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 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 Sept. 11, 2001, became untenable, Bush increasingly emphasized the argument that America's invasion was justified to remove a tyrant, former Iraqi president 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.
To those in the other Arab countries of the Middle East and elsewhere who oppose the war, the impact is to make human rights seem a justification, or a pretext, for a projection of American power. The effect is to increase their distrust of those who preach about human rights, making it much more difficult than ever before for the US to rally support for human rights in much of the world.
The second reason that Bush's reelection is likely to hurt the human rights cause is that it constitutes an endorsement by the majority of Americans of an administration that is responsible for grave human rights abuses. America's moral authority as an advocate of human rights depends on its own respect for human rights. Under Bush, that authority has largely evaporated.
The twin symbols are Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Having practiced long-term detentions without charge, trial, or access to family or counsel; having sexually humiliated and tortured prisoners, some of them to death; and having failed to hold accountable any of the high-level officials responsible for the policies that led to those crimes, the US is now seen as a hypocrite when it calls on other governments not to engage in such abuses.
While the war in Iraq and abuses at American detention centers have damaged the cause of human rights in the Middle East and Asia, the third factor in the weakening of human rights -- unregulated free trade -- has been felt mostly in Latin America. It is there that the Bush administration has most vigorously asserted its position that the freedom of capital movement is an aspect of human rights. In the National Security Strategy of September 2002, the Bush administration calls free trade not only a meritorious policy, but also a "moral principle."