According to President Obama (and many others), releasing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s “torture report” will strengthen U.S. national security – by restoring the moral authority that’s a major American asset on the world stage.
The claim seems pretty dotty to me. Of course, all else equal, it’s better that the United States win rather than lose global popularity contests. More specifically, there’s no doubt that what academics now call “soft power” – which involves the persuasive appeal of a country’s economic, social, and value systems – can help U.S. leaders and diplomats influence foreign governments in constructive ways.
Ultimately, however, America’s security and prosperity depend on its hard power – the material wealth and power it can bring to bear on international challenges and opportunities. Moreover, it’s doubtful at best that torture, or enhanced interrogation, or whatever you want to call the CIA practices, have had major effects on the nation’s international standing.
After all, foreign critics have attacked any number of other aspects of U.S. foreign (and domestic) policy. What evidence tells us that torture’s impact as been so exceptional? And does anyone know of anyone thinking of emigrating to the United States, legally or illegally, changing their plans because of torture revelations? Moreover, there’s still the question, which I discussed yesterday, of whether any of these potential, theoretical benefits outweigh the risk created for American government officials, soldiers, and operatives overseas.
But the President and others who favor the report’s release face an even bigger problem. Let’s suppose that they’re right about the diplomatic importance of the nation’s moral authority. Initial reactions, at least, provide little indication that airing this dirty linen is enhancing it – either with foreign governments or with publics overseas. (Links for the quotes below are at the end of this post.)
Germany – which has its own experiences with historical guilt – through its foreign eminister, sounded pleased that “President Obama clearly breaks with the politics of his predecessor. We welcome this new transparency to admit mistakes.” In a separate statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government added “Only in this way can we gain credibility for our actions in this fight.”
According to a European Union spokesperson, publishing the study was a “positive step” that convinced the 28-country group of “President Obama’s commitment to use his authority to ensure that these methods are never used again.” More explicitly, Poland’s president predicted that the report’s release would help restore strained trans-Atlantic relations.
But this is where the favorable reactions seem to have ended. America’s closest ally is widely thought to be the United Kingdom, but Prime Minister David Cameron said nothing about the release’s effect on bilateral ties or U.S. Diplomatic effectiveness. France was similarly circumspect.
As for others, China, Russia, and North Korea predictably used the release to make hypocritical propaganda points. UN “Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights” Ben Emmerson urged the prosecution of those responsible for the CIA program. Among those who should be charged with criminal violations of international law, Emmerson suggested, were officials “at a high level within the US government.” This call was echoed by the Financial Times, even though the paper allowed that “It is to America’s credit that it is able to declare its mistakes for the world to see.”
You can look over these and other responses here You’ll see expressions of outrage and cynical resignation, you’ll note reticence from some surprising sources (like France’s Le Monde). But what you won’t see are signs that the torture report’s release is even causing an fundamental reassessments of opinions about the United States, either positive or negative.
Interestingly, some confusion on this point is evident on the part of Dianne Feinstein, the retiring California Democratic Senator who chairs the intelligence panel. In her statement accompanying the report’s release, she argued that “There are those who will seize upon the report and say “see what Americans did,” and they will try to use it to justify evil actions or to incite more violence. We cannot prevent that.” But she also called the release “an important step to restore our values and show the world that we are in fact a just and lawful society.”
America’s founders, chiefly Alexander Hamilton, recognized that other powers’ foreign policies are rarely motivated by gratitude, as opposed to hard calculations of interest. That’s a lesson that President Obama, Senator Feinstein, and too many others in the U.S. leadership and chattering classes urgently need to learn.