Many have decried the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture as reckless, but former Vice President Dick Cheney took the defense of the Bush administration’s policies to the next level in a Meet the Press appearance on Sunday. Declaring that he would “do it again in a minute,” Cheney insisted that he had “no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”
Dick Cheney’s belief in the value of torture—and his determination to stick with a position that is as strategically indefensible as it is morally reprehensible—is contrary to the defining values that make our country great.
Cheney and other defenders of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” for the squeamish) continue to drag the debate back to efficacy. The truth, however, is that haggling about the value of the information we extracted through torture is hollow. Suppose—in defiance of all available evidence that torture does not work—that information gained through torture led to the killing of a group leader or the foiling of a terrorist attack. How many militants do we have to kill before we realize that there are always more? Once we prevent one type of attack, they innovate and come up with a better one. We must defend ourselves, but winning the physical fight is only a temporary measure.
We cannot afford to embrace the use of torture precisely because it doesn’t help us achieve our strategic objectives. Embracing such medieval tactics, regardless of their efficacy, reduces our own moral stature, regardless of what the enemy has done. Cheney defined what the terrorists did on September 11th as torture, but as Senator John McCain has very simply argued, this conversation is “not about them—it’s about us.”
The insistence on defending torture disregards the very values that have made the United States a “city on a hill.” We will not defeat the forces of violent extremism, those that enslave women and murder aid workers, with intelligence and military force alone. Long wars are values wars, and we will win this one by remaining true to the ideas of liberty, equality, and opportunity. By releasing the torture report, forcefully renouncing the actions that our government took, and pledging to never repeat them, we will gain more ground in our conflict than from any torture-derived information.
The Cold War was such a conflict. The struggle against the Soviet Union was not won in any great battle, but through superior values. After almost 75 years of living in fear, without the liberties that we take for granted, the people behind the Iron Curtain overthrew their oppressors. The Soviet people saw our lives in the West and what could be achieved by a government that enabled its people instead of standing on their throats.
Our current fight against violent extremism is very similar. We do not need to subsume our values, holding our nose while we subject suspects to waterboarding, rectal feedings, and sleep depravation. We need to live the values that have made us great and hold them up as a beacon of hope for all to see. To paraphrase U.S. Central Command leader General Lloyd Austin III, “To defeat an idea, we need a better idea.”
Cheney, clearly, ignores both short-term facts and long-term arguments. He boils the world down to a black-and-white reality: there are evil people in the world who want to kill Americans, so we must stop them. But the truth is that we do, and we will. Everyday behind the scenes, and without any hope of glory, thousands of intelligence analysts, service members, aid workers, and diplomats fight hard against the scourge of violent extremism. They set up schools, bridge cultures, increase trade, and, when necessary, neutralize our enemies.
But torturing people, no matter what they may have done, destroys the positive image the United States can broadcast and negates so much hard work that others in our national security community have done. Torture does not work as a tactic or a strategy. And having a transparent discussion about our past mistakes is the best way to showcase our true values, make changes for the better, and win the long war—whether Dick Cheney likes it or not.
David L. Knoll is a Fellow in the Boston Chapter of the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.