: the assumption of innocence, an open justice system and outside checks on power?  Some will argue that my position is naive; the war on terror cannot be fought with such limitations.  I would point out that monarchs and tyrants use the same arguments to justify their disrespect for human rights.  I would also ask: if the war in Iraq cannot be fought while respecting the principles of an enlightened government, how can such a"messy" war establish a democracy in the cradle of civilization?

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Here on this page can be found some of the key confusions which have befuddled Americans’ perception of the world over the past 2-3 years. Therefore, herewith a few clarifications thereof:

1. There is not and cannot be any "war on terrorism". The phrase is a delusionary oxymoron. There was indeed a horrific and massive failure of the Bush Administration on 9-11, but to dignify that mass murder by pretending that its perpetrators were, and their successors are, in any meaningful way, shape or form "warriors", or were engaged in "war", is both amoral and foolish. To cover up their blunders on 9-11, that U.S. presidential administration did indeed launch brief successful wars to overthrow the Taliban and Saddam, the fruits of which have been largely squandered by an incompetent foreign policy, which has, on the whole, benefitted Al Qaeda more than it has weakened it.

2. The wars to overthrow the Taliban and to overthrow Saddam were separate and distinct actions with very different origins, actors, implications, and consequences. The effort to conflate them is part and parcel of the deliberate obfuscations and cowardly evasions which largely define this fraudulent and corrupt presidential Administration.

3. There is nothing conservative about the self-styled "neo-conservatives". They are a mixed group, of course, and include people possessing both honorable and dishonorable motives. But, for those who agitated and propagandized in favor of the theoretically justifiable, but actually very hypocritically and blunderously executed war in Iraq, without the slightest regard for America's true long run national interests, the operative and relevant phrase is CON, in both senses: They have conned America, and their behaviour, in a least some instances, deserves investigation and, very possibly, CONviction for criminal behavior.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

There seems to be a bit of confusion among some Americansabout why we conducted the camaign in Iraq. conquering Iraq. The primary reason we conquered Iraq was in response to the on-going war of terrorusm being waged against us by militant Islam. The campaign in Iraq is not a stand-alone war, but merely an episode in the wider struggle between the West(plus Russia) and militant Islam.

Our conquering Iraq achieved several short-term goals, including putting pressure on Moslem governments in the Middle East to cease allowing al-qaeda and like organizations to raise funds and garner recruits in their territories, to persuade the entire Islamic world that the U.S. was willing and able to defend its interests via military and naval power, easily able to destroy any & all Moslem armies with which we came into conflict. Establishing a long-term precence (think post WWII Germany) in Iraq enables us to project our military power in that part of the world without having to rely upon the permissions of uncertain allies, such as Saudia Arabia & Turkey & even our European allies. Being established there permits us to bring intense pressure on elements hostile to us--if they anoy us too much, we'll, as we've demonstrated in Iraq, one of the largest and best-trained & equiped armies in all of Islam, we'll kick their houses of straw in & stomp our enemies into the sand.

Establing a Western-style representative gov't in Iraq is a secondary political goal & part of our long-range plans to remake the political face of the Middle East. Unlike earlier conquerers, we want out ASAP and we want to leave the place in better condition than we found it. BUT defending ourselves from militant Islam is our primary purpose for being there.

Sanford Robert Silverburg - 6/10/2004

We need to think--and plan properly--before we invade or attack any state. More importantly, perhaps, is to be wary of the use of fear to blind a population from rational thought.

Ken Melvin - 6/9/2004

Might want to think twice or thrice before invading Saudi Arabia.

Sanford Robert Silverburg - 6/9/2004

The Bush administration has conflated two issues: The invasion of Iraq and the War on Terrorism. The United States unilaterally invaded Iraq, the administration publicly stated, because Iraq was engaged in an on-going WMD program that posed an imminent threat to the United States or would be made available to anti-American terrorist forces. Secondly, Iraq, America was told, was connected in some diabolical manner with al-Qaeda, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attack. Had we retaliated directly on the agents of the 9/11 attack in a War on Terrorism, we should have invaded Saudi Arabia, the state whose nationals made up the bulk of the group that conducted the terrorist attack.

