Bush and Freedom: With Friends Like This

The following opinion piece appeared in the International Herald Tribune. Aryeh Neier is president of the Open Society Institute and Soros foundations network.

You might expect that human rights proponents would be thrilled when a U.S. president makes the expansion of freedom in the world the main theme of his inaugural address. Yet speaking as one who has dedicated his career for more than four decades to the struggle for rights, I see the president's embrace as a burden rather than a blessing. Let me try to explain. There are, I believe, four main reasons why many of those who have dedicated themselves to promoting freedom internationally do not welcome President George W. Bush as an ally.

First, though the expansion of freedom played only a minor part in efforts by the Bush administration to justify the war in Iraq before the war, after the fact it has become the main rationale for the use of military force. This shift has led some in the Middle East to believe that the professed intent to promote freedom is merely a convenient fallback after other arguments for going to war proved to be ill-founded. Others in that region see America's claim that we have a mission to expand freedom as an excuse for efforts to project American power. Neither response is helpful if the cause of freedom is to prosper in the region.

Second, the Bush administration's practices at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, and the policies that led to those practices, have deprived American proponents of freedom of our greatest advantage: our identification with a country with a reputation for respecting rights. To some, the image of a hooded figure with wires attached to sensitive parts of his body has replaced the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the United States. The damage is greatest in countries with large Muslim populations because almost all the victims of abuse are Muslims. The humiliation, sexual abuse and torture of the detainees, therefore, is thought by many to be a consequence of anti-Muslim bias. Again, this does not help us in promoting freedom.

Third, the Bush administration's repeated insistence that the United States cannot or should not be bound by the rules that apply to other countries inevitably inspires resentment. One example of a great many that could be cited is the administration's intense hostility to the International Criminal Court. The 97 governments that have now ratified the treaty for the court are predominantly the democracies with which the United States might be expected to ally itself. One consequence of American antagonism is that the court cannot prosecute those responsible for the great crimes taking place in Darfur in Sudan. Although members of the Bush administration have labeled what is taking place in Darfur as "genocide," those responsible can count on Washington to protect them against indictment by blocking Security Council action. The struggle for freedom is not advanced when it is linked to a refusal to extend the benefits of freedom to victims of severe persecution, such as those in Darfur.

Fourth, when the Bush administration talks about expanding freedom, its agenda includes promoting the freedom of capital movement. In the National Security Strategy published in September 2002, the administration went beyond justification of free trade as good public policy. It insisted that it is "a moral principle."

This has inspired a backlash that seems particularly strong in Latin America. Though most countries in the region are now democracies, and only Cuba is an out-and-out dictatorship, public opinion polls suggest that democratic governance has many detractors. The pressure from Washington on governments to go along with American economic policies is a principal factor. Disturbingly large sectors of the population in Latin America express a preference for military or other authoritarian rule. The popularity of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is indicative.

I do not mean to suggest that nothing good will come from President Bush's commitment to expand freedom. The Bush administration has been commendably firm in espousing freedom in a number of countries where some might expect that other interests would take precedence. An example is the role it has played in the Central Asian region that was formerly part of the Soviet Union, where human rights concerns have been in the forefront of U.S. policy.

Proponents of human rights may applaud such stands but many will also try to keep their distance from the president's larger campaign to expand freedom because, in the context created by the administration's policies, freedom may seem a threat rather than a source of hope.

Copyright © 2005 by the International Herald Tribune (IHT). Reprinted with permission.

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