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October 23, 2008

Tortured: America's Image in the World
Posted by James Lamond

The Washington Post reported today about a little quarrel between the U.S. and the U.K. over torture:

The British High Court yesterday condemned the U.S. government's failure to turn over intelligence documents that could support the claims of a British resident held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who has argued that statements he made confessing to terrorism resulted from torture and are, therefore, worthless. In a judgment, the British jurists hinted that unless the 42 documents are handed over quickly to the defense counsel as part of a habeas corpus proceeding in U.S. District Court, the London court might take that step itself, despite the threat of damage to ties between the two countries.

The man under question, Binyam Mohammed a native of Ethiopia, says he was arrested in Pakistan, where he was tortured, then transferred to by the U.S. to Morocco, where he was tortured, then transferred to Afghanistan, and finally ending up at Guantanamo Bay. 

Whether or not Mr. Mohammed’s claims are true, there is no doubt that there have been abuses in the treatment of detainees and these abuses are affecting America’s position as a global leader.  When we see our closest ally, the U.K., willing to damage their relationship with us based on treatment of detainees, we know there is trouble.  With the Pew Global Attitudes Project, showing a huge drop in almost every country's opinion of the U.S. over the course of the Bush presidency, America needs the next president to do some major damage control in order to turn this around.

Despite his rhetoric and tragic personal story, McCain essentially sides with the Bush administration’s policies on detainee abuse.  When asked by Tim Russert, “Should we Close it?” McCain responded “I don't think necessarily.”  McCain also voted against a bill that would have curtailed the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques, forcing the intelligence agency to abide by the rules set out in the Army Field Manual, prohibiting physical force.  These are not the policies America needs in order to repair its image abroad. 

In contrast, look at what Nicholas Kristof wrote today,

We’re beginning to get a sense of how Barack Obama’s political success could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American “brand” to be less about Guantánamo and more about equality. This change in perceptions would help rebuild American political capital in the way that the Marshall Plan did in the 1950s or that John Kennedy’s presidency did in the early 1960s… A 22-nation survey by the BBC found that voters abroad preferred Mr. Obama to Mr. McCain in every single country — by four to one over all. Nearly half of those in the BBC poll said that the election of Mr. Obama, an African-American, would “fundamentally change” their perceptions of the United States. Europe is particularly intoxicated by the possibility of restoring amity with America in an Obama presidency. As The Economist put it: “Across the Continent, Bush hatred has been replaced by Obama-mania.”

It is not just the symbolic change that Obama personifies.  His policies and positions are in line with what is needed for a change in America’s image.  When speaking on detainee abuse, Obama said,

What's more, in the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantanamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us. It is time to turn the page. It is time to write a new chapter in our response to 9/11.

Obama has taken a tough and responsible approach to prosecuting the war on terror that maintains respect for the rule of law.  In reaction to the Supreme Court's decision to grant terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay access to the federal courts, Obama said

The Court's decision is a rejection of the Bush Administration's attempt to create a legal black hole at Guantanamo -- yet another failed policy supported by John McCain.  This is an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.

Even a group of 80 attorneys for Guantanamo Bay detainees have endorsed Obama saying that he will "restore the rule of law, demonstrate our commitment to human rights, and repair our reputation in the world community."

Kristoff says that “Substance should always trump symbolism.“ But when one candidate has both, it’s not really much of a choice.


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