North Africa, West Asia

The CIA torture report: through Arab eyes

Maged Mandour

The fear that the US has lost its moral compass is vastly exaggerated, for the simple reason that the US - at least in the Arab World - never possessed this moral legitimacy in the first place.

Maged Mandour
19 December 2014

The report recently issued by the Senate condemning and detailing the interrogation methods used by the CIA during the tenure of the Bush Administration has both surprised and shocked many average Americans, as well as the public in the west.

Although some details, such as the use of waterboarding, were known before the report was issued, there was the illusion that these techniques were used as a last resort, with a limited scope, and when a credible threat existed. The fact that more than 20% of the detainees were innocent and subjected to such treatment as a first resort, is only one of the outrageous disclosures of this report.

One of the fears highlighted by western and American media was the loss of American moral power in the world, and the possibility of the use of this report for propaganda and recruitment purposes by Jihadist groups.

As an Arab, I cannot help but think that this fear is vastly exaggerated, for the simple reason that the US - at least in the Arab world - never possessed this moral legitimacy in the first place.

The possible loss of moral authority

In the average Arab mind, there is a connection between the US, Israel, Arab autocrats, foreign domination and war.

In other words, the US is not seen as a moral power; it is seen as an imperial power that uses its local cronies - sometimes with direct intervention - to maintain its hegemony over the region and, most importantly, the people of the region.

From an Arab’s perspective these relationships the US maintains are the pillars of modern Arab political life - the most important, of course, being the connection between the US and Arab autocrats, which is well known and documented.

Here are just two examples of US support for Arab autocrats and despotic regimes:

In Egypt

The Egyptian military is the largest Arab military, the backbone of the current autocratic regime. This is the same regime that committed the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history, in 2013, and has since committed numerous human rights violations; imprisoning thousands of activists and innocent bystanders.

What is important to highlight here is that the Egyptian military is one of the largest recipients of US aid and plays a pivotal role in American foreign policy in the region.  

In Iraq

After the 2003 invasion, and the deliberate dismantling of the Iraqi State, the US assisted in creating an openly sectarian political system by supporting a government that promotes such practices and policies.

In the meantime, ISIS has been rampaging across northern Iraq - much less reported - and Shia militias have been committing mammoth human rights abuses. This cannot have taken place without the implicit consent of the Iraqi government, which until now has failed to alleviate the isolation of the Sunni community, and continues to follow openly sectarian policies.

During this process, American aid of course continues unabated. In effect, supporting a highly sectarian regime that has been eroding Iraqi identity; all in the hopes of clinging to power.    

US and Arab autocracy: why there are deep historical roots in the Arab psyche

During the heyday of Arab nationalism, the US was considered the patron of Arab conservative regimes. These regimes were considered autocratic and imperialistic by radical regimes. At the time, radical regimes had a genuinely popular following across the Arab world, and as such were not associated with autocracy - at least among large segments of the population.  Thus, there was a connection between the US, conservative Arab regimes and imperialism.

When Arab nationalism collapsed and radical regimes started to change their ideological bases, the US ensured that it was also connected to traditional conservative regimes and neo-conservatives regimes, like Egypt.

As such, the connection between the US and autocracy was further solidified. Once radical regimes lost their popular base, they turned towards the US for support. Egypt is the most vivid example.

It is important to note that the regimes just mentioned are notorious for their human rights violations and torture practices. In many cases, they are seen as direct pawns of the US. There is, therefore, a direct connection between these regimes, the US and human rights violations and as such talk about the US’ moral standing rings hollow.

As a protestor in Cairo mockingly said “a gift from the US to Egypt” while holding a tear gas canister up that was “Made in the United States”.

The connection between the US and Israel

Israeli crimes against Palestinians and attacks against other Arab States are not seen as isolated incidents; there are deep historical roots to the connection between Israel and the US.

For example, one very vivid memory in the Egyptian psyche is the raid conducted by the Israeli air force on an elementary school during the War of Attrition. Egyptians have never forgotten that the planes Israelis flew were American planes.

Moreover, the periodic wars that Israel launches on the Gaza strip are closely connected to the US, not only because of the military hardware used, but due to a general belief in the Arab world that Israel is the pawn of the US in the region.

This belief can sometimes take extreme forms, removing all agency from Israeli actions. As usual, popular beliefs simplify a rather more complex reality. Thus, there is a direct connection between the US and what is perceived in the Arab world as Israeli aggression, deliberate targeting of civilians, colonization and abuse of human rights.

The connection between the US and outright aggression in the Arab world

After the end of the Cold War, with increased levels of military operations in the Arab world, the US was more vividly portrayed as an aggressor and occupier of Arab lands.

The war on Iraq in 2003 placed the US in the frame of not only an imperial power that uses its allies in the region to do its bidding, but rather as a force that can be in our neighborhoods the next morning.

Of course, the images coming out of Abu Ghraib and the bloodbath in Iraq did not help the American image or their version of democracy imposed on the Iraqis, which entailed replacing one autocrat with another.

The American drone war in Yemen and the massive loss of innocent civilian lives also destroyed any claims of moral superiority for the US. The US is seen as a force that causes havoc; bringing injuries, death and chaos to wherever it interferes.  

The effects of the Senate’s torture report

The notion that the last report issued by Senate Committee will have a long lasting damaging effect on the moral standing of the US, whilst becoming a recruitment tool for Jihadists, is aimed at domestic American audiences, not the Jihadists and their audiences.

Sadly, Jihadists have no problems recruiting; the grievances are already there, and very deeply enshrined. Compounded by the failure of the Arab revolt and US foreign policy, the Jihadists continue to have the fertile ground for recruitment which they have had since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The torture report will not alter this dynamic nor accelerate it. The Jihadists were created by these practices and wider policies that never received any international condemnation. The increase of extremists at an alarming rate is the result of US foreign policy.

Those living under the yoke of America’s allies experience real torture and this is not being addressed as a US responsibility. From the Palestinians in the occupied territories and refugee camps, to the Egyptians living under military autocrats, and Iraqis suffering from the violence of sectarianism; they all languish in a slow painful existence, which is not acknowledged as torture.

The US is responsible for the daily torture of millions of Arabs, as a matter of systematic policy, for which it is not being held accountable.   

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