Secretary of state John Kerry tried to suppress publication of the CIA torture report, citing fears of a blowback against US targets in the Middle East. But the truth is that the region barely flinched in response to the publication of the 528-page document.
Almost all state-run media in the region ignored the report entirely, keen to play down their complicity in rendition programmes and their own rampant use of torture in domestic prisons. And the public in Arab countries took the revelations simply as confirmation of facts that they had long believed to be true. That the report has prompted such uproar in the US is comic to a region that expects dastardly behaviour from the US. If anything, many in the Arab world suspect that these admissions are just a small part of a much wider set of abuses yet to be exposed.
Despite the muted reaction, the revelations of the CIA’s extensive use of torture are extremely damaging to the US and to the west in general. The details are already being used as ammunition by Islamic State (Isis) to discredit the coalition intervention in Syria and Iraq, and will also severely undermine US efforts to prevent the use of torture in the Middle East.
The fact remains, however, that for those in the Middle East, the US lost its moral authority long before the publication of this report, largely because of its interventions in the Arab-Israeli conflict and its support of authoritarian governments. US partiality on the Israel-Palestine conflict has been shown to undercut its moral legitimacy in the region, with more than 80% of Jordanians, Moroccans, Saudis and Lebanese believing that the US has not been even-handed in its efforts to negotiate a solution.
Continued US support for repressive governments has also undermined confidence in the country. In September, President Obama gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative declaring: “Partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the US government.” At the same time, his administration has fought to bypass pro-democracy conditions on military aid to Egypt, and last week achieved its goal by inserting a “national security” waiver into the spending bill expected to be passed by Congress soon. This is despite the fact that the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has mounted a fierce attack against civil society organisations in Egypt, forcing many of them to suspend their operations or leave the country.
There is a sense among some in the Obama administration that in the face of security threats in the region, the US cannot afford to pursue a pro-democracy policy. But it is by failing to live up to the values that it claims to hold dear that the US most egregiously stokes anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and undermines its own interests. Moreover, many of the authoritarian regimes supported by the US disseminate anti-American propaganda in a shameless attempt to shore up their own legitimacy at the US’s expense. In August, Sisi accused the US of working with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey to fund online media projects that “aim to undermine Egypt’s stability”. The state-controlled Egyptian media is rife with absurd anti-American conspiracy theories.
The Bahraini government, which the US has failed to hold to account for its vicious crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the country, has launched similarly outrageous attacks on the US. Bahrain barred congressman James McGovern from entering the country, expelled assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour Tom Malinowski, and presided over a campaign to vilify US ambassador Thomas Krajeski .
The result is that both regime supporters and opponents have huge antipathy towards the US, as the former buy into the propaganda circulated by the regime and the latter lament the lack of US support for their pro-democracy movements. In Bahrain, both the monarchists and Shia opponents have become increasingly anti-American. An academic study on Egypt also found that many of those both in favour of the military coup against President Morsi and those against it held anti-American views.
Concerns that the release of the Senate torture report would undermine US moral standing in the Middle East fail to recognise the vast damage that has already been done. Both US inconsistencies in its pursuit of democracy and human rights in the region, in conjunction with a fuelling of anti-American sentiment by state-run press in the Arab world, have contributed to a profound cynicism about US intentions in the region. The result is that even when the US tries to engage positively with the region, it is met with an unrelenting search for ulterior motives.
The best way for the US to improve its standing in the region is to pursue policies that resonate with US values. It cannot preach against the torture of prisoners when it allows such abuse to take place in its own agencies, and fails to hold those responsible to account.
The US should also reorient its foreign policy in order to hold other governments to account for their abuses of human rights, and refuse to supply military aid to those countries that use violence to suppress dissent. In the long term, supporting such regimes damages US credibility and undermines security.
The hope is that one day a credible report will reveal that the US has successfully enforced a zero-tolerance policy against torture and abuse. Then the Middle East really will be surprised.
Dr Nussaibah Younis is senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy.