torture and self-interest

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Intel-Dump

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Torture and self-interest by Phillip Carter

Bret Stephens writes today on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal that we should adopt a necessity uber alles approach to waterboarding and coercive interrogation. His basic point is that results, not principle, should determine the outcome of the debate over waterboarding and Judge Michael Mukasey’s nomination to be Attorney General, much as results were the critical factor in President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb:

Among historians, there is a lively debate about whether that result was achieved. In the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the evidence that the bombings ended the war and saved as many as a million Allied and Japanese lives is overwhelming. A somewhat better argument can be made that the bombing of Germany failed to justify its price in human suffering, particularly the bombing of non-strategic targets. Yet as historian Richard Overy has noted, “There has always seemed something fundamentally implausible about the contention of bombing’s critics that dropping almost 2.5 million tons of bombs on tautly stretched industrial systems and war-weary urban populations would not seriously weaken them.”

Whatever side one takes here, the important point is that the debate fundamentally is about results. Note the difference with the current debate over waterboarding, where opponents argue that the technique is unconscionable and inadmissible under any circumstances, even in hypothetical cases where the alternative to waterboarding is terrorist attacks resulting in mass casualties among innocent civilians. According to this view, it is possible to wage war yet avoid the classic “choice of evils” dilemmas that confronted past statesmen such as Churchill and Roosevelt. Or, to put the argument more precisely, it is possible to avoid this choice if one is also prepared to pay for it in blood — if not in one’s own, than in that of kith and kin and whoever else’s life must be sacrificed to keep our consciences clear.

But not so fast. On the op-ed page of today’s Washington Post, former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora and former Asst. Sec. State John Shattuck argue that it is in our interests not to use waterboarding or any other form of torture. And indeed, that such coercive interrogation practices undermine our national security and hurt our interests abroad. They write:

Cruelty diminishes the international standing of the United States and impedes our ability to achieve crucial foreign policy objectives. Opinion polling in Europe and South Asia last year, including surveys by World Opinion.org and Public Diplomacy.org, found that majorities believe the United States engages in torture and disregards international treaties on the treatment of detainees. Overwhelming majorities in Germany and Britain, our closest European allies, condemn America as doing a “bad job” on human rights.

The promotion of democracy and human rights is a key element of U.S. foreign policy and fosters a rules-based international system anchored in the protection of human dignity. But our ability to achieve this goal — indeed, even our adherence to this strategic objective — is severely compromised when our own conduct is widely perceived to violate human rights.

As bad as the damage to our foreign policy has been, the damage to our national security may be even worse. Because the application of cruelty is a crime under the laws of many of our allies, our ability to build and maintain the broad alliance needed to efficiently fight the war on terrorism has been crippled. After Abu Ghraib, when the dimensions of our policy of cruelty became more visible, international assistance across the range of military, intelligence and law enforcement arenas dropped as foreign officials grew concerned that their cooperation might constitute aiding and abetting criminal activity.

The damage is significant even at the tactical level. Some military officials today believe that the proximate causes of Abu Ghraib were the legal opinions issued by the Justice Department that sanctioned abusive interrogations. There are other serving military officials who maintain that the leading causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq are, respectively, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, as gauged by their effectiveness in stimulating the recruitment and fielding of jihadists on the battlefield.

Judge Mukasey is able and accomplished. But if he is confirmed as the next attorney general, his legacy will depend on his ability to do what he has been unable or unwilling to do in his confirmation process: recognize torture and cruelty for what they are and protect our nation by stripping certain interrogation methods of their disgraceful camouflage of false “legality.”

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