Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Torture stays in the news internationally

COMMENTARY | May 24, 2009

Some in the overseas press ridicule Cheney – and the media for promoting him – but others see him as at least somewhat successful in his jibes at Obama.

By Lauren Drablier

PARISThe issue of how America deals now with torture during the Bush administration remains a center of attention in the international press. Coverage ranges from President Obama’s refusal to release photos of abuse of Iraq and Afghanistan detainees, to the media’s staging of Obama v. Cheney, to international security. Some ask what the House and Senate votes against the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. means for Obama’s policy of change. Will he be able to keep his promises or, instead, be unable to change much of anything? 

Even little countries are getting in the act. A writer in the Trinidad & Tobago Express writes that the “ugly Bush America is back”, and that the American media are to blame for their presentation of the Obama versus Cheney discourse, which the author calls “an astonishing piece of contrived theater” in President's reversal:

“It's diverting to watch the felons who occupied the White House during the Bush Administration, breaking all manner of US and international law, scrambling now to escape prosecution.

“The ex-vice-president has clearly placed his hope of avoiding prosecution in another successful terrorist attack on US soil: and soon! If that would only happen, Cheney thinks, a newly-terrified US electorate will lose its appetite for the current "carping" about "enhanced interrogation" by Congressional Democrats and the liberal media; and, directed by him, Cheney, will instead blame Obama for having made America vulnerable.

“To this end, the famously uncommunicative Cheney has been appearing on the airwaves to insist that "his" administration kept America safe after 9/11 (never mentioning, of course, that it was also "his" administration that blatantly ignored dire CIA warnings, in the months before 9-/11, that a major terrorist attack on US soil was imminent); and that by dismantling elements of its program, Obama is "putting American lives at risk".

“This should be laughably dismissible: Cheney has a record of consistently lying to the American people and of being dead wrong in his predictions concerning the Iraq war, the latter error at a cost, so far, of over 4,000 real American lives. Instead, strange things have been happening.

“…when the US television media reporting on these speeches resorted to split screens, a fiction crucial to the success of Cheney's gambit was visually established. These were no longer the current elected president of the US and the unelected ex-vice-president of a former regime. These were two men, two voices, on a par!

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you President Obama on the left, and President Cheney on the right! Now you decide between them!  It was an astonishing piece of contrived theatre.

“Even more ominously, Cheney's dogged fear-mongering has been working. Polls show that most Americans now think waterboarding and other forms of torture should be retained by the Obama administration if they will keep America safe.

“It's hard to think of a more depressing proof of how short the shelf-life of America's "new mood of idealism" has turned out to be.

“In a word, Obama has reversed himself and decided to retain so many elements of the lawless Bush-Cheney programs that Republicans have been able both to praise him for "coming to his senses" and, at the same time, jeer at him for being "weak".

“It's hard to resist the conclusion that the dream of restitution of the US to the community of law-abiding nations, a dream which Candidate Obama claimed to embody, is now dead.

“The ugly Bush America is back; and, for all his hi-falutin' words, its new pied piper (pushed into a corner by the Darth Vader of American politics, Dick Cheney!) is none other than the Golden Boy.”

The National of the United Arab Emirates highlights Cheney’s point that Obama has left many questions unanswered in Obama lays security agenda on the line:

“Mr Cheney also questioned the logic behind closing Guantanamo. ‘The administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security,’ he said.

“Many legislators, including Democrats, have echoed such concerns, noting that Mr Obama has not answered key questions about what to do with detainees after the facility closes. Some detainees are deemed too dangerous to release; the prosecution of others may be complicated by allegations of torture.

“Meanwhile, Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, deepened the debate on Wednesday when he told Congress that transferring detainees to US soil – even if they are held in maximum-security prisons – was too risky because they may be able to radicalize other inmates.

“Even as he attempted to articulate a new policy, however, the president left open crucial questions about what to do with the most dangerous Guantanamo detainees who cannot be prosecuted in federal court and who are still “at war” with the United States.

“‘There are no neat or easy answers here,’ Mr Obama said. ‘But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo.’”

