Obama’s tortured logic on abuse photos

President Barack Obama signaled in May that he would withhold photos of prisoners abused in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. This coming after the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2003 to release government documents relating to prisoner abuse in U.S. detention facilities.

In a statement Obama made May 13, he argued that the release of the photos will do nothing but “further inflame anti-American opinion and . . . put our troops in greater danger.”

Although Obama believes that the photos will likely provoke terrorism against US soldiers or foreign officials, he simultaneously maintained that the photos were “not particularly sensational.”

Really? Not sensational? That’s not the impression given by Major General Antonio Taguba, who remarked “These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency,” and later “The mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it.”

Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) are leading the charge in the Senate to have the photos withheld. The two issued a statement June 9 which read:

We should strive to have as open a government as possible, but the behavior depicted in the photos has been prohibited and is being investigated. The photos do not depict anything that is not already known. Transparency, and in this case needless transparency, should not be paid for with the lives of American citizens, let alone the lives of our men and women in uniform fighting on our behalf in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

There is a lot wrong with this paragraph, so we’ll dissect it line by line.

We should strive to have as open a government as possible, but the behavior depicted in the photos has been prohibited and is being investigated.

If the behavior done in the photo was prohibited, then the person doing it should have been punished. Notice there is no mention in the statement that the people responsible have been punished (and it is now more than five years after the abuse took place). Also, the fact that it is “being investigated” is totally meaningless because all regimes, no matter how repressive, can feign interest in correcting their own mistakes.

The photos do not depict anything that is not already known.

Really? It is already known that soldiers raped detainees? And if this information were already known, why would you spend any energy trying to block its re-release when it (evidently) has already been released?

Transparency, and in this case needless transparency….

Needless for whom? There are millions of Iraqis and Afghanis who have to decide whether or not they want to continue living under a U.S. occupation. How the U.S. treats their countrymen in prison is of course useful information when making that decision. Or do Lieberman and Graham not want them to make an informed decision, but rather a decision based on information run through a government filter; a filter that neatly removes incriminating and embarrassing information about the American occupation?

Transparency, and in this case needless transparency, should not be paid for with the lives of American citizens, let alone the lives of our men and women in uniform fighting on our behalf in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Exactly what is the causal relationship between the release of the photos and the taking of lives? Upon viewing the photos, a previously peaceful Iraqi will take up arms against the U.S. in an effort to expel it from the country. I’m to understand that U.S. foreign policy, and specifically detainee policy, is or potentially will be responsible for creating terrorism. And when the left says this very thing they are accused of “blaming America first”!

Actually, I haven’t seen any evidence that releasing photos will increase terrorism. But while we’re on the subject of increasing terrorism, what do Lieberman and Graham think will happen when the Iraqis and Afghanis learn that the U.S. has an official policy of concealing embarrassing information about its occupations? Can they honestly believe that that will not enrage the people they are occupying?

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9 Responses to “Obama’s tortured logic on abuse photos”

  1. ATurner Says:

    President Obama may have decided that the timing of the release of the photos would have been especially poor…since he has been making speeches and trying to make amends with the Muslim world (speeches in Cairo, etc).

    Also, the Iranian elections: the photos could have given Ahmidinejad a boost in the elections in what analysts thought was going to be a close race.

    I also heard that he was going to release the images, but the Iraqi president, US commanders, and secretary of defense Robert Gates advised him not to.

    All of these factors perhaps tipped the balance in favor of classifying the detainee pictures. If I had to make the decision myself, it would have been a tough call.

    I’m sure hiding torture photos from the Iraqi public will probably enrage some Iraqis–but not nearly as much as the photos themselves. People aren’t affected as much by words as by images.

    Also, I think Lieberman and Graham are trying to say that, “It’s not our fault they did this– we banned this sort of behavior. Thus the US should not take the fallout.” That could be true in a sense. Although the US will be blamed for the torture, it isn’t the fault so much of the US as elements in the Bush administration (which tortured without consent from other branches of government ) and the perpetrators themselves. Thus it could hurt Obama’s plans for the middle east, because people in Iraqi (and everywhere) will probably not assign blame where it deserves to be assigned.

  2. Mark Turner Says:

    While I enjoyed your observations and comments, I agreed with Alex that politics are often more complex than what are obvious inconsistancies in the issue. There are election issues also. If Obama moves too far to the left on defense issues he may face unpopularity and lose seats in the house and senate. There is also the upcoming presidential election in which there is the possibility of another Bush being elected.

