x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Despite his good intentions, Obama blinked on torture

Arabs have developed a healthy scepticism about the ability or desire of US presidents to deliver on promises to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Last April, we polled people across the Arab world asking them what they thought was the most positive early action President Barack Obama had taken to improve US-Arab relations. High up on the list (just under the decision to leave Iraq), was the president's pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and ban torture. That this issue would be more popular than Mr Obama's early steps to forge a Middle East peace or his outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds should not have been surprising. Arabs have developed a healthy scepticism about the ability or desire of US presidents to deliver on promises to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace, but they are willing to believe that the US can change direction and alter its own behaviour on a matter that doesn't involve Israel. The issues of torture and the prolonged detentions of prisoners at Guantanamo and other sites around the world were seen as deeply disturbing policies that the president could and should change. For years now, polls have established the degree to which America's treatment of Arab and Muslim prisoners has angered Arab public opinion. While the images from Abu Ghraib may have faded in the US, not so in the Arab world. In a way, the entire enterprise resembled a hate crime: the targets of the degrading treatment may have been individual men, but the impact and humiliation was deeply felt across the region. Guantanamo, the CIA's secret "black site" prisons and the practice of "rendition" only served to compound this disgrace, demonstrating both hypocrisy and the arrogance of power. America might claim high ideals and advocate for human rights and rule of law, but our behaviour told Arabs that "human rights" did not apply to them, and "rule of law" did not apply to us when we decided that we were above the law. Against this backdrop, Mr Obama's emphatic pledges to close Guantanamo and ban torture were well-received and seen as signalling a dramatic departure from Bush-era policies. It is, therefore, a concern that one year later Guantanamo has not been closed and other abusive practices have been retained. Adding to this disappointment is the fact that while new information has come to light regarding the authorised and widespread use of torture against prisoners held at Guantanamo and other US-sanctioned black sites around the world, no one is being called to account for their behaviour. Facing stiff opposition from both Republicans and members of his own party, the president appears to have settled on a plan that instead of closing Guantanamo, would merely move detainees to a new location - a maximum-security prison in Illinois. To facilitate the move and continued detention of inmates, there are reports that the White House is working with a Republican senator to craft legislation that would allow for prolonged detention without charge or trial - a practice long used by Israel and criticised by the US and human rights organisations as a violation of international law and convention. And while no new prisoners have been moved to Guantanamo, it appears that this is because Baghram prison in Afghanistan is serving as the new Guantanamo, with prisoners captured in other countries being flown there for interrogation and detention. The ban on torture has taken hold, but the sins of the past still haunt the Obama administration's efforts. There are, for example, the problems associated with bringing to trial those prisoners who have been tortured. Evidence against them derived from coerced interrogations will be viewed as tainted and not admissible in legal proceedings. There is also the possibility that trials will result in exposing the torture techniques used. When the attorney general Eric Holder released the "torture memos" written by Bush administration lawyers which provided "legal justification" for a catalogue of grotesque "enhanced interrogation techniques" (read: torture), Republicans led by the former vice president Dick Cheney launched a fierce assault on the Obama administration. Not wanting this debate to distract from his broader legislative agenda, the president blinked, indicating that he wanted to "look forward, not backwards", suggesting that there would be transparency but not accountability for these crimes of the past. This only served to embolden Republicans. In a recent television appearance, for example, Mr Cheney proudly admitted that he supported waterboarding prisoners. And at this weekend's annual gathering of conservative activists, the issue was the subject of jokes and cheers. Further revelations of torture and other instances of abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo, Baghram and other black sites continue to appear in US publications, making it more difficult for Mr Obama to portray the matter as closed. In the end, it appears that these burdens inherited by Mr Obama are no less heavy than other Bush-era legacies: two unfinished wars, a stalled and worsening Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a failing economy and a host of other domestic challenges. When the poisoned partisan divide is added to this grim picture, the way forward is difficult to navigate. Credit must still be given to the president's good intentions, but it is now clear that it will take more than one year to undo the damage of the last eight. James Zogby is president of the Arab American institute