President Trump’s appointment of Gina Haspel as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency has revived memories of the abuses the CIA committed during George W. Bush’s administration. The appointment is indeed deeply troubling, since Haspel ran one of the Agency’s infamous overseas “black sites” that featured “enhanced interrogation” techniques (a cynical euphemism for torture). But as I point out in a new National Interest Online article, Haspel’s conduct is the symptom of a much deeper problem. Both during the Cold War and the war on terror, too many U.S. officials have succumbed to the temptation to combat evil behavior with evil behavior. In the process, they have undermined and imperiled fundamental American values.
There is no question that communist powers and radical Islamic terrorists are morally odious adversaries. The United States rightly condemned Moscow’s subjugation of Eastern Europe and the Kremlin’s global subversion campaigns against other societies. But Washington’s conduct was hardly exemplary, and as the Cold War continued, U.S. behavior became increasingly questionable. Especially shameful were those cases in which Washington subverted and overthrew democratic governments to help install “friendly dictators.” There is now indisputable evidence that the United States was involved in such disreputable moves against elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and other countries. Indeed, U.S. leaders seemed to prefer pliable autocrats to unpredictable pluralistic systems. When General Chun Doo-hwan overthrew an embryonic democratic government in South Korea, John Wickham, the commander of U.S. forces in that country, excused the seizure of power, saying that South Koreans were “lemming-like” and needed a strong leader.
Indeed, in the name of waging the Cold War, U.S. officials flirted with utterly horrific options. During the Kennedy administration, the CIA concocted a scheme to stage false flag attacks, including blowing up civilian airliners, as a phony justification to invade Cuba and oust Fidel Castro. Fortunately, the White House rejected the scheme, but that supposedly ethical officials could even consider murdering innocent Americans as a geopolitical pretext illustrated just how much U.S. policymakers were beginning to emulate their immoral communist counterparts.
The casual willingness to cut moral corners is evident in the war on terror as well. In addition to the CIA’s own use of torture, Washington embraced the practice of rendition, whereby the United States sent accused terrorists to cooperative dictatorships renowned for using torture techniques that made even the U.S. conduct look mild. Those governments included Saudi Arabia’s brutal theocratic autocracy, Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship in Egypt, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Outsourcing torture in that fashion, however, did nothing to dilute America’s responsibility for the resulting egregious human rights violations.
Washington’s overseas military conduct in the war on terror is equally troubling. The awful destruction that U.S. forces have visited on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and turned millions of others into destitute refugees. In addition to the needless carnage that the U.S. military has inflicted directly, the United States is an active accomplice in Saudi Arabia’s atrocity-filled war in Yemen.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed the cautionary admonition: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” Too often, U.S. leaders have ignored that warning. In doing so, they have established disturbing, sometimes horrifying, precedents that betray the basic values of a liberal democracy.