Ben H. Severance - 6/8/2004


I am not thrilled with Kerry, but he is better suited to the presidency than the infantile George Bush. As for Kerry's view on Iraq, he will be inheriting from Bush a complex and unpleasant problem. To make reconstruction and nation-building work, and it would be irresponsible for the U.S. government to now abandon such a policy, Kerry will need more ground troops to restore order. More U.S. troops does not in-and-of-itself preclude international involvement. In fact, as the insurgency is suppressed, more troops may make a U.N. commitment more likely. In any event, where Bush has alienated the world, Kerry offers the real potential to mend relations. A Kerry presidency promises to inject a much-needed sense of optimism into the Middle East. In this sense, Kerry could do for the situation in Iraq what FDR did for American morale during the Depression (at least initially). To carry that imperfect analogy further, Bush is like Herbert Hoover, a discredited leader with no innovative ideas for progress. In the end, no knows what Kerry will do, but we know what Bush has done, and I am willing to give new leadership a chance.

Ben H. Severance - 6/8/2004

Adam, thanks for the kind words.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/8/2004

Dear Adam,

You apparently agree with Ben's "Give me John Kerry and
the sensible war on terror that he has to offer."
I wish, but I can't see how Kerry-President might correct the situation, provided he repeatedly mentioned
his intention to increase the number of American troops
in Iraq, in a striking contradiction with his other declared program - to seek wider international cooperation in fight against terrorism and help in Iraq.
The majority in the world considers this war, at the minimum, unjust(at the maximum - imperialistic) and continuing American occupation even worse than the war itself. So, how on Earth expanding American military corpus there will gather wider international support for
the US?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/8/2004

An excellent and well-written post. I just want to express my agreement with it 100%.

Ben H. Severance - 6/8/2004

I objected to the invasion of Iraq, but later became a conditional supporter for the sake of the soldiers (I am a veteran of Desert Storm) and for the sake of restoring order in the hopes that a genuine republic might emerge. But over the last few months, my exasperation with the duplicitous Bush Adminstration has reached new heights. The invasion was unnecessary and has proved Pyhrric.

Mr. Livingston, I find many of your claims dubious. 1) The U.S. did not need to conquer Iraq to send a message to governments harboring terrorists, it had already done that by toppling the Taliban. Besides, there were no terrorists in Iraq (or any WMD; Chalabi played Bush for the fool that he is), though there are now thanks to the invasion. 2) The U.S. did not need Iraq as a military staging area, it already had that with Kuwait and several of the other willing Persian Gulf states (e.g., Qatar). And you might want to note your glaring contradiction on this matter: "establishing a long-term precence" vs "we want out ASAP." Why can't more people realize that containment was working just fine?

One prominent figure after the next has come forth to denounce the war in Iraq: Paul O'Neill states that Iraq was the central foreign policy target from day one; Richard Clarke asserts that Iraq, not Al-Quaeda, was the administration's obession; General Anthony Zinni opines that the Department of Defense arrogantly ignored the advice of the generals (the professionals!), who urged in vain Rumsfeld to pay closer attention to post-war insurgency; Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh, both veteran journalists going back to Vietnam, exposed the weakness of President Bush, an executive who really has no grasp of what's going on around him. Are all of these men lying? Are they all misinformed? The mounting charges suggest that the executive is either reckless or incompetent, perhaps both.

I've never liked the label "Neo-Con", but its time Americans starting calling the zealots in the administration what they are: militaristic imperialists. Give me John Kerry and the sensible war on terror that he has offer.

Glenn Paul Melancon - 6/8/2004

Yes, I agree there seems to be some confusion. You stated "The campaign in Iraq is not a stand-alone war, but merely an episode in the wider struggle between the West(plus Russia) and militant Islam." Iraq, however, was not part of militant Islam. The Bath Party was a secular Pan Arab party. Osma Bin Laden considered him an apostate.

Ken Melvin - 6/7/2004

Conquered Iraq? How very quaint.