The Washington Times

So, ask yourself this question: In the absence of the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison, how much credence would you have attached or did you attach to reports of abuse of the detainees there? How credible did you find the complaints of mistreatment? Asked to guess how the U.S. military was treating prisoners, in your wildest imagination would you have conjured up the image of a female U.S. soldier leading a hooded, naked Iraqi around on a leash?

Me, neither. And that, my fellow Americans, is the essence of the problem of power. We are much less wary of it when we ourselves wield it.

Now, as it happens, I am very much in favor of American power. I agree with the analysis in the Bush administration’s 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States” that we should do what is necessary to avoid the emergence of a “peer competitor” to the U.S. military. That’s because the overwhelming character of U.S. military power does wonders for keeping the peace among nations. A United States scaling back on its regional security commitments would be an invitation to certain characters to try to reopen options that are now foreclosed: military conquest, ethnic cleansing, etc. U.S. power not only keeps other nations in check, it arguably circumscribes and pacifies domestic politics in other countries: U.S. power imposes an advance check on those who might otherwise try to obtain political power on a program of aggression.

And, in addition, I think there is indeed something different and better about the way the United States exercises power and the ends to which it uses power. To put the matter as bluntly as possible, had the United States been in decline from the 1970s forward – economic stagnation ultimately sapping us to the point where even our nuclear weapons rusted in their silos – and had the Soviet Union come to occupy the position of global dominance the United States now enjoys, I for one think the result would look very different and infinitely worse. Call the United States an “empire” if you want, or a “hegemon” or anything else, if we were calling Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union the “empire” or “hegemon,” we would be talking about global repression; restrictions on speech, assembly, the press; and a ubiquitous secret police reinforcing a climate of everyday suspicion. Anyone who can’t see these distinctions has been cultivating his sense of moral superiority to the point of blindness.

Moreover, it is not easy but difficult to wield power on the scale of that possessed by the United States. On this point, we get little sympathy from anyone, including friends. We have to have a policy for, literally, all the trouble in the world. The stakes are vastly higher here than they are for most other decision-makers worldwide. Even in the course of prudent calculation, mistakes will be made. And success, when it comes, others mainly attribute to inevitability, structural forces and so on, not to the people who are charged with trying to figure out and implement policy. It seems to me that one is entitled to a certain sense of self-respect for grappling with problems in many cases much harder than the problems others have to deal with – not least because respect is not something most others readily grant on this point.

But, but, but: The problem of power as such does not go away no matter who is wielding it. This was a truth well understood by the founders of this country, which is why they were at pains to secure a government that would be as insulated as possible from the tyranny of one man as well as the tyranny of a majority. Hence those checks and balances they still teach in civics classes. Hence the Bill of Rights.

The problem of power in the context of a classically liberal democracy, such as the United States, is the intrusion of private ends into a role of public trust. A public position – from president to prison guard – brings with it a measure of power over others that an individual, as a private person, would not possess. He or she is entrusted with it only on condition that it be used for legitimate public purposes. Abuse of power entails the substitution of private ends for public ends – for example, in pursuit of political gain [enemies lists], monetary gain [corruption] or, alas, one’s jollies [humiliation].

What to do? Well, for starters, it’s time for an end to one particular aspect of “American exceptionalism”: the insistence that we are sufficient unto ourselves in all cases to be judge in our own cause. At a minimum, we should allow for as much transparency as we can, not least because the more of our actions that disinterested people can observe, the less likely are such actions to transgress their public purposes.

An Iraqi on a leash? Now that we’ve seen it, we had better believe it – and get busy fixing it not merely to our own satisfaction.