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:
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