Alex Massie

Torture, Dissidents and Talking to Dictators

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Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal today:

In New York this week, I asked a former Eastern European dissident who spent time in prison under the Communists: "If you were sitting in a cell in Cuba, Iran or Syria and saw this photo of a smiling American president shaking hands with a smiling Hugo Chávez, what would you think?"

He said: "I would think that I was losing ground."

Fair enough. Hugo Chavez isn't my cup of tea either. But it's hardly that unusual for American presidents to be photographed with autocrats and dictators. More importantly, however, if I were to ask a former Soviet dissident: "If you learned that the American government was waterboarding prisoners and using other techniques favoured by despotic regimes and that this policy was enthusiastically embraced by a hefty plurality of the American people and a majority of conservative pundits, what would you think?"

He might think: "I am losing ground and so is America".

Henninger continues:

The hopeful way to view the Obama administration's openings to Chávez, the Castros, Iran and the others would be: This had better work. Because if it doesn't, a lot of people who've spent years working in opposition to these regimes -- in hiding or in prison in Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Burma, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan -- are going to get hammered.

There's something to that, though it ignores the reality that dissidents in many of these countries are going to get hammered regardless of what the American president does or doesn't. But again, it takes some gall to be complaining about these things when you've been supporting the policy of rendering prisoners to places such as, yes, Egypt and Syria where they can be interrogated using methods even the newly less-than-squeamish Americans find too much.

How is the (brave) Egyptian dissident supposed to feel then, knowing that the American government talks of openess and democracy in public while still propping up some of the dirty regimes it (perhaps reasonably) considers part of the problem for fear that, despite the fine words, something worse might replace them? This, for sure, is not an unreasonable position, even if it is not a pretty matter and a subject best avoided.

At best our Egyptian dissident will be resigned, appreciating that great powers have a gluttinous appetite for hypocrisy. But he might also feel a little bit betrayed.

It's possible that Obama's polcies won't work, but given the failures of the Bush years it would be folly indeed not to consider alternative approaches to some of these matters. Most of those alternative approaches won't work either, things being what they are and all. But Not Doing What the Last Guy did doesn't automatically mean Obama is "selling-out" or "losing" anyone. And as I say, assuming the moral high ground and marching off in great dudgeon is rich fare from a party that has embraced the notion that torture is a Good Thing because it "works".

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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