The torture dilemma

On occasion, the notion of Western values presents a definitional dilemma in policy debates. That was the case in December 2014, when the U.S. Senate released a detailed report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s “September 11” attacks. The domestic reaction revealed considerable chasm.

Liberals labeled the interrogation techniques torture and said “it does not represent our values.” Conservatives, on the other hand, wouldn’t label the CIA techniques torture. Rather, they defended them as necessary to protect the United States and “Western values.” By that logic, what is necessary to protect the West is inherently within the parameters of Western values. In effect, while both ideological camps assert the moral superiority of Western values, conservatives concede its pragmatic elasticity.

From dilemma to ambivalence

Faced with these dilemmas, many Western leaders have now become circumspect in their invocation of Western values: whether democratic ethos are Western or universal values now depend on the rhetorical occasion. If the primary audience is domestic or other Western countries, the democratic ethos are Western values or “our values.” If the audience is non-Western or global, then democratic ethos are universal.

President George W. Bush most starkly exemplified the ambivalence. In a press conference in January 2005, Bush talked about his efforts to promote Western values around the world, specifically human rights, freedom, and an end to tyranny. He said he had pressed the case with the Chinese leaders and would do the same with Russia’s Vladimir Putin when they met the following month. “I will remind him that if he intends to continue to look West, we in the West believe in Western values,” Bush said at the press conference (Associated Press, January 26, 2005).

Similarly, while addressing Russian politics in December 2007, Bush said:

My hope, of course, is that Russia is a country which understands there needs to be checks and balances, and free and fair elections, and a vibrant press; that they understand Western values based upon human rights and human dignity are values that will lead to a better country. That’s my hope.

(Associated Press, December 20, 2007)

About one year later, Bush reversed course on whether democratic ethos are Western values. In an address in Egypt during a tour of the Middle East in May 2008, Bush first took a broad swipe at governments in the region.

Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail. The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices, and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve.

(Associated Press, May 18, 2008)

Then, as the AP summed it up:

Bush rebutted what he said are the many arguments from ‘skeptics about democracy in this part of the world,’ without specifying who they are. He said democracy is not ‘a Western value that America seeks to impose on unwilling citizens’ nor is it incompatible with the religion of Islam.

Then British Prime Minister Tony Bair was similarly contradictory or ambivalent at best. At a Labour Party conference in 2002, he explained why Britain closely worked with the United States to reform the political order in Afghanistan. “Our values are not western values,” Blair said. “They are human values, and anywhere, anytime people are given the chance, they embrace them.”

Blair restated the same view in June 2004 during a joint press conference with Bush to address efforts to install a democratic order in Iraq after the invasion. “[Ultimately, our best guarantee of security lies in the values that are not values that are American or British or Western values, but the values of humanity,” Blair said (The Associated Press, June 28, 2004).

Yet, in 2011—amid continuing turmoil in Afghanistan and Iraq— Blair seemed to revert to the notion of democratic values as Western values. In a speech at the Oral Roberts University in October that year, Blair urged the West to remain steadfast in its values. “We have to rely on a belief in our own system—on those values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, of treating people equally” (The Journal Record, November 1, 2011).

President Obama may have been the most conflicted in his rhetoric, switching seamlessly from the West-centric to the universalistic conception of democratic ethos. During his widely acclaimed speech in Cairo in 2009, which was directed especially at the Arab and Muslim world, he was painstaking in delineating the province of cultural and religious differences and those of human rights:

1 do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.5

Still, Obama does not hesitate to invoke American exceptionalism when seeking to appeal to the domestic audience. When in 2013 evidence surfaced that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration decided that Assad’s chemical weapon stockpile had to be destroyed.

First, though, Obama had to justify such an action to a war-weary American people. He did so in a speech on September 10, 2013, by invoking the American spirit of compassion. First, he quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.”6

Then he added:

[W]hen, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.

Here, Obama asserts a distinctly American dimension of Western values, thus separating America from the rest of the West.

For the most part though, Obama preferred the ambiguous phrase “our values,” which allows much interpretive latitude. In many instances, however, the intended reference is evident, and often it is the United States or the West.

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