The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

Still the Shining City on a Hill?

Human Rights in the Pursuit of Terrorists

For twenty years after 1979, the U.S. Congress annually passed “Most Favored Nation status” with China. The legislation gave China access to the American market – and vice versa – under the same preferential tariff regime as many other counties. Chinese and U.S. business groups lobbied hard for its approval, and during the summer of 2000 they secured an even greater goal: passage of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), which locks in MFN status for good and precludes the need for yearly review of U.S.-trade relations with China.

Because the PNTR debate was fought largely between two groups, its codification crystallized an important development in U.S.-China relations. Groups critical of China, many of which railed about human rights, used the MFN debate each year to shed light on China’s treatment of political prisoners, ethnic minorities, and Falun Gong members. PNTR’s passage, however, was a clear victory for business. Witness Chinese President Hu Jintao’s April visit to America that focused almost entirely on trade and security problems like Iran and North Korea. Business and war may disturb ties, but bickering over rights between the two powers will not: tellingly, mention of human rights is found reluctantly only after phrases like “also on the agenda.”

Doing America Few Favors

Indeed, advocates for human rights must be a grim lot these days. From a United Nations report calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib scandal, rumors of secret detention facilities, handing terror suspects to other countries for torture, and extrajudicial renditions, the United States has seen its image as the international standard-bearer of human rights and justice slip away.

The “war on terror,” say America’s leaders, will last for many years, even decades. This is because an individual’s ability to attack the country will remain no matter what political developments occur. As such, it is worth asking whether – with no end in sight – the persistence of the conflict should cause the United States to turn its back on the ideals that won the support of people everywhere for decades, and therefore helped achieve foreign policy objectives that may have otherwise been unattainable.

True, the nature of terrorism poses new challenges that will require novel solutions. The catastrophic potential of terrorist attacks will sometimes require harsh preventative measures and there are certainly terrorists (among an unknown number of innocents, as evidenced by the fact that the Pentagon has released some of the detainees) in Gitmo. The way out of these challenges is not easy or obvious; yet it is vital that America’s leaders make a vigorous effort to stop terrorist attacks in a manner that is more consistent with the country’s professed values. A solid first step would be legal proceedings against those being held at Guantanamo and closure of the prison camp there. Fortunately, President Bush himself announced such sentiments in early May.

The Stakes are High

Like it or not, if America cannot better handle the balance other peoples will continue to find America morally indistinguishable from less savory characters like Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Putin. Therefore, leading by example – while immensely difficult – is thoroughly essential because U.S. behavior has implications not only for potential terrorists but everyone living under brutal regimes that benefit from a lax international human rights environment. Demonstrating proper behavior is in fact the only way to advance the cause, as aggressive promotion of rights in other countries can help justify misguided movements (see “neocon”) and cannot be allowed to engender conflict among major powers (i.e. U.S.-China relations). It’s time for the country to overcome the conservative-liberal divide and recognize that upholding human rights at home is in the U.S. interest; if it doesn’t, anti-Americanism will become endemic, American soft-power weakened, and U.S. influence in the world debilitated.


 2006. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2006 - Posted by | Author: DML, China, Human Rights, International Relations, Politics, The War on Terror, United States


  1. Excellent article: well researched, reasoned and written; author is commended for overall objectivity. Pieces on the War Against Terrorism easily evoke opposing views. Macro and micro level assessments–like strategy and tactics–can compel conflicting conclusions. Specifically, U.S. anti-terror strategy includes public relations while its anti-terror tactics involves bloodshed. War conflicts like that. Setting ‘shining light’ examples for 12th century-locked nations is not akin to earning China’s respect for business acumen. Terrorist states may well only respect the light emanating from the working end of an M4 carbine.
    June 3, 2006

    Comment by FAL | June 3, 2006 | Reply

  2. While I agree that extermists and terrorists will only respect force, I would be hard pressed to name any “terrorist states” in the world today. There are countries that harbor and even provide cover for terrorists and there are places so weak (“failed states”) that terrorists find them easy to exploit, but the only country where terrorists ran the show was Afghanistan, and its regime was overthrown in 2001 as a result.

    In fact, the lack of distinction between regimes hostile to America – which may also be Arab or Muslim, but are defined more often by their domestic or regional security issues – is a large part of the reason why the United States has lost ground in the battle for “hearts and minds.” This struggle is also one that virtually the entire U.S. government agrees is vital to winning the “war on terror.”