Christopher Caldwell of the Financial Times (UK) argues that Obama is losing the public battle on terrorism policy in The Gordian knot of Guantánamo Bay:

“Barack Obama is popular and trusted far more than his Republican rivals on all issues, including fighting terrorism. Yet he and Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, are locked in a public battle on terrorism policy and Mr Obama is losing. Sixty per cent of Americans say they are following this battle closely. Mr Obama even scheduled a speech on Thursday morning to vie with one Mr Cheney had scheduled. The former was soaring and idealistic, the latter pragmatic and homespun. Both were dazzling, if partisan. The debate is turning Mr Cheney into the de facto leader of his party.

“Over the eight years in which George W. Bush was the main spokesman for the war on terror, Americans grew used to hearing the case for it made clumsily and incoherently. Mr Cheney is different. The Chicago Tribune used to describe him as “smart, congenial and classy”. He draws much subtler distinctions than Americans are used to hearing Republicans make…

“Americans start to wonder if the Bush administration’s anti-terror policy was as much of an outrage as they were led to believe. It was news to most Americans that the US had “water-boarded” only three people since 9/11 – including Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, the planner of the attacks and the self-professed beheader of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. No one has been subjected to such treatment for at least six years.

“Few politicians have been as honest as Mr Obama in exposing the contradictions of their own policies. But contradictions they are. If you hold people without trial, you violate due process. You have the Bush policy, diluted only by the passage of time.

“The last administration made such a hash of things – particularly the economy and America’s standing abroad – that voters have stopped up their ears against them. It is this, not public gullibility or magnetic leadership, that turned Reagan and Mr Obama into “Teflon” presidents to whom no criticism sticks. But Teflon does not change fundamental public dispositions.

“That is why Mr Cheney’s big push has been successful. It confronts Mr Obama with a Gordian knot that he dare not cut. A constitution that enshrines rights is an asset, but it does not come free. If it did, every country would have one. Eight years ago, Americans reckoned that some rights were worth trading for security. If they want those rights back, they will probably have to trade some security. That is the bargain. Until Mr Obama admits it he will be tangled up in an illogic from which no oratory can extract him.”

In U.S. locked in debate about its past, an editorial, Canada’s Star Phoenix emphasizes the importance of retaining values in the battle against terrorism:

“Deep in the midst of its worst financial crisis in 70 years -- one that threatens to dethrone it from its position as the world's pre-eminent economy -- the United States is increasingly preoccupied by an internal war on its own history.

“The former VP took credit for using ruthless interrogation tactics in order to protect Americans from terror attacks, citing the Sept. 11, 2001, attack as the worst in history and pointing out nothing like it has been repeated.

“Interestingly, Mr. Cheney didn't mention the Canadian and other NATO allied soldiers who died in Afghanistan to secure the area where that worst-case attack originated, in their effort to stop the re-organization of the groups that carried it out.

“But then again -- and perhaps just as important -- at least this time the New York police and politicians have yet to cite Canada as the source of the Newburgh Four, who were arrested Thursday. For some time Americans have had difficulty sorting facts from legends and one should thank one's blessing that this time the domestic nature of the threat seems to be clear.

“To his credit, Mr. Obama appeared to recognize the need to get back to reality when he pointed out that the battle against terror can't be won by setting aside the values spelled out in those documents stored at the archives -- the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.

“The Obama administration desperately wants to change the channel from reliving past mistakes to dealing with pressing issues, such as the economic crisis, re-organizing financial regulations and building a modern health-care system.

“It's clear, however, many in Washington are too focused on the legend of the U.S.'s past to pay attention to securing its future.”

In an opinion piece in Indonesia’s Jakarta Globe the authors believe that Obama made the right decision by not releasing the torture photos. In US Torture Photos Could Spark Outrage in the Muslim World, they urge that America disavow torture and apologize for it:

“The world was surprised when US President Barack Obama decided not to release photos of terrorists suffering abuse in American-controlled prisons around the world. Obama reasoned that the release of these photos would risk the security of US troops in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Although Obama’s decision seems to conflict with his stated commitment to improve the way the United States handles terrorists, it contains some wisdom. The release of the photos would possibly fuel hatred against the United States in Muslim countries.

