This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Pivotal Power

May 22, 2009
Obama gets it right on balancing values and security

President Obama spoke about values and foreign policy on Thursday. Photo: White House

President Obama gave a powerful speech yesterday about the value of values in foreign policy, and if you didn’t catch it, I recommend you do. Ideology-based national security got a bad name over the past eight years, and indeed, the problem is that one person’s freedom march is another’s delusional misadventure.

Nevertheless, values have always informed American foreign policy, and progressive voices have often been the loudest ones calling for justice, fairness, equality and respect for human dignity to inform U.S. actions abroad.

A critical question to me has always been one of methodology. How do we choose to spread our values of human rights and democracy? And second, how do we balance our values against our security?

In terms of the first question, one of the most powerful ways we spread our values is to act as a good example.  As the most powerful country in the world, whose people enjoy fairly high living standards, others have naturally looked to us to guide their own behavior.  

That is one of the many reasons President Obama gave yesterday for why the decision to use torture to interrogate suspects was so misguided. I noticed a clear example of this dynamic a few years back. China had been for years refusing to allow the U.N. rapporteur on torture into their country. The leadership finally relented, and in November 2005, the rapporteur was there, conducting an investigation into Chinese prisons.

President Bush happened to be in Beijing then, and what a great moment it would have been to celebrate this small step and push the Chinese to do more — but Abu Ghraib made it impossible for President Bush to exercise any moral leadership.

Anyway, yesterday President Obama listed many other reasons why torture is a bad idea and let me, for the record, summarize them and add some of my own:

1. According to seasoned interrogators, it doesn’t work, either in general, or in the specific case of Abu Zubaydah that Dick Cheney keeps talking about;

2. It puts our troops in harm’s way by making it less likely that enemies will surrender and more likely that Americans will be harmed if they are caught;

3. It gives our terrorist enemies compelling fodder for their recruiting pitches; 

4. It helps despotic regimes justify their own, far more brutal, tactics.

But the real meat of the speech was about the difficult balance of security and values when it comes to closing Guantanamo and the releasing the photos of detainees. What’s amazing is that the Bush administration got it wrong both ways — they went to war in Iraq for ideological reasons (among others), sacrificing our security for our values. And then when it came to prosecuting that war, like using torture on prisoners, they did the opposite, sacrificing our values in the name of security.

As President Obama explained yesterday, we need to avoid both those extremes and do the hard, “surgical” work of finding a constitutional path in between. That will mean that some of these Guantanamo prisoners will end up in U.S. prisons.  Why they cant be housed in maximum security prisons along with the worst serial killers and child sex-offenders, I don’t understand.  Ask Congress

– Nina Hachigian

bookmark    print




[…] top stories: Israel and the peace process, Iran’s missile test and President Obama’s speech on national security, including his decision to close the U.S. prison at […]


The inadequacies of language will not change minds forever in their debates for no two minds will long concede to think alike even when they hear and appear to agree to the same words.

Different meanings are perceived in tone and effect of spoken utterances as are different thought structures in their audible applications.

You may seed a tree into the most fertile garden and eventually observe it grow though you know not how into a towering object of many lofty branches.
You may even wonder at the complexities of the intertwining branches how they weave here now and there again utterly with utmost Art and delicacy with all due intricacy with many branches of leaves (of documents?) fluttering in the winds to ponder…and you may write complex things about these complex matters…yet the tree will still be only what it is no matter how many leaves (words) come forth in their due eventualities only to fall in their own scheduled season.

Words prove by the illustration of the tree to be just as seasonal as leaves and will not be any more adequate in their fluttering meanings while they attempt to juxtapose with the (mis-) understandings of others…understandings as susceptible to every passing wind as leaves will be adequate to remain on trees which will in their season become barren enough.

Got a rake?


“And then when it came to prosecuting that war, like using torture on prisoners, they did the opposite, sacrificing our values in the name of security.”

How is Obama’s ignoring international treaties by not prosecuting those known to have administered these outlawed interrogations not sacrificing our values and continuing bad foreign policy? I also really want to know if torture was used to extract false intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion, and I don’t think we can get to that truth without forced disclosure and so meanwhile we remain vulnerable to that practice.

You ask “why not house Guantanamo prisoners in existing max facilities in the US?” The problem is that those who live near these facilities fear the eventual release of the prisoners as well as being targeted by terrorists because they are holding these prisoners. The solution is likely to be a dedicated facility somewhere in Nevada, for instance, which seems the fairest path to me for the prisoners as well. How do we justify holding prisoners without trial in facilities with the worst convicted offenders?

It comes down to that “constitutional path” and I’m not convinced by Obama’s rhetoric. Here is something that is illustrative of what I see as a deepening problem: Two days ago, a young man was charged with piracy in US court, and his lawyers say he will plead innocent because he was aboard the Bainbridge negotiating, which means he was under protection of a flag of truce when he was taken prisoner and his fellows were shot at close range. Thank God for the independence of our courts, since I have been unable to find any record of the slightest effort by the Administration, Congress, or any msm to even look at this question. Reminds me of the situation John Adams found himself faced with when he defended (successfully) British soldiers charged with murder in Massachusetts. Our Law deserves more respect than I am seeing it get under this new administration, and though the last gang was probably criminal that cannot be an excuse.

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

Facebook Twitter YouTube

Produced by Creative News Group LLC     ©2020 WNET.ORG     All rights reserved

Distributed by American Public Television