For all their differences, the two leading presidential candidates have both spotlighted the promotion of human rights internationally as a cornerstone of a rebuilt American foreign policy. John McCain, breaking from Republican orthodoxy, has said that “promoting human rights abroad can serve our national interests in profound ways.” Barack Obama, resisting a trend among Democrats toward hard-bitten realism, has promised that “in every region of the globe, our foreign policy should promote traditional American ideals: democracy and human rights.” Both candidates, rightly, see human rights as a necessary foundation for restoring American credibility and legitimacy around the world. But neither candidate has yet fleshed out how he would restore American global leadership on human rights. Whichever party wins the White House, the next administration needs a clear blueprint that not only reverses the worst damage done by the Bush administration but will make the United States once again a vital force in strengthening respect for human rights globally.
Rebuilding American credibility on human rights matters both for the United States and for human rights. For the United States, the case for trying to restore its reputation as a standard-bearer for human rights is threefold. First, the way the Bush administration has conducted the Iraq War, combined with its spurning of various treaties and other opportunities for international cooperation, has shattered America’s credibility abroad. The initial damage was done by the decision to go to war without legitimacy in the eyes of the world, but soon the bungling of the postwar stabilization effort, the revelations at Abu Ghraib, and the news of other human rights abuses in the name of “the war on terror,” turned a blemish into a deep stain on America’s reputation. Winning back American legitimacy has become a prerequisite for the achievement of any other foreign policy objective, whether hunting down terrorists, winning the war in Afghanistan, negotiating an exit from Iraq, or isolating nuclear proliferators. If the United States is not trusted and respected, it cannot mobilize others behind these causes. And winning that trust hinges on reversing the perception that Washington has abandoned its principles and betrayed its values. No values have been betrayed more than the U.S. commitment to human rights.
Second, forsaking human rights has proven tactically disastrous. Negative views of the United States have undermined cooperation in the fight against terrorism; in Germany, for example, Simon Koschut has documented how government officials and members of the general public have grown less supportive of counterterrorism measures as a result of allegations of their country’s complicity in using evidence obtained through secret CIA prisons or “black sites.” Talk of U.S. hypocrisy and the abuse of detainees echoes in the halls of foreign ministries and in the mountains wh...
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