At the 1964 Republican National
Convention, Barry Goldwater declared "extremism in defense of liberty is
no vice," and he was criticized by many who said the statement did not
reflect American values.
"Extremism in the name of security is no vice" may well be the operating philosophy for which the Bush administration is remembered. There is a growing list of U.S. government actions, both domestic and abroad, that show abuse of law and blatant indifference to human rights - all in the name of security.
These actions shape America's image abroad and undermine our strategic objectives.
American courts already are under way with what is likely to be decades of judicial revisiting of Bush administration decisions pertaining to detention, interrogation, torture and eavesdropping.
Even a conservative Supreme Court is speaking clearly about the rule of law. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in June's Boumediene decision, holding that detainees at Guantanamo have the right to habeas corpus: "The law and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law."
It will take time to repair the damage done to America's image abroad. The perception of any country is shaped by a series of events that create a general image. These events are cast as human interest stories by the foreign media, including those in countries where a central U.S. foreign policy objective is to promote democracy and human rights.
In the past, America was held up as the model of democratic practice. That our government has been taking shortcuts in the name of security is not lost on foreign observers. The July 24 Economist notes: "America's claim to be a beacon of freedom in a dark world has been dimmed by Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the flouting of the Geneva Conventions amid the panicky 'unipolar' posturing in the aftermath of September 11."
America set a high standard for due process protections that require the state to strictly follow certain procedures to protect the accused. Recently released Department of Justice memos drafted to provide legal cover for "waterboarding" as an interrogation tool undercut this reputation. So does the U.S. government's misuse of the material witness statute.
More than 70 individuals have been held in terrorism investigations under the federal material witness law since the 9/11 attacks, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Material witness laws are meant to ensure that people with important information do not disappear before testifying. But the U.S. government deliberately used the law to secure the indefinite incarceration of those it wanted to investigate as possible terrorism suspects.
In these cases, people held as material witnesses in terrorism investigations were often not called to testify against others. They lack constitutional protections, such as the requirement that criminal suspects in custody be informed of their Miranda rights. Moreover, they are often held for long periods in the same harsh conditions as those formally charged with very serious crimes.
American credibility as a standard setter in human rights suffered a major setback with reports that the CIA ran secret prisons in Eastern Europe to interrogate terrorism suspects using brutal methods that international agreements define as torture. It's illegal for the U.S. government to hold prisoners in isolation in secret prisons in the U.S. The CIA's internment practices are likewise illegal under the laws of all the new democracies of Eastern Europe.
Indeed, the State Department publishes an annual "Human Rights Report" to inhibit in foreign lands just the kind of prisoner abuse that was alleged. The Japan Times warned soon after America occupied Afghanistan that the "war against extremism was fought on behalf of fundamental values, such as respect for human rights and the rule of law. The U.S. decision to deny its detainees the protections afforded them by international law undermines both of these bedrock principles."
These and other government actions showing blatant disregard for the law have reshaped America's global image. During the 1990s, views of the U.S. were generally positive. A 1999 State Department survey showed that favorable views of the U.S. were held by 83 percent of respondents in Britain, 77 percent in Morocco, 75 percent in Indonesia and 62 percent in Turkey. The 2008 BBC World Service poll across 34 countries found that only 32 percent of respondents said the U.S. is having a positive influence in the world.
Right after 9/11, the U.S. benefited from global solidarity. Today it is largely alone, disliked and mistrusted, with worldwide consensus that in the key area of human rights and the rule of law, the U.S. disgraced itself. An editorial that ran several months after 9/11 in the Czech Republic's Prague Post warned of this: "Ironically, it is America's enduring respect for personal freedom that makes it a world leader and the envy of terrorist brigands. American laws work remarkably well despite their flaws - and millions have left their homelands to enjoy the fruits of an open society. It is easy in these leaden days to suggest that federal rules must be overhauled to ensure that the guilty are rooted out and punished. Too easy. The bylaws of the United States do not exist in splendid isolation. They are models worthy of imitation."
Mark Brzezinski was the director of Southeast European and Russian/Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council at the White House. Currently he is a partner in the D.C. office of the law firm McGuireWoods, where he manages the international practice. He is a member of Atlantic Community's advisory board.
Lanny A. Breuer is a partner in the D.C. office of the law firm Covington & Burling, where he co-chairs the White Collar Defense and Investigations practice group.
This article was originally published in the Washington Times on August 28th and is republished here with Dr Brzezinski's kind permission.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Christine Otsver: A Common US-EU Strategy of Democracy Promotion is Feasible
- Wess Mitchell: How America Should Respond to Resurgent Russia
- Valentine Anatolevich Akishkin: The Shadow of Serious Transformation in US Foreign Policy