How The CIA's Torture Program Is Destroying The Key Foreign Power The US Had: The Moral High Ground

from the depressing dept

Over a year ago, we wrote about a wonderful piece in Foreign Affairs by Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, noting that the real “danger” of the Snowden and Manning revelations was that it effectively killed off the US’s ability to use hypocrisy as a policy tool. Here was the key bit (though the whole article is worth reading):

The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington?s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government?s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington?s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.

Few U.S. officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic resource. Indeed, one of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity: most U.S. politicians do not recognize just how two-faced their country is. Yet as the United States finds itself less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words, it will face increasingly difficult choices — and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.

The argument that Farrell and Finnemore made was that the revelations that came about because of the whistleblowing by Snowden and Manning made it such that this hypocrisy didn’t function as well, because it made it much easier for others to simply call bullshit.

Now, a new article at Foreign Policy, by Kristin Lord, takes this argument even further, by looking at the CIA torture program and how it has totally undermined America’s “soft power” in diplomacy. Lord, thankfully, makes it quite clear that the problem here is the CIA’s program and not (as some have tried to argue) the release of the report about the program:

But the fault lies not with those who released the report, as some critics argue, but with those who permitted and perpetrated acts of torture, those who lied about it to America?s elected representatives, and those who willfully kept the president and senior members of the Bush administration in the dark. Their actions undermined not only American values, but also American influence and national security interests. In the words of a former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the actions laid out in the Senate report ?stained our national honor? and ?did much harm and little practical good.?

But the key point of Lord’s article, like the earlier one by Farrell and Finnemore, is that the US has long relied on its “soft power strategy” of convincing others to do things because it’s “the right thing to do.” The US has long presented itself as holding a higher moral ground. However, as Lord points out, the soft power the US uses goes beyond just the moral high ground:

While morality is a normative system of values and principles that guides just behavior, soft power is ultimately about influence. As Joseph Nye, the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has argued, there are many different ways to affect the behavior of others. One can coerce with threats. One can induce with incentives. Or one can exercise the power of attraction, co-opting others who want the same things you want through the legitimacy of your policies and the values upon which they?re founded. The latter is called soft power.

Moral authority facilitates soft power, but so do relationships, shared values, and interlinking interests. Given the ideological component of so many of the national security threats that face the United States going forward ? and the inability of any one country to meet them alone ? soft power can be an important part of the strategy to address these threats. But Americans will need to cultivate it.

As the article makes clear, it seems like US leaders don’t seem to recognize just how important the US’s “soft power” is — and how fragile it might be in the wake of the revelations of the past couple of years. What Farrell and Finnemore described as the power of American hypocrisy is becoming increasingly clear, making it an increasingly less effective diplomatic tool. And others are seizing on this.

Lord’s piece then goes into a detailed explanation of what the US needs to do if it wishes to continue exercising “soft power” to influence the world. And part of that is recognizing just how badly the US has screwed up over the past decade and a half (mostly in response to 9/11):

First, it has to ?walk the walk,? aligning actions and values, rhetoric and deeds. This is understandably difficult in a country with complex and wide-ranging foreign policy interests, but the United States could do better in one key respect: weighing potential damage to America?s moral authority when considering policy options. Such considerations are often trumped, and not without cause. Policymakers are regularly forced to choose from a series of bad options, and when they do, clear and short-term consequences weigh more heavily than diffuse costs to notions like reputation. If the United States is serious about countering challenges to its national security interests and democratic ideals, however, this must change. Perceptions that the United States does not live up to its own values fundamentally undermine American power and inhibit the country?s ability to defend not just its own interests, but also universal standards of what is right and just. They undermine America?s ability to defend the time-proven value of the moral high ground, and they empower cynical actors eager to seize the propaganda advantage.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Rather than using the release of the Snowden documents or the CIA terror report as a true chance to reflect, to admit where things went wrong, and to show a real commitment to doing better in the future and being transparent about it, it has instead resulted in typical partisan bickering, ridiculous and counterproductive defenses of harmful surveillance and torture, and very little actual introspection. It is this response that only helps perpetuate the continuing and rapid deflation of any moral high ground that the US had to stand on.

The basic stated values of the US are something worth spreading and perpetuating. But the only way you can legitimately do that is to admit when the country has strayed from those values, and that means a true and honest accounting of where things went wrong, along with a transparent and concrete plan for dealing with those failings and making sure they don’t happen again. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening, and many in power don’t seem to understand the damages this is doing to the US’s power around the globe.

