othing has done more to undercut America’s struggle against extremism than the Bush administration’s squandering of our nation’s good reputation. The torture, abuse, unlawful detention, and related un-American practices associated with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and CIA interrogations at “black sites” have been as unwise as they have been unprincipled. Most of us can agree that sometimes, in the name of national security, it is necessary to make difficult ethical decisions to protect the American people. However, the administration’s dangerous and counterproductive choice to employ torture has severely weakened our ability to win the struggle against extremism. It has also wasted our greatest asset: our moral authority.
The Bush administration’s policies amount to a unilateral surrender in the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Our use of torture has played directly into a central tenet of al-Qaeda’s recruiting pitch: that everyday Muslims across the world have something to fear from the United States of America. From Morocco to Malaysia, people regularly hear stories of torture and suicide at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other overseas prisons. Many are false. But, shamefully, some are true.
The result has been a major blow to our credibility worldwide, particularly where we need it most: in the Muslim world. Pew survey research of ten countries found that in 2001, 58 percent of the people viewed America favorably; today, that number has slipped to 39 percent. Worse still, in critical Muslim nations like Pakistan and Turkey, Pew found in 2007 that only 15 percent and 9 percent, respectively, had a positive view of the United States.
These figures matter on more than one level. First, popular outrage puts pressure on governments not to cooperate with the United Statestherefore isolating the United States rather than isolating the extremists. (Even with strategic allies like Pakistan, our unpopularity constrains our ability to act.) Second, as the Army’s own counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus warns us, stories of prisoner mistreatment strengthen the enemy’s resilience and recruiting efforts.
Yet still the White House insists on its right to use torture. And for what? President Bush’s own experts have told him that not only does torture put our troops at risk and undermine our global image, it produces intelligence of questionable credibility. In fact, some of the most misleading prewar intelligence supposedly linking al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein came from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who appears to have given testimony under “enhanced interrogation methods.”
Meanwhile, once the prohibitions on torture are loosened, the practice spreads. The Pentagon used high-level Guantanamo detainees to test coercive interrogation techniques, but such techniques eventually found their way to low-level detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While images of Abu Ghraib have long faded from American minds and media, they remain fixtures, years later, across the Arab and Muslim world.
Just as it scars its victims, the use of techniques like waterboardinginvented in the Spanish Inquisition and prosecuted by the American government as a Japanese war crime after World War IIleaves its scars on a democratic society as well. Torture, which flourishes in the shadows, depends on liesnot just from those who seek to avoid torture, but from those who seek to conceal it. Four years ago, the president assured us that “we don’t torture people in America, and people who make that claim just don’t know anything about our country.” Today we know that to have been untrue. Today, his new attorney general continues to engage in legalistic parsing of whether waterboarding amounts to torture.
Our next president will have to begin repairing the damage. That means an end to torture, an end to outsourcing torture, and an end to indefinite detentions. The first step in this process is to close Guantanamoan enduring symbol to the rest of the world of a government set morally adrift after 9/11. For America to reclaim its historical leadership role, we must once again lead by example.
In short: we need to make America be America again. We must restore our moral authority and global leadership by deploying the full arsenal of our national power with smarter diplomacy, stronger alliances, more effective international institutionsand fidelity to the values we have always stood for as a nation. It is time for the United States to again make clear what presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan knew for certain but this administration has preferred to muddy: on the issue of torture, there is no compromise. America must not weaken the values that make us strong.