here’s a yawning gap today between the values professed around the world by the United States and our real-time actions. Promoting democracy and human rights and using torture during the interrogation of prisoners do not go together. In his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Joseph Nye reminds us that a nation’s power derives from “the attractiveness of its culture, political ideals, and policies. When its policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, a nation’s soft power is enhanced.” The converse also applies. Today, American culture, political ideals, and policies are losing their global appeal in part because of what the United States has done to human rights in the war on terror.
The Bush administration has flaunted basic requirements of human rights law. These include the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The result has been the creation of a law-free zone in which foreign detainees in U.S. custody overseas have been brutally abused; thousands of foreign citizens have been held indefinitely as “unlawful combatants” without being treated as prisoners of war; and repressive regimes around the world have been given a green light to crack down on political dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities in the name of fighting terrorism. These actions have contributed to what a Pew Institute international opinion survey reported in June 2007 is “a global crisis in confidence over the US handling of world affairs … most apparent among Muslims in the Middle East.”
The Bush administration’s disregard for international law in its policies on terrorism is perhaps best exemplified by a 2002 memorandum prepared by then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. The memorandum stated that “terrorism renders obsolete the Geneva Conventions’ strict limitations on the questioning of prisoners.” No recent president has questioned the rules of international humanitarian law in times of war. The administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford during the Vietnam War, and George H. W. Bush during the Gulf War, all adhered to the Geneva requirements. They understood the danger of abandoning the high ground. As another 2002 memorandum, by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, pointed out, jettisoning the Geneva Conventions would “reverse over a century of US policy and practice, undermine the protections of the law for our troops, and provoke negative international reaction, with immediate adverse consequences for the conduct of our foreign policy.”
Repairing the damage to American values and moral authority around the world must be a top priority of the next president. The United States should announce that it will close the detention center at Guantanamo and transfer detainees to the United States or their home countries for trial or release. It should also make clear that it is bound by the Geneva Conventions as a matter of law. Reestablishing a policy of providing individualized status hearings to detainees would demonstrate a respect for international norms.
None of this would prevent the government from conducting lawful interrogations of suspected terrorists. Nor would it prevent it from trying detainees in military commissions if there is evidence that they have participated in war crimes or crimes against humanity. But it would recommit the United States to a national security policy conducted within a framework of human rights and the rule of law, and it would allow the next president to begin to restore America’s soft power in the world. It’s an effort that’s dangerously overdue.