  3. Andy Hallman Says:

    @Alex

    Also, the Iranian elections: the photos could have given Ahmidinejad a boost in the elections in what analysts thought was going to be a close race.

    I haven’t heard this, but I think the causal relationship between the release of the photos and Ahmadinejad winning is extremely weak (i.e. even if it did help Ahmadinejad it would not likely have changed the outcome of the election). And I don’t think the differences between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi are significant enough for the US to make its own government worse in order to give Moussavi some tiny advantage at the ballot box.

    I also heard that he was going to release the images, but the Iraqi president, US commanders, and secretary of defense Robert Gates advised him not to.

    I hadn’t heard that the Iraqi president also wanted them withheld (are you sure about this? Can you give me a source?) but I was aware that many commanders were in favor of it. However, you must keep in mind that the people you named all have a vested interest in making the occupation look better than it is, so it is not terribly surprisingly that they want to blot out information that suggests it is worse than they say it is.

    Thus it could hurt Obama’s plans for the middle east, because people in Iraqi (and everywhere) will probably not assign blame where it deserves to be assigned.

    I’m afraid Iraqis have little power over such things as the Truth Commission or similar bodies that would investigate these things from the Bush era. But to me it is not as important for Iraqis to blame Bush as it is for them to trust Obama. The best thing Obama can do is to prove to Iraqis that he is a clean break from the Bush Administration, and with this recent decision I fear they will not get that impression.

    @Mark (Good to hear from you Mark 🙂 )

    There are election issues also. If Obama moves too far to the left on defense issues he may face unpopularity and lose seats in the house and senate.

    Perhaps I am naïve, but I don’t think he and the Democrats would lose that many seats, if any at all, if they just did a good job of arguing their position. I’d like to believe that if Obama said something similar to what I’ve written here, he’d be able to convince voters that this is the correct position.

    Also, I’d say I’m much less forgiving of someone who acts out of cold political calculations than you are. I understand that he has to choose his battles wisely, but I can only take so much, and after a while I’ll begin to wonder what it is that Obama stands for.

  4. ATurner Says:

    Here are some news stories about Iraq’s president, Maliki, against the release of the detainee photos. You can also find it on http://www.cnn.com.

    http://www.mcclatchydc.com/homepage/story/69213.html, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/01/obama-flipflopped-on-deta_n_210004.html

    “The best thing Obama can do is to prove to Iraqis that he is a clean break from the Bush Administration, and with this recent decision I fear they will not get that impression.”

    Obama ran an entire campaign in the United States for months on the notion that he was not like the incumbent, President Bush. Iraqis are not familiar with US party politics, and will not make the distinction between them unless they are progressively educated on those differences as done in US campaign politics. That in itself though, would probably not be enough in short time span. I think it takes years.

    Many people in the Islamic world ( and people in general) are incapable of making distinctions between the US and other countries in the west, let alone between different administrations! Most people in Iraq don’t even get CNN! When a newspaper in Denmark ran a cartoon depicting Muhammad as a terrorist, Afghanis, Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians and Indonesians protested and killed several Americans by attacking US/French/Danish military bases and embassies around the globe… (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4684652.stm) even though it was only one newspaper in Denmark (which has nothing to do with all of Denmark, or the country of France, or even the US!)!

    For this silly cartoon, thousands of Muslims protested around the world. What would happen if the torture detainee photos came out? I think Maliki, an Iraqi himself, understands the Iraqi people– you overestimate many people and you should defer judgment to past events and Iraqi leaders/people themselves. Obama was correct in deferring the decision about the reaction and likely response of the Iraqis to an Iraqi who understands Iraqis, Maliki, not American ACLU activists (who have a very different understanding of things).

    Images have made big differences in past US elections. I don’t know what sort of reaction they’d have in Iran, but I’d wouldn’t gamble on it. The picture of Dukakis with thumbs up on a tank comes to mind, which was lampooned by the other side. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Dukakis_in_tank.jpg

    “Also, I’d say I’m much less forgiving of someone who acts out of cold political calculations than you are. I understand that he has to choose his battles wisely, but I can only take so much, and after a while I’ll begin to wonder what it is that Obama stands for.”

