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Bushwhacking Human Rights

If you judge a government on the basis of its good intentions, those who support an American foreign policy that emphasizes the promotion of human rights internationally should cheer President George W. Bush’s reelection. Indeed, no US president has spoken out more frequently and more forcefully about America’s mission to promote freedom in the world.

The National Security Strategy of the United States, published by the Bush administration in September 2002, is filled with strongly worded commitments to promote human rights. The Country Reports on Human Rights worldwide, published annually by the State Department, maintain the high standard of accuracy and comprehensiveness that they achieved during the Clinton administration. Under President Bush, the US has taken robust stands on human rights conditions not only in pariah countries such as Burma, Cuba, and Syria, but also in strategically important countries like Egypt, Uzbekistan, and China.

Yet those who examine the impact of the Bush administration on human rights practices internationally often argue that Bush’s reelection will do long-lasting – perhaps irreversible – damage to the human rights cause. What explains this apparent contradiction?

There are three principal reasons why the Bush administration’s impact on human rights is so much at odds with its stated intentions. Iraq comes first. After official US claims about weapons of mass destruction and about a connection to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, became untenable, Bush increasingly emphasized the argument that America’s invasion was justified to remove a tyrant, Saddam Hussein, and thus to free the Iraqi people. In essence, this is an argument that the war was justified as a means of promoting human rights.