Rob from Say Anything brings up Senator John McCain’s constant push to ban torture by the US government. It’s a fine, noble sentiment, and certainly understandable from a man who spent literally years being tortured by the Vietnamese government, but is it really such a good idea?
I think not.
For one, McCain says he wants to do it because he believes it would improve America’s image abroad. I think that is a laudable aspiration, but utterly futile.
In the past, we’ve put a lot of work into being “liked” around the world. It was the keystone of the Carter Administration’s foreign policy. It was behind Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans. And it has one single, overwhelming quality: it’s ultimately disastrous in the long run.
Being “liked” is a worthless goal in foreign relations. As Winston Churchill said, nations don’t have permanent friends or permanent enemies — only permanent interests. We would be far better served to find those common interests and build our relationships in a sense of enlightened self-interest, rather than bonhommie and camaraderie and the “aren’t we all just fine, upstanding fellows” sentiments.
Further, “niceness” is seen as a sign of weakness in many cultures. Being accomodating, obliging, considerate, and conciliatory sends the signal to some people that we are willing to yield on many issues, that a show of strength will convince us to back down rather than stand up for our beliefs. Yes, it’s a rather primitive mentality, but many of our enemies embrace that — witness Bin Laden’s horse analogy.
Also, let’s look at the most famous case of “torture” by the United States — the Abu Ghraib situation. It was an aberration, a violation of several of our existing laws and rules and policies, and those responsible were tried, convicted, and punished. And let’s not forget how the story first broke — in a press release put out by the military. The Army itself aired its own dirty laundry, giving all those “investigative journalists” a huge leg up on the “scandal.”
Cutting through all the “nuance,” the subtleties, the fine shades of meaning, I’ve always thought that the United States would be well served by adopting the philosophy of the US Marine Corps when dealing with other nations:
No greater friend, no worse enemy.
It’s up to you, other nations. Which would you prefer?