“Taking Indonesia as a case in point, should the photos be released, the images would certainly be used by Indonesian radical groups as propaganda and recruitment material.

“Radical leaders and recruiters would use the photos to reinforce claims that America is hypocritical — that Americans boast about being defenders of human rights, yet they are the very ones violating these rights — and that America is the real terrorist committing barbaric actions by torturing Muslim fighters in prisons.

“President Obama and other key American figures need to publicly apologize and condemn the use of torture. This apology is one more step toward earning the respect of the Muslim world and toward weakening the power of radical propaganda. American security agencies need to improve their interrogation techniques by investigating approaches involving use of roleplay, psychology, culture, ideology and family.

“It is imperative that this be clarified, and that America disavows torture in all circumstances if it is to win hearts and minds — and if it is to prove to the world that it upholds the morals the West is so often criticized for lacking.”

An item in New Zealand’s Gisborne Herald, Cheney's views on torture questioned, argues that Cheney supports torture under the premise that “torture is noble when Americans us it, but evil” when utilized by others:

“Dick Cheney's views seem to have the kind of uneasy fascination often exercised by vicious ideologies - a repulsive allure, one might say.

“Admittedly, he sometimes attempts to justify his endorsement of torture by praising its 'effectiveness" in extorting "useful" information from the victims (many of whom are, of course, completely innocent), but he stops short of supplying any solid corroborative evidence.

“Once the ethical and humanitarian objections have been abandoned, and effectiveness alone put forward as the sole deciding criterion, Cheney could not logically protest if the Taliban, say, captured a high-ranking Americal airforce officer and tortured him to discover plans of future bombing raids.

“As long as the Taliban succeeded in extracting the required information, the means, according to Cheney, are justified. The only retreat open, is for him to assert that torture is noble when Americans use it, but evil and wicked when employed by others.

“Allowed to go on festering in the dark, this deep-seated corruption will continue to poison American society.”

In Dick Cheney: Washington trembles at the return of 'Darth Vader, the Washington correspondent for the UK’s The Guardian believes that Cheney’s reappearance gives demoralized Republicans something to cheer about also believes that the current debate is something that should have taken place after September 11:

“Part of the explanation for the bout of jitters is that Obama is struggling to contain an ever-growing row over the future of Guantánamo Bay and the security apparatus created by the Bush administration as part of its "war on terror". But there is another factor: the return of an opponent the Democrats had thought of as politically dead: Dick Cheney. The sinister, reclusive figure at the heart of the Bush administration, who attracted labels such as Darth Vader and Dr Strangelove, has returned to the heart of Washington and is causing havoc.

“He has forced Obama on the defensive for the first time since becoming president, giving demoralized Republicans something finally to cheer about.

“Obama had been planning to release thousands of pictures showing abuse at US detention centres round the world by the end of the month, but has since decided against. On the campaign trail, he denounced the Bush administration's use of military commissions to try Guantánamo detainees, but has now decided to keep them. He denounced the indefinite detention of people without trial, but is now going to do the same.

“The conservative Weekly Standard is also cheering. Another influential conservative, William Kristol, writing in the current issue, said: "While most senior Bush alumni were in hiding, Dick Cheney - Darth Vader himself, Mr Unpopularity, the last guy you'd supposedly want out there making the case - stepped on to the field. He's made himself the Most Valuable Republican of the first four months of the Obama administration."

“Obama and Cheney provided the debate the US should have had after 9/11. Obama argued that US national security is best protected by respect for international law, by closing Guantánamo and being as transparent as possible. Cheney countered it was not as easy as that to close Guantánamo and that transparency - releasing internal Bush administration memos about interrogation techniques - had demoralised the CIA.

“The Democrats, including Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, argue that having Cheney in such a high-profile role is helpful for them, because he is reminding voters of one of the most disliked administrations in US history.”

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.