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Comments on “How The CIA's Torture Program Is Destroying The Key Foreign Power The US Had: The Moral High Ground”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Well, that is exactly what it is about: keeping the appearances of having the moral high ground when you actually don’t, or in other words how hypocrisy is a great and effective diplomatic tool as long as you give others a way to not call bullshit on you by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The cited Techdirt article from one year ago has a great deal of details on whole all the pieces of hypocrisy and doubts work together.

bikey (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Iraq? What about Viet Nam? This article follows the road that as a ‘nation’ we have ‘values’ that may be described as humane and just. While many individuals within the country do in fact have such ‘values’, as a ‘nation’ we have rarely exhibited them. Nuremberg (if the film itself can be trusted) may have been the last time. As long as we think we have ‘values’ that no other nation has, we will walk this terrain again and again and again.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Look at the fact that we lost every “war” we have attempted when we don’t follow the law and actually label it a war. Creating a war in the US is not an easy thing, This is built in and on purpose. When the law is circumvented, the result is not a war, but abuse of power writ large. Drafting unwilling soldier to kill and die for this non war is just as bad, but at least that is against our own populace.

McCrea (profile) says:

Increasingly difficult choices

“Increasingly difficult choices” sounds like a massive understatement to me.

Let’s see, 9-11 happened, and we made some difficult choice to, for starters, torture and spy on everyone.

So, we failed to make the right choices there, and yes, I’m quite willing to believe there will be future choices more difficult than how to respond to 9-11.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is a lot more eloquent explanation than I could give but inherently I’ve known this.

When you go torture someone, you lose any claim to human rights.

When you make an executive decision to abandon Miranda rights, the 6ᵗʰ amendment guarantees to a speedy trial and the right to face your accusers, the 4ᵗʰ amendment right to search and seizure, the 5ᵗʰ amendment rights to due process, the 8ᵗʰ amendment rights against cruel or unusual punishment, you have not only trashed the laws that give you the power to act in behalf of the nation but you have led the country into lawlessness. Hardly the beacon of showing how to walk the walk and talk the talk.

Because of ‘terrorism’ jerk knee responses, you’ve just thrown out the guarantees that makes this country what it is.

David says:

Re: Re:

When you make an executive decision to abandon Miranda rights, the 6ᵗʰ amendment guarantees to a speedy trial and the right to face your accusers, the 4ᵗʰ amendment right to search and seizure, the 5ᵗʰ amendment rights to due process, the 8ᵗʰ amendment rights against cruel or unusual punishment, you have not only trashed the laws that give you the power to act in behalf of the nation but you have led the country into lawlessness.

No, there is no lawlessness, just different laws. The U.S.A. is an occupied country, with a sham democracy, and with the country actually run by the military-entertainment-corporate consortium.

There is not much of a need to create unrest by formally putting out a Constitution actually governing the country since this country heeds the rule of power rather than be restrained by abstract rules.

It’s sort of the Communist antithesis, the dictatorship of the non-proletariat.

In a way, it is similar to a number of other countries where the U.S. government installed dictatorships, masked by whatever pretension of democracy may be politically opportune without being disruptive.

One might call it the Commongreed.

techflaws (profile) says:

But the fault lies not with those who released the report, as some critics argue, but with those who permitted and perpetrated acts of torture, those who lied about it to America’s elected representatives, and those who willfully kept the president and senior members of the Bush administration in the dark

Who has been kept in the dark? Cheney and Bush knew what was going on:

Anonymous Coward says:

While much of America seems to have been miraculously ignorant until the release of the torture report (and much of it is now shifting from ignorance to overt indefensible evil), the rest of the world has been thoroughly aware of US torture for over a decade now.

It was our citizens that you were torturing. We did notice.

Anonymous Coward says:

The US never had a moral highground. It only existed in the mind of those who fell for hollywood propaganda.

When was the last time the US did anything moral for foreigners?
Iraq was an attrocity, they were one of the most advanced country in the area, then the US decided they need more Democracy and turned it into a shithole with decades of sanctions.

Then there was this
Kinda obvious that the CIA was involved in covering this one up too. They fuckin threatened to murder entire families if they dont agree to settle for a small sum.

Disgusting. And there are countless other examples.
A dozen tortured people is nothing compared to these.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is exactly why I care less about actually imprisoning Bush, Cheney and the torturers and I want at least them to be convicted at the International Criminal Court for warcrimes. Then the whole world will know US is “officially” harboring war criminals, and is refusing to give them up.

That will be a pretty big stain on US.

tqk (profile) says:

Empire, democracy, republic, where next?

The basic stated values of the US are something worth spreading and perpetuating.

