Commentary

CIA Torture Program Damages U.S. Standing in the Region

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The release of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program has unleashed, as expected, a wave of condemnation across the world. The sense of outrage with the questionable intelligence practices described in the report is especially poignant in the Middle East, where most observers and editorials have now called for the prosecution of those responsible for the drafting and implementation of these practices. Some have suggested that the newly released report undermines U.S. standing in the world by diminishing its “soft power.”

A recent Gulf News editorial echoed a message common across the region, calling for the prosecution of those responsible for the torture program, also pointing out that: “This public record is destined to be the ineffaceable symbol of America’s darkest moment of shame....If America has to regain its moral ground and self-respect within the international community, it needs to prosecute those who engineered and implemented these torture programs. Failing to do this will mean that the voice of America can never again dare to speak of its constitutionally enshrined human rights nor of the American values and ideals as its founding principles. And that will be a death knell for democracy.”

Considering the significant role of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, some, including the Saudi Gazette editorial staff, have suggested that measures need to be taken to curb its power : “Indeed, amid all the censorious comment since the report was published, surprisingly little has been made of the really alarming element to the Senators’ findings. This is that not only did the CIA lie through its teeth to the White House, but it also lied to the committee and sought to obstruct its investigations. And most reprehensible of all, it actually spied on committee members during their inquiry....Whoever in the CIA thought it a good idea to bug and snoop on their political masters should go to jail. There is surely a strong argument that this overmighty nest of spies needs to be cut down to size.”

But that is unlikely to happen. If anything, as a Gulf Times editorial notes, the agency’s scope has grown in recent years: “The US Senate’s CIA torture report was shocking. But no one was really prepared for the depravity and sheer lack of humanity laid out in the 580 pages released in Washington. It is the most disturbing scandal in recent American history....The question for everyone who read this essential textbook of CIA wrongdoing, even for those who never will, is: Where do we go from here? Transparency can’t possibly be the only punishment for an agency which has broken the law so systematically....Whatever the avenue to justice, the battle will be uphill....Indeed, the CIA is in many ways at a position of unmatched power. Its budgets have been swollen by billions of dollars in counterterrorism expenditures. Its workforce has surged. Its overseas presence has expanded. And its arsenal now includes systems, including a fleet of armed drones that would have made prior generations of CIA leaders gasp.”

It is undeniable though that the damage has been done, and U.S. standing will suffer as a result. That is the overwhelming message found in most of the regional dailies, including a Khaleej Times editorial, which gives credit to President Barack Obama but warns that, the report poses a threat to the U.S. image in the world: “While Obama enjoys the credit for halting torture mechanisms when he took over the White House, he has to move ahead impartially by ordering an inquiry into the report and let the accused be put in the dock. This is the time to not only outlaw such draconian measures but also to prevail over the Capitol Hill to shut down the torture camp in the backyard of America. The culture of X-camp, invading foreign lands and sending in soldiers to fight undesired wars is unbecoming of human values, and at the same time belies the great values of American Independence. It’s high time to call it a day and sail back into serenity.”

Further east, the Pakistani daily Dawn suggests that the dissonance between U.S. actions and its lofty ideals is such that it may be impossible to reverse the damage: “To some, there is a smoking gun to be found in the Senate committee’s conclusion that the harsh interrogation techniques never yielded any useful intelligence: had it done so, might it have been made out to be a case of the end justifying the means? The CIA, and the current and earlier US administrations that oversaw its working, have a great deal of questions to answer. But more than that, the American government and people need to look inwards: their own narrative sees the country as a champion of democracy, human rights and as something of a moral compass for the world — but it is not possible to lay claim to such lofty ideals when the reality is so very ugly.”

It is clear that for the U.S. to continue to claim its leadership status in the region and around the world it must restore what the National’s editorial identifies as the greatest U.S. asset — its soft power: “By proclaiming itself as a country that upholds human rights and the rule of law and then acting in such a brutal manner, the US’s hard power (its military might) and soft power (as an aspirational role model) is balanced by an ugly toxic power. This toxicity undoubtedly serves as a recruitment tool for groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL. It has poisoned the rest of the world’s perception of the West and its defining values....The idea of the US is powerful and aspirational but it is in danger of being subverted by America’s disregard for the rights of other nationalities to share in the same rights that Americans say they hold so dear....The need to capture hearts and minds is a familiar refrain when it comes to battling insurgencies. The US’s soft power gives it a natural advantage but only if it detoxifies its image – and its practices.”

Al Arabiya’s Joyce Karam notes that to reverse the current decline, deeper reforms are needed, beginning with President Obama’s going back to his 2009 pledges: “The daunting facts inside the report on torturing detainees and practicing inhumane clandestine tactics in prisons across the world, will further damage an already teetering U.S. credibility and moral standing in the Middle East....Turning the tide and restoring U.S. credibility in the region demands a multi-pronged approach in the Middle East, that addresses the disaffection with U.S. policy beyond the symptomatic reaction to the torture report. While Obama might be reluctant to take on big tasks in the last two years of his presidency, going back to the drawing board on Syria and to his Cairo speech in 2009 can greatly serve his legacy and America’s standing in the region.”


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