Getting Our Reputation Back

People around the world who aren’t our enemies now distrust us as allies

Last April at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, a Democratic presidential candidate said of the present incumbent that "by condoning torture, kidnapping, and the operation of secret prisons, he has made us less safe from tyranny and terrorism. And by spying on American citizens and detaining individuals without access to courts, he has undermined our national values."

That presidential aspirant dropped out of the race after Iowa. During his many years in the Senate, he has acquired more hands-on foreign-affairs experience than all the other candidates combined. He is also a constitutional scholar and still teaches constitutional law as an adjunct professor at Widener Law School in his home state. And he has introduced legislation to restore the Constitution and our reputation in the world. (It still languishes in committee.)

But the press and the voters paid little attention to Joe Biden's candidacy. While campaigning, he also pointed out that "our enemies have used Abu Ghraib to recruit additional terrorists," going so far as to declare: "We should raze Abu Ghraib."

On January 12, the Associated Press reported that Lt. Colonel Steven L. Jordan, "the only officer court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib scandal," has had his conviction thrown out by the Army—thereby ending the four-year investigation into the shocking treatment of Iraqi prisoners that the infamous photos exposed to the world. Yet despite that photographic evidence, "no officers or civilian leaders will be held criminally responsible. . . . "

Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Justice and Defense Department lawyers who authorized those crimes can now breathe easier—along with Dick Cheney and the commander in chief in the Oval Office.

Biden, trying to awake the electorate, also condemned Guantánamo Bay—that parody of American due process—on the hustings: "Nations around the world view Guantánamo not as a facility necessitated by the war on terror, but as a symbol of American disregard for the rule of law."

The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has come to the same conclusion. Speaking to a handful of reporters during a visit to Guantánamo on January 13, Mullen said: "I'd like to see it shut down." Asked why, he responded: "More than anything else, it's been the image—how Gitmo has become around the world, in terms of representing the United States. . . . I believe that from the standpoint of how it reflects on us, that it's been pretty damaging." But Mullen also added: "I'm not aware that there is any immediate consideration to closing Guantánamo Bay"—perhaps because Dick Cheney, the vice-president for disregarding the rule of law, will not allow it.

I doubt that many Americans are aware of how people around the world—not the jihadists, but those who used to regard us with a measure of respect and even some longing to be here—feel about us now. In the January-February issue of American Prospect, John Shattuck—often a valuable source for this column as an ACLU official in the '70s and '80s—reveals the following:

"A poll published in April 2007 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that in 13 of 15 countries—including Argentina, France, Russia, Indonesia, India, and Australia—a majority of people agreed that U.S. cannot be trusted to act responsibly in the world." (Emphasis added.)

Al Qaeda's strategists must have had a good chuckle over that.

In his article, titled "Healing Our Self-Inflicted Wounds," Shattuck attempts to provide a prospectus on how Bush's successor "can restore the rule of law to U.S. foreign policy—and rebuild American credibility and power." He further demonstrates the steep challenge facing the next president and Congress:

"A survey conducted in June 2006 by coordinated polling organizations in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, and India found that majorities or pluralities in each country believed that the U.S. has tortured terrorist detainees and disregarded international treaties . . . and that other governments are wrong to cooperate with the U.S. in the secret 'rendition' of prisoners."

Since 2006, there has been a continuing investigation by the European Parliament—one that has been watched closely by the press there—on the degree of complicity by European intelligence agencies and heads of state in the CIA's kidnapping of citizens off their sovereign streets.

These suspects are sent by us to be interrogated in countries condemned by the State Department's annual reports on human rights for habitual "torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishments." One of those countries is Egypt, which has been condemned by the State Department not only for the "abuse of prisoners" but also for "the [Egyptian] Emergency Law [that] empowers the government to place wiretaps . . . without warrants."

Just like our government here at home.

Shattuck, presently the CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and, from 1993 to 1998, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, suggests that one way for the next administration to lawfully combat terrorism and restore our credibility internationally is "[t]o provide assistance to other countries for counter-terrorism operations that comply with basic human-rights standards." He knows, of course, that we first have to show that we are willing to comply with those standards.

And, as Shattuck also points out, there are countries who now cite our methods—the methods that Joe Biden condemned—as a justification for their own brutalities. "Fighting terror has become a convenient excuse for repressive regimes to engage in further repression, often inspiring further terrorism in an increasing cycle of violence. . . . "

Among these brutal nations are Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and Cuba, whose foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, gloats that "Bush authorized torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and is [an] accessory to the kidnapping and disappearance of people as well as . . . clandestine prisons. " (See my column, "How We Delight Our Enemies," in the November 13, 2007, Voice.)

Shattuck urges that this country "should take the lead in drafting a comprehensive treaty defining and condemning terrorism within a framework of human rights," thereby helping to "counter the claim that differences in cultural values, religious beliefs, political philosophies, or justifiable ends make it impossible to define the crime of terrorism."

But who among the presidential candidates is most capable of leading the effort to create such an international human-rights consensus: Barack Obama? John McCain? Would either make Joe Biden our new secretary of state?

And if we have a Democratically controlled Congress next year, of what use in restoring our global reputation will the clueless Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi be? Maybe Biden can find time to tutor them.

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