In software terms, that’s the plan. We need to worry about how that plan was implemented.

In corporate terms, those basic stated values are PR speak, totally unrelated to what’s going on in board of directors’ chambers. You voted in the board.

Both Roman and British empires would have said the same thing about their basic stated values. American Empire carries on the fine tradition.

David says:

Re: Re:

by that I mean military attacks not terrorist attacks

What’s the difference? At least the attacker pays for his own weapons, making sure poor people have less power?

I mean, all the drone attacks the U.S. flies on sovereign countries presumably are not terrorist attacks because the U.S. pays a lot of money for the Predator drones?

Or is there any other distinguishing feature?

Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously says:

An admission will not be enough

Simply admitting that torture happened and is wrong will not be enough. The foreign mainstream media is already reporting on the police brutality/entitlement problem. The paralysing nature of the polemic political system and power that corporations have over politicians is also well known.

As a MAGW, I have absolutely no faith in the current status quo and do not want to be associated with it in any way. The USA will have to improve significantly on all four of these points before getting out of the moral swamp.

Anonymous Coward says:


Pyongyang blasts UN debate on North Korea’s human rights record”, ITAR-TASS, Dec 25, 2014

 . . . In a statement seen by TASS, Pyongyang’s envoy to the UN accuses the United States of attempts to shake up North Korea’s state system. The mission also calls to consider a report on the notorious CIA torture techniques used against terrorism suspects for years. . . .

 . . . The UN Security Council on Monday held for the first time a meeting to discuss the situation over the human rights in North Korea. The issue’s inclusion was backed by the US, the UK, France and South Korea. . . .

jim says:


Folks, we prosequeted the known torturers of Vietnam, it was against the law then, and enforceable by the red cross investigations. Check it out, several were prosecuted, but I will agree much more should have been uncoverable. It was then against the law to not report it, but perfumed princes kept lidsand trash buckets of files hidden. And the brass knew, and therefore approved, look at we did to German and Japanese generals, and high ranks of personnel working for them!.

Coach George (profile) says:

Hmmmm Lets See

The Moral High Ground, lets see how we could really lose it:
1-Nuke anyone that attacks us
2-Execute anyone that disagrees with us.
3-Make sites like this disappear, truly eliminate “Free Speech”
4-Jail or Execute dissenters
5-Eliminate the “Rule of Law”
6-Dissolve a government that can be changed by people that actually give a dam. We can vote change.
7-Eliminate the freedom of religion or the Freedom to have no religion.
8-Permanently occupy countries that we are forced to go to war with.
9-Don’t forgive debt to the countries that we bailed out.
10-Shut our boarders and don’t give a S&*t about the rest of the world.
11-Finally, when we are forced to go to war, leave the losing country in the destroyed state.
The comments in this piece are funny/sad.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t think it is “mostly in response to 9/11”. USA was a global military empire decades before that. USA has not lost much of it’s soft power because of recent torture, drone warfare, surveilence policies etc. It is because the internet has rendered it unable to control narratives and contain evidence of it’s illegitimate activities. If it wasn’t Snowden, Manning etc it would have been others. As for USA volunarily “returning” to civilian rule. A lot of powerful people that support these policies would have to voluntarily give up their power for that to happen. So, you know, not something one should reasonably expect to happen.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

They don’t care.
They love it.
They don’t care.

It’s part of the same mentality that your average authoritarian citizen shares. Like the cops. Sure, they get concentrated in some places – places of power – but this is not surprising once one grows up enough to learn that some people lack empathy, or don’t think very well, or only for the short term, or who will do anything to get to the goal they are striving to attain (even when they or anyone else knows it will damn well not work). Never mind when these people are part of an institution, institutions seek to perpetuate themselves at any cost.

And the militaristic cult, they think that anything is fair in war, and that any sort of damage accomplishes their goals. Doesn’t matter if you are alienating allies or pissing off the occupied. Doesn’t matter if they knowingly and directly violate the the ideals they claim they are fighting for. Only the tribalism matters, not the things that distinguish the tribes.

Clouser says:

Torture of USA citizens

What a government does to others, it will eventually do to its own people.

This has rung most true over the past 13 years with numerous events here on US soil that have been used as excuses to take away rights and trash the Constitution.

Unless there is civil unrest and major changes made, there should be no doubt that we will see blatant disregard for our rights, the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments as mere beginning. Torture of US Citizens will come to these shores as well.

History has proven time and time again that what oppressive regimes practice on externals will eventually be practiced internally.

Anonymous Coward says:

“practicing what it preaches.”

