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February 16, 2016

Responding To: The Global Future of Security

Learning from the Past

Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault

What is the most critical national security challenge of the future? Learning from the past. In particular, the U.S. treatment of detainees during the global war on terror eroded domestic and international legal regimes, weakened U.S. alliances, and damaged U.S. operational capability in the field. For centuries, the United States embraced the Geneva Conventions and other human rights norms across a varied range of actors and in contradistinction to its enemies. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, interstate conflicts clarified and reinforced the norm of ethical treatment of detainees with additional domestic laws, training, education, and doctrine. However, after the attacks of 9/11, new practices tantamount to torture were supported at the highest levels of government.

Among the most damaging operational impacts of the torture decision has been its use as a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. General David Petraeus stated in 2010 that, “Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables. They don’t go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick in the Central Command area of responsibility.” The frequency with which senior al-Qa‘ida leaders, ISIL propaganda, and other significant terrorist voices refer to U.S. mistreatment of captives indicates the power of the narrative. U.S. torture of prisoners has served as a rallying cry for terrorists around the world and serves as one of their key justifications for waging war against the United States.

Proof that the legacy of torture still haunts the United States can be found in the recent executions of U.S. and foreign hostages by members of ISIL. These hostages, including U.S. journalist James Foley, were purposefully dressed in orange jumpsuits so as to draw a direct line between their execution and U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Future leaders must recognize that the use of torture diminishes the United States’ ability to disrupt, degrade, and deny terrorist capabilities. Like all conflicts dominated by unconventional warfare, confronting groups like ISIL and al-Qa‘ida requires winning public support. Or as Colin Gray puts it, in unconventional warfare “the decisive combat occurs in and about the minds of civilians, not on the battlefield.” Thus, as the United States faces future challenges from groups such as ISIL, future leaders will face an important decision about how to treat detainees in U.S. custody. Such a decision impacts both U.S. reputation and U.S. national security. The inability of the United States to learn from previous missteps in foreign policy thus constitutes a critical national security challenge.

Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault is a visiting assistant professor in Georgetown's Security Studies Program.

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