All Writings
August 8, 2005

Squandering America’s Moral Authority

America's ascent to superpowerdom is one of the most significant events in history since the rise of the Roman Empire. No nation or combination of nations has a greater capacity for good and evil or exercises greater influence on other nations than does the United States today. Superpowerdom, however, offers not only the opportunity for global leadership, it involves a heavy responsibility in the exercise of such formidable power. For the United States to maintain global leadership, it must earn the moral authority to lead. Tragically, by pursuing misguided foreign policy objectives, the Bush administration has squandered much of America's moral leadership, with the ensuring damage yet to be contained.

Six empires fell during the twentieth century-that of the Ottoman, British, French, Japanese, German, and the former Soviet Union. If there were a single common denominator that precipitated their collapse, it was the inability to pursue global objectives with a strong moral component. Just about every foreign policy objective initiated by the Bush administration seems to have chipped away some of America's international moral standing. As long as this administration refuses to admit to its mistakes and to pursue its current policies, specifically relating to Iraq, the so-called war on terrorism, the proliferation of WMD, and human rights, America's star will steadily dim. It will be only a matter of time before other nations will join together and successfully challenge U.S. supremacy. The United States cannot continue to squander its moral authority and then demand or count on the rest of the world's allegiance.

Lack of credibility: "Morality is the basis of things and truth is the substance of all morality," said Gandhi. The notion of Iraq's threat to the United States was completely contrived; what followed was unjustified, unnecessary, ill-conceived, and ill-executed. The administration deliberately lied to the American public about Iraq's WMD, falsely connected Iraq to al Qaida, manipulated and used selective intelligence data to support a preconceived policy to remove Saddam Hussein, and created the false impression of imminent danger to justify a preemptive attack. The war in Iraq was and is not a war on terrorism and linking it to 9/11, as this administration frequently does, is disingenuous and misleading. The war and the occupation have energized Islamic radicals, with Iraq providing a training ground for more lethal and sophisticated terrorists who will haunt the West and the Middle East for decades to come. Even if the administration's intentions were good, it tragically miscalculated the consequences of its policies; unfortunately, its intentions were anything but benevolent. An even greater tragedy is that, as the number of American and Iraqi casualties escalates, the administration clings to the illusion that the removal of Saddam will ultimately usher in a new era in Iraq and the Middle East, and so justifies U.S. policies.

Disregarding human rights: Whereas the Bush administration preaches the gospel of human rights, it has become one of the offenders against them. The country that has traditionally championed the cause of human rights must now defend itself against criticism that it has betrayed its own cause. Administration officials criticize other nations of human rights abuses while Americans in charge abuse Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, moralizing and morals are two entirely different things and are always found in entirely different people. Although the administration condemned the abuses at Abu Ghraib and punished some of the perpetrators, the condemnation seems hollow when at the same time it castrates suspects imprisoned in Guantanamo beyond the reach of legal recourse. Amnesty International aptly calls this the "Gulag of our time"? If Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were not enough, this administration has granted itself extraordinary rights of rendition–sending suspected terrorists to countries with weak laws against torture such as Egypt, Lybia, and Saudi Arabia, knowing that they will be subjected to subhuman conditions to force them to give up information. But the administration's hypocrisy has no limits: How does an administration that condemns violence, especially indiscriminate violence, drop napalm bombs on combatants, killing scores of civilians in the process in Fallujah? Such actions not only erode the morale of U.S. forces in Iraq, they are a stain on America's honor, as one State department official candidly acknowledged. These transgressions and the administration's lack of transparency about its own human rights record severely undermine America's moral global standing and encourage other nations to commit the same or even worse human rights abuses with impunity.

Arrogant and self-centered: While the administration's misguided and arrogant policies deplete America's moral capital, there seems to be no effort by it to examine what went wrong and what can be done differently. The administration takes other nations for granted or reduces its relations with them to the simplistic slogan of their being "with us or against us." In the process, it throws its weight around and resorts to unilateralism as a national right, disregarding other nations' concerns and aspirations. Waging war against Iraq without the sanction of the UN demonstrated not just a dismissal of the international body but a disregard for the norms that govern conduct among nations. The United States can, indeed should, promote freedom and democracy, but it cannot shove these ideals down the throats of people in countries that may choose a different path, which may not be to the administration's liking.

The Bush administration has created the mirage of democracy and democratic progress in the Middle East, but not democracy itself. Only the people of a region determine, in the final analysis, how they will live their lives. America can offer advice and encouragement, share ideas, and even propagandize American ideals, but it cannot create democracy by decree. Not only will Iraq eventually reject the form imposed on it; the entire Middle East wants home-grown democratic forms of government developed in its own pace and time. The Arab world does not want to be redeemed by the very people that have humiliated it time and again. They may have bought protection from the West, but Arabs have preserved a profound disdain of their "protector". If the administration wants to eliminate the pain and suffering of so many people in the region, it must first ask itself how it contributed to their woes. As long as the United States supports corrupt Arab regimes that exploit their own people-for example, backs countries like Saudi Arabia because they serve American interests, it will neither end the people's suffering nor win their support. In this context, while America's image suffers from the perception of the United States as an exploiter of other countries' resources, the administration has done everything in its power to validate that perception by its inability to satiate its thirst for Arab oil.

Double standard:

Finally, what further diminishes the moral standing of the United States is the administration's propensity for employing a double standard, one for itself and another for the rest of the world. For example: while opposing development of WMD and demands that other nations comply to international treaties and conventions regarding this, the administration has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that seeks to outlaw all nuclear weapon testing. As a result, it has weakened the whole nuclear non-proliferation regimen for dealing with countries like Iran and North Korea that are attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Similarly, although the United States is seen by the rest of the world as the greatest environmental polluter, the administration refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocols. The administration's application of double standards extends to many other areas, including human right issues and the way it treats other nations. The Arab states consistently complain about the administration's double standards, in particular, its policies that seem to favor Israel over the Palestinians. Regardless of the validity of such policies, the administration's arrogance and its arbitrary demands make countries likeCuba or the Sudan, notorious for their dismal human rights records, feel freer to reject the right of the United States to judge them. Finally, the awarding to Halliburton of a no-bid contract to build a $30 million new prison in Guantanamo represents a dazzling new level of chutzpah. The combination of Haliburton's documented looting -reflected in cost overruns and inflated billings–with a conflict of interest–Halliburton was formally led by Vice President Cheney–demonstrates both the administration's insensitivity and how disposed it is to apply a double standard (favoritism) when this suits its needs. In a word: shameless.

I have no hope that the administration will redeem itself by changing its policies, approach, or intentions, and so America's moral standing will undoubtedly suffer additional setbacks. In the face of this reality, I remain hopeful, nevertheless, that the damage to America's moral standing will be contained. I believe in America's inner strength, the ingenuity of its people, and the core values of the Constitution. These fundamentals hopefully will save America from the mishaps of this administration. In the end, the United States will reclaim its rightful place and become a "true light unto other nations". But first, the American people must awaken, throw the neoconservatives out of office and elect different leaders who truly seek a return to these fundamental values.