One of the leading Realist foreign policy scholars, Stephen Walt, makes an important observation about Torture and EmpireForeign Policy 05/20/09.
He writes that "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." And goes on to say that while a truth commission would not be his first choice, he supports one at this juncture:
But let's not just populate it with a bipartisan group of the usual Washington insiders and toothless politicos. ... 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.
He goes on to warn about the generally corrosive effects of colonial-style "counterinsurgency" wars.
While I would qualify the first sentence quoted here to say that people should have to take legal responsibility for torture crimes, he makes a very important point:
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. [my emphasis]