Today’s big news in the US is the most explicit admission yet from within the administration that a detainee at Guantanamo Bay — Mohammed al-Qahtani, sometimes referred to as the “20th hijacker” from 11 September — was tortured. Susan Crawford, convening authority for the military commissions, bluntly told the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward (yes, that Bob Woodward) that “His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

This is just the most striking indication of how big a problem the whole Guantanamo issue is going to be for the incoming Obama administration. Sources close to Obama have promised that one of his first official acts will be an executive order to close the prison, but no-one expects implementation to happen overnight; the president-elect’s recent statements suggest that he regards closure as a difficult and gradual process.

It’s true that there are some practical issues to sort out, but the real problems are political. As with many areas, getting good policy is really not that difficult. The difficulty is summoning the political will to implement it.

That’s the lesson that I’ve taken from a Cato Institute conference, “Shaping the Obama Administration Counterterrorism Strategy“, held this week in Washington. Experts from a range of backgrounds displayed a high degree of consensus on what constitutes effective policy to combat terrorism. But although there were ideas about how government should communicate with the public about threats, very little was said on how experts can communicate to government to get good policy adopted in the first place.

It’s a difficult problem, not just because politicians care about re-election at least as much as they care about effective policy, but also because a large part of their constituency has very different ideas about what effectiveness means.

This is a country where revelations of torture do not evoke universal revulsion, but rather much of the political class is willing to argue quite explicitly that torture is effective and should be continued.

Any number of experts will tell you that this is nonsense; that in addition to its moral repugnance torture produces unreliable intelligence, not to mention flow-on effects that discredit the country responsible and make life more dangerous for its agents. But policy-makers with a different agenda have shown a consistent ability to ignore expert opinion.

So Obama needs to do two sorts of things. First, there are specific measures like closing Guantanamo and ensuring that the torturers are found out and prosecuted.

But more generally, and perhaps more importantly, he needs to re-orient the American government so that it listens to people who know what they’re talking about. Then it might adopt policies for the future that will fulfil their goals instead of pandering to irrational prejudices.

Peter Fray

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