Winning the Battle, Losing the War

This fall, after significant push and pull amongst the White House, CIA, and Congress, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee published the executive summary of its report on uses of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—considered by many to be torture—by American intelligence in the aftermath of 9/11. The revelations in the report caused shock and indignation around the world, with many allies and adversaries of the United States condemning the practices. The report touched off a fierce debate in the United States between critics of the program and its defenders, who maintain that using enhanced interrogation allowed the United States to gain information on terrorist cells and prevent terrorist attacks.
However, this line of reasoning is a red herring. Whether or not torture is effective in securing information, it diminishes U.S. diplomatic capital, lessens its moral advantage over repressive governments, and weakens the influence of its condemnations and the rationale for global humanitarian intervention. All of these effects add up to diminished American influence internationally, which hurts America’s long-term security, regardless of the short-term gain from intensive interrogation of terrorist suspects.
 Losing Capital
Multiple U.S. allies, including important NATO partners such as Turkey, have publicly condemned the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation. Other close allies such as the United Kingdom have been heavily implicated in assisting Washington in the capture, rendition, and interrogation of suspects. Nations in both situations will feel burned by the United States and be significantly less willing to support similar initiatives in the future, weakening America’s global diplomatic influence.
For allies who did not assist in the program, the extensive concealment of a major intelligence project bodes badly for U.S. trustworthiness on future intelligence cooperation, and will very possibly harm intelligence sharing on other sensitive projects. For allies who worked closely with intelligence officials on this project, the revelations will hurt their international standing as well. They will thus be considerably more cautious in working with the United States on sensitive intelligence projects in the future, as they may be implicated and criticized for their role in American actions. In either case, the torture program and its subsequent concealment and release weakened the integrity of America’s diplomatic relationships with close allies, hampering national security in the long-run.
Collaborate or criticize?
The rendition and interrogation program also weakens American diplomatic strength due to its private collaboration with regimes it publicly condemns. Among the nations that assisted the United States with the rendition and/or interrogation of subjects were Iran, Libya, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Belarus. These nations have poor human rights records and have been openly denounced by the American government for various harsh and authoritarian activities. American collaboration with these governments in such unsavory practices as the rendition and torture of terror suspects undermines its moral authority.
Governments such as the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has killed thousands of Syrians with artillery, gas, bombings, torture, and executions, could even use the supposed precedent set by the torture program to argue against stiff penalties from the United States and the international community, and to reject criticism of their inhumane actions. This will also weaken the argument for international humanitarian intervention against regimes that engage in major human rights abuses of their citizens for the same reason; they can point to the CIA torture program as a precedent for justifying harsh crackdowns on opponents.
The moral lower ground
Furthermore, the torture program makes the United States seem hypocritical: criticizing the authoritarian and oppressive tendencies of these governments on one hand, while cooperating with them on the torture program on the other. This weakens America’s moral advantage over authoritarian governments such as Russia, China, and Iran. It makes our condemnations of those nations’ repression of dissidents and political opponents ring hollow in the ears of the international community and hampers our ability to promote human rights around the world.
The ostensible hypocrisy between America’s humanitarian rhetoric and its seeming violations of the rights of suspects and detainees will also embolden the nation’s rivals. They will almost certainly use the warped logic that the American mismatch between rhetoric and action justifies their own misdeeds, such as detention of political opponents and destabilization of neighboring countries. By emboldening America’s authoritarian adversaries and contributing to a “culture of contempt” towards human rights, the CIA’s use of torture will hamper the goal of achieving a more stable and democratic world.
The American public remains uncertain about the justification and dubious legality of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation. However, regardless of any justification, the use of torture hurts America’s image abroad. Correspondingly, this damages national security by hampering U.S. diplomacy, angering American friends, and emboldening American opponents. Allies will either feel left out of cooperation on a major American intelligence program or betrayed by the publication of their involvement in these activities. Adversaries will be able to invoke the American use of torture as a warped justification for their own oppressions and violations of human rights.
Thus, even if the use of torture did result in helpful information, it will hinder America’s longer-term security objectives and make the country less safe.
Update (11/18/15): A link on this article referring to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report went to the incorrect location. It has since been corrected.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Government

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