America Shoots Itself

One of the casualties of the war against terrorism--or, rather, of the way the United States is conducting the war--is the US influence in promoting human rights worldwide. For the international human rights movement, this is a severe setback.

For more than a quarter of a century, ever since advancing human rights internationally became an explicit and avowed goal of US foreign policy under President Jimmy Carter, American influence played a leading role in mitigating abuses. The consequences were most profound in what were the countries of the Soviet empire, but they extended to other regions as well.

Even where the US supported regimes that committed grave violations of rights--or served as an apologist for them because other national interests took precedence--it was often possible for the human rights movement to embarrass Washington by making it the surrogate villain for its clients' abuses. In the 1980's, this approach focused attention on abuses in conflict-ridden Central America and in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which the Reagan Administration favored in its struggle with America's enemy, Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. It thus sometimes achieved indirectly what could not be done directly: the leveraging of American influence to promote human rights.

But America's capacity to promote human rights in other countries has never been weaker than now. One reason is the tremendous increase in anti-Americanism since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is largely due to a widespread perception of American arrogance. Despite (or because of) its insistence that all who are not with America are against it, the Bush administration alienated many who previously counted themselves either as friends of the US or did not take sides.