Cairo and Our Relationships


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“President Obama plans to address the Arab world when he visits Cairo early next month, and I hope he will talk about torture. You might say it’s a matter of unfinished business.

My personal concern about this issue goes back to 2004, when I spent a semester in Egypt as a Fulbright Scholar, lecturing on US foreign policy at Cairo University. My arrival in Cairo coincided with the announcement of a controversial US program known as the Greater Middle East Initiative. Billed as an effort to promote democracy, the initiative was deeply resented….”

Author: Susan Waltz, professor at Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Published in: Truthout (home page: http://www.truthout.org/) and in Huntington News Network (home page: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/) in West Virginia
Date: May 20, 2009

For the full article:
Cairo and Our Relationships
(730 words)
by Susan Waltz

President Obama plans to address the Arab world when he visits Cairo early next month, and I hope he will talk about torture. You might say it’s a matter of unfinished business.

My personal concern about this issue goes back to 2004, when I spent a semester in Egypt as a Fulbright Scholar, lecturing on US foreign policy at Cairo University. My arrival in Cairo coincided with the announcement of a controversial US program known as the Greater Middle East Initiative. Billed as an effort to promote democracy, the initiative was deeply resented as an American agenda foisted upon the region without any prior consultation—and ironically, without apparent sensitivity to democratic processes. That initiative, the ongoing Iraq war, and US policy toward Israel and Palestine made for a bumpy ride, but I took the charge of citizen-diplomat seriously. I worked hard to help my Egyptian graduate students understand and appreciate the institutions, processes, and complex considerations that shape and drive US policies.

And then came Abu Ghraib. As it happened, I was scheduled to give a lecture on US human rights policy on May 22, just two weeks after the shocking photos flashed around the world. I had planned to review the history of our policy—initiated by Congress in the waning months of the Nixon presidency and strengthened by Presidents from both parties over the following three decades. Naturally, I anticipated questions about the State Department’s annual report on the human rights practices around the world. I was prepared to explain that the report was not intended to set the US above other countries, but rather reflected our own firm commitment to human rights principles. With the photos, that case had now become more difficult to make.

When the day arrived, I was only halfway up the stairs to the lecture hall before a student confronted me. With trembling voice she asked, “Tell me, Professor, did they use dogs because they know Arabs are afraid of them?” At the time I couldn’t say – but we now know that was indeed part of the calculation.

I gave my lecture, recounting the history of our human rights policy and emphasizing the importance of accountability and rule of law. I told my Egyptian students that the US considered itself bound not only by the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners, but by the arguably more authoritative Convention Against Torture, signed by President Reagan and ratified by the Senate in 1994. That international treaty stipulates unequivocally that torture can never be justified. In view of the Abu Ghraib scandal, I asked my students to suspend their judgment and hear the message relayed by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the graduating class of Wake Forest University a few days earlier. “Watch America. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong.”

Over the past five years, as more and more details of our policy have emerged, I have often wondered what my former students are thinking. Some have now likely joined the ranks of Egypt’s ruling elites. Surely no one is fooled by the euphemistic phrase, “enhanced interrogation.” Against our principles, policy, domestic law and international treaty obligations, America engaged in torture. Some prisoners were tortured by guards at Abu Ghraib. As part of a sanctioned policy, others were subject to similar treatment at Guantanamo, at Bagram Prison in Afghanistan, and in numerous CIA “black sites” around the world. The question now is what we will do about it.

Millions of Arabs respect and admire the US and the principles that undergird our political system, but their confidence in our own commitment to our values has been eroded – and that only serves to strengthen extremists. President Obama’s challenge will be to restore US credibility as a defender of international human rights. He can do that by acknowledging that we went astray and by assuring the Arab world that we will see our present task of review through to its end. Our process will not be complete until America’s renunciation of torture has been made rock solid and systemic accountability has been established. As Justice Jackson remarked with regard to the Nuremberg proceedings in 1946, we cannot accept the principle that responsibility is least where power is greatest.

Susan Waltz is a Professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan