There seems to be a strong feeling that if the United States abandons its ban on coercive interrogation, the rest of the world will not only imitate U.S. policy—which, of course, is not objectionable if U.S. policy is correct, as we are assuming for the sake of argument. The rest of the world will do worse; seeing that the United States endorses the infliction of pain for the purpose of interrogation, other countries will use it for punishment, show trials, and so forth.
This argument rests on the assumption of U.S. exceptionalism, the notion that, in Ronald Reagan's words, the United States is a "shining city on a hill" that the rest of the world looks up to and emulates. Once the United States is shown to be a "normal" state, its ideals will cease to inspire others. There are many reasons for doubting this account. First, the United States is not as exceptional as it once was: there are many liberal democracies today; the United States is just one. Second, the United States increasingly has a reputation as a conservative, religious, punitive, and even militaristic country; its use of coercive interrogation in limited circumstances would have no more than a marginal effect when the United States is already heavily criticized for policies that are not going to change anytime soon—capital punishment, ungenerous social welfare policies, aggressive use of its military, disinclination to cooperate in international organizations, and so forth. Coercive interrogation is just one more item on this list, unlikely by itself to change the reputation of the United States. Third, the United States' reputation rests not only on its commitment to liberal principles, but on its lack of dogmatism about them, and especially the pragmatic way that it has relaxed them when necessary to counter internal or external threats. Liberal countries that collapse into chaos, that cannot protect their citizens, or that are bullied by authoritarian countries or terrorist organizations, are not attractive role models.
Another argument that is sometimes made is that a ban on coercive interrogation "facilitates the government's claim to the moral high ground in the battle against terrorists." This argument recalls the old cold war arguments that the United States should take the moral high ground in international relations in order to win the propaganda war against the Soviet Union. These arguments had force then, and ought to have force now. Even if coercive interrogation is justified in some settings, its use will almost certainly be a public relations setback—just as the Abu Ghraib scandal was—and fodder for those who want to portray the United States as corrupt and immoral. Part of the problem for the United States is to persuade the undecided living in Muslim countries that they should throw in their lot with the West and not with Islamic radicalism. If the law enforcement methods of the United States are no more attractive than the law enforcement methods espoused by Islamic radicals, then a valuable propaganda tool is lost.
But there are countervailing considerations. The West must project an image of strength as well as virtue; undecided Muslims and Arabs will not cast their lot with governments that cannot protect themselves and their people, as we noted before. But whatever the force of these arguments, they only identify one cost that must be balanced against the benefits of coercive interrogation. The public relations effect of coercive interrogation is just one factor among many. It may justify restricting coercive interrogation more than the narrow instrumental calculus suggests; but it is hard to see how it could justify a flat prohibition.
Note from KBJ: This is the best thing I've ever read on torture. I just finished lecturing on it in my Philosophy of Law course.