Or becoming that thing they demonize so much, but nothing like we’ve seen before, another level of militirization, manipulation and propaganda……its happening now, its only gonna get worse, because most people dont want to see it, so they’ll keep getting away with it……..we need pioneers of enlightenment not leaders of war

Steve (profile) says:

high moral ground?

From the perspective of someone outside the US, I am always amazed at the lack of cognitive dissonance of most US citizens.
Their ability to believe in American exceptionalism while acknowledging the many failures of their civilization (compared to other developed countries) is truly staggering.
Having more weapons than others, does not make a person or a country more respected, just feared.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Lost high moral ground

I figure we lost that puppy back in 1945.

Precisely on August 6.

Dropping a couple of nuclear bombs on cities full of civilians does it.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Don’t get all moralistic and tell me that the war would not have ended if we’d not done it.

Before that, I’d figure that owning slaves was a good reason, too.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Lost high moral ground

I would argue that the date is substantially earlier than that. Specifically, I don’t think that we ever really had the moral high ground (although we’ve fell even lower on the moral slope in the 20th century). The whole business of the United States being some kind of sainted nation has always been a beautiful lie.

Anonymous Coward says:

In order for America to regain the moral high ground in order to advance it’s foreign policies. American leaders would first have to admit there were problems, and that their policies were responsible for these problems.

I’ve never seen a politician admit they made a mistake in my life. Let alone take responsibility for those mistakes. So I believe America’s moral high ground gone for the foreseeable future.

Besides, there’s other forms of soft power to inflict on other nations. Such as economic sanctions, which America is currently using against Russia.

The real danger is when America can no longer use it’s economic might as a soft power. Seeing as China is now the #1 economy in the world. It appears that future for America isn’t far off.

Without a strong economy it’s impossible to have a strong military. Without a strong military, we won’t even be able to push our foreign policy objectives through hard power, militarily.

Tweak (profile) says:

There is no regaining the moral high ground. As with someone who breaks a deeply-held personal trust, no matter the efforts to repair the damage, the seed of mistrust will always exist, always fester.

When the peoples of the world stand up to us, they will not delineate between our leaders and our citizens. We will all be punished for the actions of the plutocrats and demagogues; that is, of course, unless we make a stand against them first.

KaiserDerden says:

Torture ?

since we didn’t torture anyone your moral preening is made up nonsense … you’ll notice that we still held the “high moral ground” in 2009 when your supposed torture had long since ended …

if anything we lost that ground because of the dramatic increase in drone strikes which on average kill a couple of innocents everytime we “kill” some terrorist … seems immoral to me …

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“So you can have a moral high ground against yourself?

Of course it has to be comparative.”

Indeed it does, and that comparison is between the ideals you proclaim and your actions.

But let’s be clear with an example. If you are constantly telling people that torture is wrong and you don’t do it, but you’re doing it anyway, then you’ve lost the moral high ground in the sense that you have no credibility when you tell or insist that other people not to engage in torture.

If you torture people but have never proclaimed that you don’t, nor argued that torture is wrong, you haven’t lost the moral high ground (you never really had it in the first place), but you do get a couple of brownie points for not being a hypocrite.

Alastair Sloan (user link) says:

This column from Rachel Shabi on Al Jazeera pretty much sums up where I am on it

CIA torture? For the Arab world, that’s no surprise

“….woven into some of the media reaction is another theme, too. It’s in the Washington Post’s editorial, which states: “This is not how Americans should behave. Ever.”

It’s in the many references, within the US, to the CIA torture as the antithesis of “national” and “American” values. And it is in Vox editor-in-chief Ezra Klein’s observation: “We betrayed our values. We betrayed who we are.”

Across the Arab and Muslim world this kind of response from the West might come over as somewhat belated and, well, maybe a little bit delusional, too. After all, “who we are” has been going on since 2001, at the very least (let’s not get into the torture that was such an integral part of colonialism, or even the torture training that the CIA gifted a variety of brutal regimes during the 1970s). And “who we are” has for some time been painfully clear to those at the receiving end of it.”

Anonymous Coward says:

First Church of the Pharisees

I live in the American south and most of the people I know are or consider themselves to be Christians. Almost all of them, unlike most of the non-Christians I know, still defend the torture, call it “necessary”, claim it helped America defeat enemies, etc. They mostly refuse to even discuss anything like whether the U.S. government’s torture network has harmed America or caused the deaths of any Americans soldiers in retaliation or if it inspired many others to join “terrorist” groups.

But don’t call them a Pharisee lest ye be smited.

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