Blocking the release of the photos reflects an age old debate in international relations.
President Obama’s decision to try and block the release of torture photos has added a twist to the classic tension between democratic openness and national security.
The argument for withholding release of the photos is fairly straightforward: the images have the potential to incite anger and hostility in the Middle East, and potentially threaten security at home and the safety of troops abroad. The reasons for releasing the photos are more nuanced.
One line of reasoning is that the United States needs to illustrate a commitment to the value of governmental transparency. We must not run from our mistakes and instead hold ourselves fully accountable for our actions.
The dilemma regarding the torture photos also parallels the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, probably the founding work in international relations.
In 416 BC, the peaceful island state of Melos was faced with an ultimatum by the Athenians: renounce neutrality and join the Delian League, or face destruction.
The Melians defended their neutrality by stating the ethical principle that their stance ought to be respected. But they also appealed to the Athenians’ self-interest:
“How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?”
The basic premise of this Melian argument is that strength and rational self-interest without moral virtue is not a satisfactory guide to foreign relations and will have practical consequences for Athenian national security.
One could make the case for a similar argument for the release of the torture photos. By being forthright and honest about a mistake, and showing a commitment to democratic values, the United States could potentially strengthen its reputation abroad, and gain respect in the Islamic world. If the United States refused to release the photos, many may take it a continuation of the secretive and authoritarian policies of the last administration.
While this approach seems intriguing, it could also be seen as an idealist adherence to abstract philosophical ideals while ignoring the empirical realities of the situation. Assuming that “the truth will set you free” may be naïve at best, if high-level generals and other advisers have made it clear that the release of the photos will inflame passions in the Islamic world.