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Torture memos make U.S. foreign policy stronger?

Torture memos make U.S. foreign policy stronger?

I asked Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and a former Clinton administration official, to work through some of the foreign policy implications of the newly released torture memos with me.

We discussed whether the Bush administration memos encouraged other countries to torture, or led to any global uptick in “enhanced interrogation” practices. “I’ve always tried to be careful not to suggest that countries like Egypt or China or Uzbekistan would be torturing more because the United States was setting a bad example. Obviously, dictatorships torture for their own reasons, and they didn’t need [former U.S. President] George W. Bush to show them how,” he says.

But, the Bush administration torture of detainees and disavowal of the Geneva Conventions did preclude diplomacy on many occasions, Malinowski says. He testified before the Helsinki Commission in 2007 to make the point:

A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch was meeting with the Prime Minister of Egypt, and we raised a case in which hundreds of prisoners rounded up after a terrorist bombing were tortured by Egyptian security forces.   The Prime Minister didn’t deny the charge.  He answered, “We’re just doing what the United States does.”  We’ve had Guantanamo and the administration’s interrogation policies thrown back in our face in meetings with officials from many other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and Lebanon.  U.S. diplomats have told us they face the same problem.  A U.S. ambassador to a leading Middle Eastern country, for example, has told us that he can no longer raise the issue of torture in that country as a result. 

Malinowski says the detainee abuse made it difficult for the White House to negotiate any human rights provisions or issues, broadly. “Issues beyond torture were effected, because it enabled authoritarian governments to say, ‘You have no right to lecture us,'” he says. “They were delighted to tweak the United States on it.”

The biggest offender? Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who Malinowski described as a “world champion” of chiding the United States via its own policies.

Nevertheless, Malinowski thinks that, despite the horrible details revealed by the Bush administration and International Committee of the Red Cross memos, ultimately their release is a very good thing for the Obama administration.

[Obama] can go to a country like Turkey or Indonesia or Egypt and say, “Look, I know what it’s like to face real security threats, and we as Americans understand the temptation to give up some of our liberties and principles to defend ourselves against those threats. But what we’ve learned the hard way in the last eight years is that those liberties and principles actually make us stronger. You could learn from our example.”

That’s a much more effective way of arguing the point than going to those same countries and saying, look at our perfect system and our glorious morality, and maybe someday you can be as good as we are. So I think if he uses the experience as a cautionary tale, it will actually make our country a more effective and compelling champion of human rights around the world, ironically.

Here’s to hoping so.

Photo: Entrance to Bagram Air Base by Spencer Platt/Getty Images