Does it matter what the rest of the world thinks of the United States? Does it matter that our recent foreign policy has frayed alliances and created enemies? Since we remain the world's only superpower, with the biggest and best military, should we care about our reputation?
Yes, we should. Despite what Vice President Dick Cheney and neocon Norman Podhoretz think, we can't shoot and bomb our way out of this war. While military force is sometimes an appropriate response to terrorists, the U.S. also needs to cultivate friends and admirers. Among the weapons at our disposal, soft power and the light touch are still among the most effective for keeping us safe.
That's one of the reasons the Bush administration's tacit support for torture is such foolish policy. (President Bush claims he doesn't condone "torture." However, he does allow abusive techniques of interrogation that many others define as torture.)
By failing to honor our vaunted ideals, we've lost the respect of much of the world. Over the past six years, a litany of sordid policies and practices has sullied our image: the abuses at Abu-Ghraib; the kidnapping of innocent civilians for torture in other countries, such as Syria; the maintenance of a miserable prison at Guantanamo Bay; and Mr. Bush's refusal to disavow waterboarding and other abhorrent forms of "interrogation."
That's why so many leading Democrats have criticized Michael B. Mukasey, the nominee for attorney general, for refusing to declare waterboarding illegal. But that policy should come from the top. The president ought to step forward and clearly pronounce waterboarding and other forms of torture off-limits.
After the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, many Americans became convinced that we were vulnerable because we'd grown too soft, too nice, too weak. They believed the Bush administration when its spokesmen told us that we'd have to man up if we wanted to win this war on terror, that we couldn't play by the old rules. After all, Islamic jihadists capture the innocent and behead them on camera, bragging about their bloodlust.
Of course, that's just the point: We don't behave as the suicide bombers do. The U.S. holds itself up to the world as a model of decency and humanity. We're the "shining city on a hill," the guarantor of basic rights, the protector of civil liberties.
As recently as a decade ago, our steady adherence to our constitutional values - our struggles to stick to our righteous principles - stood us in good stead, giving us the moral authority to lead the world.
But now we've lost our moral authority. When the terrorists struck six years ago, the vast majority of the world's people mourned with us. But we've managed to squander the world's good will, partly by ignoring our own revered principles.
There is another good reason to disavow torture: It doesn't work very well.
Writing in the Oct. 22 issue of The New Republic, Peter Bergen interviewed former intelligence officers who disputed the idea that valuable information has been gained through abusive techniques. Former FBI Agent Daniel Coleman, an al-Qaida expert, told Mr. Bergen that most of the information coming out of Guantanamo until his retirement in 2004 "was of no particular value."
Torture also gets you a host of new recruits for the terrorists' cause. For every father or brother tortured by representatives of the United States, there will be sons and relatives who vow savage revenge.
If you don't believe that, take a look at our ally Egypt, whose security forces have a reputation for gruesome torture, including the rape and maiming of family members of suspects. For that reason, Egypt has bred more than its share of jihadists - most notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants.
The practice of torture makes us too much like the terrorists we're fighting.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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