Toxic tactics damage US reputation

The CIA is accused of making the US less safe because its tactic of torture acted to spur recruits to militant organisations, critics say. Photo: Larry Downing / Reuters
The CIA is accused of making the US less safe because its tactic of torture acted to spur recruits to militant organisations, critics say. Photo: Larry Downing / Reuters

There can be little doubt about the damage done to the reputation of the US by the revelation of the full extent of the torture tactics adopted in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The damning Senate report shows that methods more brutal than those authorised by the Bush administration were used on prisoners, many of whom senior CIA officers did not even know they held. Officials then lied to the White House and Congress about how much useful information was gained this way.

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 US’s toxic power goes beyond the examples detailed in the 525-page report released on Tuesday. Every time it launches a drone strike in Yemen or Pakistan against an inadequately identified or innocent target, toxicity levels soar. Every time a drone attack results in civilian casualties and the grieving families bewail the loss of husbands, sons, babies and whole wedding parties, those levels rise still further.

Every time the US abducts Libyan citizens and takes them out of the country, without the knowledge or consent of the Libyan authorities, the toxic power exerts its malign influence. This happened last year with alleged Al Qaeda leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed Al Ruqai and again, this June, with Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was suspected of orchestrating the Benghazi embassy attack.

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. There was a time when most adolescents could think of nothing more “cool” than to drink Coca-Cola and wear Levi’s. Now they are drawn to radical Islamist ideas and anti-western militant groups, united by a sense of outrage at the existence of places like Guantanamo.

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.

Published: December 10, 2014 04:00 AM

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