An event last week quietly demonstrated just how much damage America’s position in the world has suffered at the hands of its political leaders over the last decade: the State Department released its annual survey of human rights conditions around the world. About 15 or 20 years ago, the publication of this annual report was a big deal. It was generally held to be well researched and carried a kind of moral authority.
Technology has made the entire project easily accessible to anyone with a computer and internet connection, even as the reports have become longer and longer. This year the total exceeds 7,000 pages. The two most common criticisms of the reports are, first, that the State Department sometimes loses sight of the forest in its examination of individual trees. Second, and more importantly, the reports do not address the US itself. On one level, this is understandable - the State Department is in charge of foreign policy, not domestic self-criticism. For many observers outside the US, however, that bureaucratic excuse rings hollow.
An unspoken, yet inevitable, truth haunts the human rights reports: after a decade in which torture (albeit cloaked in the ridiculous euphemism of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) became official US government policy, Washington’s moral standing when it comes to looking at other governments’ human rights failings is much diminished. Though the Bush administration made torture an accepted instrument of the US government and will be stained by that fact for many generations to come, the Obama administration also bears a degree of responsibility. Bush rationalised the indefensible, convincing himself and his administration, first, that torture was not torture and, second, that even if it was America’s use of it was somehow different.
Upon taking office Obama made a great show of renouncing torture as an instrument of US policy. He also, however, opted not to hold anyone from the previous administration to account for their actions, and successfully discouraged congressional efforts to do so. This undoubtedly made political sense, but it also had the effect of deepening the moral hole first dug by the Bush administration. More importantly, Obama quietly left in place the legal rationalisations through which Bush had conceived a presidential power to order torture.
For all the official talk about making the US once again a country that does not torture people - period, in today’s America torture is, to all intents and purposes, still permissible if the President judges it to be necessary. Obama changed the policy, but left in place the laws and executive orders allowing him, or any future President, to revive ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ if circumstances someday change.
One can argue, and many of my fellow Americans will, that a realistic approach to 21st dangers requires just this sort of flexibility, as well as the moral fuzziness that accompanies it. A more honest reading might be that this is an example of Washington’s post-9/11 obsession with ‘security’ undermining other, less dramatic, attributes of national power.
The State Department human rights reports have never been without an element of hypocrisy. On balance, however, they have historically been more admirable than not. At their best, they represented a serious attempt to marry high policy to the country’s professed ideals. In short, the Country Reports on Human Rights (to give them their official name) are an effort to show the world that America’s government means what it says. The problem is that in important ways what Washington says today is very different from what it used to say. Watching from a distance, one can only wonder whether people inside the bubble of the State Department and the White House really understand how much has changed and what, in turn, has been lost.
n The writer is a long time Middle East journalist and US political analyst and teaches political science at the University of Vermont. The article has been reproduced from the Gulf News.