    The world isn’t a place where you can act out of conviction alone and expect to get anywhere. There are only means to an end, and perhaps Obama’s goal is to make the world a better place/more peaceful. You can not achieve your ends in this world unless you realize that there a practical barriers to achieving your ends in which blind conviction could and will get you further from your goals than from where you started. I realize that acting against your convictions backtracks from your goals–but you won’t be able to ever achieve a perfect score. You take it as a balance or scale–and try to tip the scale as much to your ends/goals/satisfaction as possible.

  5. ATurner Says:

    When I said, “incapable of making distinctions between the US and other countries in the west.” I meant that they lack the basic facts, outlets and/or education to make those distinctions especially in the rural areas (many are even too poor to pay for an education)–not that they aren’t intelligent enough to make those distinctions.

  6. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thank you for the comments, Alex. That was a well thought out comment.

    I think the protesters attacked the embassies of those other, seemingly uninvolved countries, because they were seen as aiding in the U.S. led “War on Terror” but maybe more likely because they were countries in which the cartoons were republished to show solidarity with the Danish newspaper. Whatever the underlying reason, I see your point about the inflammatory nature of some images, although my understanding is that in the case of those cartoons, some of the anger was over cartoons that were never in that newspaper but were simply cartoons that “Muslims in Denmark” had received from someone else in the country (so far, I’ve only located wikipedia as a source for that information, but I remember watching a video of the head of the Center for Inquiry say the same thing [not to get on a tangent]).

    The one thing I’ll say on the Danish cartoons is that it looks like it is difficult to predict what will cause some Muslims to riot. If some will riot whenever their religion is insulted by anyone, is there really anything you can do to stop it? Could we ever employ enough censors to conceal every conceivable nasty image or word about a person before it reaches their eyes or ears?

    Obama was correct in deferring the decision about the reaction and likely response of the Iraqis to an Iraqi who understands Iraqis, Maliki, not American ACLU activists (who have a very different understanding of things).

    Maliki may have a decent understanding of the things that typically upset Iraqis, but it’s worth mentioning that from 1979 until 2003 he never stepped foot in Iraq because he feared Saddam was trying to kill him. It’s difficult to say just how in tune he is with the man on the street in that country.

    What I’m mostly worried about is the rationale used to keep the photos classified. Obama says it will cause a backlash. Maliki agrees. Many generals agree. Alright, perhaps they are right. But what will that mean for future abuse photos or future embarrassing documents? Are they all to be covered up? Surely Obama could not argue that any and all embarrassing information could be withheld at his discretion. But if not his discretion, then what?

    I’m worried that Obama may become too accustomed to sanitizing unsavory information from Iraq to the point where no one knows the truth about what’s going on there.

    I meant that they lack the basic facts, outlets and/or education to make those distinctions…

    But is this not the issue with which I began the post? Is it not the ACLU that is fighting for their right to be informed?

  7. ATurner Says:

    Well as a blogger, it’s your job to criticize and catch presidents on these things. I agree on that.

    If events like these become chronic then one should become suspicious that the president is watching out for himself, not the country. Like I said before, you can’t always act out of blind conviction though, so you have to take it on a case-by-case basis and analyze each decision. This is his first public decision on something like this.

    Furthermore, people should always ask themselves whether that action was truly justified, which you did. Was this decision worth the potential downsides?

    I’m not convinced that it wasn’t. The president had his reasons to make this decision. At this point you should look at trends and continue to analyze events like these on a case-by-case basis. Make judgments about the president on trends as what you see as the verdict for each case, not one event.

  8. Adam Says:

    Hey Andy, I agree Obama’s logic was tortured but when you get down to it everyone has their barriers on how far they will go to support their ethics or principals and ideals. In fact, sometimes there is a war between two ideas and which is more ‘ethical’.

    Someone like Ron Paul doesn’t really have this problem, he picks a side and sticks solidly to it, letting other cares or concerns slip off.

  9. Andy Hallman Says:

    Philosophers who rely heavily on deontological arguments are probably less troubled by weighing competing concerns because they don’t think that decisions are made by “weighing” interests the way that utilitarians do.

    Would it be fair to say that Ron Paul is a deontologist? Yes, that is my read of him.

    When I made this post I was assuming that the commentators for or against it would argue on consequentialist grounds. For those who are persuaded by deontological ethics, see Bush the Kantian.

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