Our Reputation Matters -- in Even More Concrete Ways Than I Thought

Earlier this week, I posted "Our Reputation Matters," in which I argued that our having become a rogue nation harms U.S. national security and diplomatic interests. More specifically, I was attempting to put some substance to the feeling that becoming "the bad guys" in the eyes of most of the world -- by torturing prisoners, engaging in "extraordinary rendition," starting a preemptive war based on cherry-picked intelligence, etc. -- was harmful to all of us. The example that I gave was from an editorial from The New York Times, which argued that not only is our global reputation in tatters due to Bush administration lawlessness but that our international pariah status is causing other countries not to accept prisoners from our prison in Guantanamo Bay for resettlement or trial in their own countries. The problem thus becomes self-reinforcing: Keeping Gitmo open exacerbates our bad relations with other countries, who then make it more difficult for us to close Gitmo.

This is a very serious harm, and I do not mean to diminish it by pointing to a more concrete harm that arises from being a nation that tortures. As I was hitting the "Publish Post" button on Monday morning, however, I had not seen an op-ed in that day's Washington Post by a former leader of a U.S. interrogations team in Iraq, the man whose team had successfully gathered the intelligence necessary to capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In "I'm Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq," the former interrogator (who writes under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander) wrote: "What I saw in Iraq still rattles me -- both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn't work." More specifically, he argues that our torture policies have led to the recruitment of more terrorists. While this is an argument that we have heard before, Mr. Alexander claims to have directly been told by detainees that they signed up for terrorist activities specifically to avenge the atrocities in Abu Ghraib prison and in our prison at Gitmo. The most damning (and scary) paragraph from Mr. Alexander's op-ed is this:
I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.
Maybe Mr. Alexander is wrong. Maybe he's just trying to sell copies of his new book. Maybe he is simply making a wild guesstimate. For the first time, though, we at least have a credible source who argues that there is a tangible body count that is directly attributable to having become the bad guys. Immorality has consequences. Our broader interests are at stake, and so are the lives of our soldiers.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan