A Truth Commission Regarding the Iraq War Should Focus on Truth, Not Retributive Justice

As the former U.S. commander in Iraq, retired Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez is on to something when he says a truth commission should be implemented to find out all about the policies of the Bush administration both before and after the start of the Iraq War. He is not alone as many Americans and people around the world want to know everything from waterboarding to torture memos to intelligence that led us to invade Iraq in the first place.

But calls for a truth commission should be different from calls for a trial. A truth commission, similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started in South Africa shortly after the end of apartheid, seeks to find out what happened, who did it, and reconcile differences between victim and perpetrator. A trial, on the other hand, aims to find guilt, then prosecute, and punish as necessary. A truth commission wants to set things right. A trial wants to promote tit-for-tat justice.

President Obama has opposed a truth commission concerning Bush-era policies regarding treatment of terror suspects and justifications for going into Iraq because he is afraid it will create bitterness and divisiveness between conservatives who support the policies and liberals who vehemently oppose them. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been a very vocal proponent of the Bush administration’s handling of the “War on Terror” and has criticized the Obama policies as dangerous to national security.

Democrats might also fear setting up a truth commission could end up becoming a witch hunt to rat out anyone, either Democrat or Republican, who was responsible for supporting policies like torture, aggressive interrogation techniques, and authorizing abusive treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The White House is wise to fear that a commission whose purpose is to dig up old wounds from the past can become more politically based than truth based.

Critics of a truth commission also argue it might become more of a trial where those guilty of breaking either domestic or international law (such as the Geneva Accords) are sentenced and punished. Punishment of former Bush officials, or even those higher up (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, just to name a few) can set a bad precedent where “truth commissions” which aim to discover the truth and learn from it can be a place where retributive justice is served as well.

Nobody wants a truth commission to be a place where old scores are settled. The TRC in South Africa did not want to punish anyone who confessed to the crimes they committed. Once a perpetrator admits guilt in front of the victim or family members of victims, they are automatically pardoned and do not have to fear being sent to prison. It’s not quite a vindication, but it’s a way of promoting truth-telling and finding out what exactly happened. Officials in South Africa knew trials would be a long and tedious process that would make whites bitter toward blacks, and visa versa. The same bitterness between Democrats and Republicans could very well happen if punishment becomes a reward for telling the truth.

Truth commissions work when there is no fear of retribution. Nobody is trying to get even with anyone. All we are interested is hearing what happened so that we can learn not to do those things again. A truth commission did not happen after the ending of slavery in the 19th century, nor did one happen after the end of segregation in the South. Though reconciliation processes did happen in these troubled areas of the country, nothing at a national level ever took place. This could be a reason why racial tensions still exist in our country even today.

The Nuremberg option, where a government inquiry is made to find out who is guilty and who should hang for their crimes, would further tear apart our already fragile political climate. President Obama promised to be a post-partisan president who tries to bring leaders from both sides of the aisle together to make important decisions. A Nuremberg-style trial against officials in the Bush White House, Justice Department, or CIA would definitely ruin any notions of bringing partisan politics to an end.

But nevertheless, it is important for Americans to hear what happened behind closed doors when policies like waterboarding and humiliating captured Iraqis were drafted. Knowledge of the implementation of these policies have surfaced recently when the Obama administration declassified previously secret documents discussing torture methods. Public and international outcry followed, expectedly. But what these documents did was tell the American people exactly what our military personnel were told was acceptable and what they were ordered to do. Now there is no ambiguity about how the world’s most dangerous terrorists were treated while in U.S. custody.

Outrage over stories like slapping, slamming detainees against walls, and using phobias (like the fear of bugs or dogs) to extract information is understandable and even justified. People should be outraged that such inhumane practices were done in the name of freedom and democracy. Cheney argues “thousands” of American lives were saved as a result of these harsh practices. Whether he is right or wrong remains to be seen. A truth commission can find that out.

If a truth commission were to be established, as Lt. General Sanchez argues, it should be a carefully constructed process that aims to discover the truth in a forgiving, civil, and public way. Transparency should be key. Those in the Justice Department, like John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who wrote the torture memos into law should be allowed to tell their side of the story without fear of prosecution. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez should also have his day in court, as well as any other Bush administration personnel, like Bush or Cheney themselves (though I doubt they would ever consider showing up).

Transparency can only happen if everyone involved has no fear of saying what they want. Fear will inevitably hide the truth. Those who are afraid of legal prosecution will be less likely to tell their complete stories. Those on the left who want justice plead that the Obama administration arrest those responsible, toss them in jail, and throw away the keys. They can even be waterboarded a few times so that they know what it feels like. But Obama knows that would be political suicide. He’s smarter than that.

After all the facts are out, the U.S. government should draft new laws that make sure no further perversions of justice and humanity are committed in the future. Wars should not be pre-sold to the public as if they were advertisements for a new miracle product. Prisoners captured in either Iraq or Afghanistan should be treated like human beings, not dogs. Torturing terror suspects only further radicalize young Muslim men to join fundamentalist groups like al Qaeda or the Taliban. If we should compassion on our enemies, that will tell them we are not like them. We are better than them.

Further, a truth commission should be bi-partisan in nature. In fact, a better idea would be for it to not be government-sponsored at all. If possible, an independent organization should be consulted to conduct the commission. Using Washington politicians would be costly, time consuming, dangerous toward the political process, and possibly setting a bad precedent. An independent council with no apparent political bias would be preferable.

But once again, the aim should be to find out the truth and learn from it. The public needs to know. This should not be a venue for vengeance or “righting wrongs.” If there are those who grossly broke the law, then they should be dealt with separately. That should happen independently of the commission, not during it. The commission should be a place where everyone feels safe to tell the world what really happened in our post 9/11 America. The Bush administration might be gone, but their policies still continue today. Obama has not completely taken our country on a 180 degree spin.

Hopefully, closer oversight on drafting national security polices can be put into practice and greater amounts of declassification of terror-related documents can happen. Lt. General Sanchez says “Until America can really understand what has happened and look at it objectively and truthfully, we will still continue to be mired in the past. We’ve got to learn the lessons and never go this way again.” How true he is.

After the end of the Vietnam War, Americans promised nothing like that would ever happen again. They were wrong about that. America’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been prevented or controlled had the government learned the lessons from our tragic adventures in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 70s. Sending our troops into an endless conflict with no clear objectives or ways to complete those objectives only lead to suffering, death, and catastrophe. Nearly 58,000 Americans lost their lives because the government back home didn’t take the time to think about exactly what they were doing.

The Bush White House did the same leading up to the March 2003 invasion of Saddam Hussein’s regime. They did not think about what they were doing. They did it without considering the consequences, costs, and feasibility. Now look at the results. If a truth commission were to transpire in the near future, hopefully the lessons learned from it will enlighten future presidents and politicians to be more careful next time we engage in a war.

With the recent nuclear-inspired aggressions of North Korea and Iran dominating the headlines, this new knowledge might be needed sooner than we think.

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