    Furthermore, setting “shining light” examples is not done for the sake of converting terrorists or other fanatics; it is for the more reasonable population that makes up majorities in most countries around the world. The support of educated, worldy foreigners – and while they may not capture headlines plenty of these do exist – has turned against the U.S. in recent years for a number of reasons, but not least because America has done a poor job of PR, and of which human rights is a large component. There will come a day when, tired of bloody bombings and stagnation, the moderates and technocrats will come to the fore. But without a more effective strategy of prosecuting the war on terror this will be more arduous, with dispraportionate reliance on force likely to create a vicious circle, increasing the ranks of terrorists and sustaining the argument for continued military action.

    Comment by Anonymous | June 4, 2006 | Reply

  3. Ah, public discourse – a fine American tradition! Iran, Syria, Indonesia and North Korea are my early candidates for sample ‘terrorist states.’ Quibbling over formal governing systems definitions masks the larger issue; these nation-states have longstanding, documented ties to anti-American groups and activities. On point, as a matter of fundamental national foreign policy, any nation with the capability and willingness to execute, support, and/or promote terrorist acts against America should be anticipated appropriately.

    Winning the hearts and minds of fellow globe inhabitants may be a noble, idealized Camelotian objective. Saving America’s democracy from the clutches of 12th century-stuck fanatics trying to re-ignite Crusades era passions, can hardly be relegated to the same old tried and tired policies of the past. The Arab–Muslim nation-state ‘governments’ have their own culpability from riding their ‘citizens’ backs all these centuries resulting in the overflow of public discontent and civil unrest, in turn providing openings for the extreme Jihadists trying to export their hatred of anything foreign. (Alas, I digress; save for another discussion).

    To employ 20th century containment policies .. i.e., give benefit of doubt to the terrorist states while they ready their schemes against the U.S. – wait for them to strike us first — only eventuates advantages to the terrorist states while further burdening America’s readiness task. 21st century global realities drive U.S. anti-terrorist preparedness efforts that, in turn, dictate non-traditional (for America) first strike capabilities.

    The extent to which America’s first strike anti-terrorist readiness policies conflict with its ability to serve as a shining light beacon directed to more reasonable nations is a matter of balancing national priorities. While the U.S. cannot be all things to all nations, America is robust enough to perform both tasks in concert, within available, prioritized national resources. Both tasks should be done; but one will be done at a lesser priority.

    In times of War, some otherwise desirable national goals are simply going to suffer no matter how unjust; a casualty of War all the same. As with individuals, nations act in their best interests. Defending America’s current citizenry against all foes, foreign or domestic, should take priority over efforts to appeal to citizens of other nations to join us – however noble. An individual citizen who does not believe American should go to War over terrorism will be just as dead from a terrorist act on U.S. soil as the Anti-Terror War’s staunchest supporter.

    Good piece – keep it up!
    Jun 11, 2006

    Comment by FAL | June 11, 2006 | Reply

  4. Took me a while to get around to this one, as I knew I’d have to do some intellectual heavy-lifting to counter your last post! Some valid points, and I think our ideas differ more in the end in degree than in motive. Here it is:

    The regimes in North Korea, Syria, and Iran are beyond defense, and little effort should be wasted trying to convince them of proper moral behavior. They remain, however, national problems. They are states whose armamentarium includes terrorism, but they are calculating, pragmatic, and severely preoccupied with their own survival. Witness the succession of Assads in Syria, where the late Hafez led one of the harshest crackdowns on Islamic fundamentalists (the Muslim Brotherhood) in the last century, or Iran’s careful consideration of the recent package presented them by the Big Six. As a result, a distinction must be made between these state actors – which are tied to specific geographic locations, and can be targeted and threatened as such – and the amorphous terrorist groups that pose a completely different problem. The two may sometimes use similar tactics, but their vulnerabilities and motives are entirely divergent and counter-tactics must vary accordingly.

    Indonesia is a different matter, despite its inexplicable decision this week to release a convicted terrorist from jail. It’s a growing democracy whose government does not have unfavorable relations with the United States, and I’ll cite the Economist here: Indonesia has “built a plural democracy, where Islamist parties can fight (and lose) elections peacefully, and where the army at last accepts civilian rule. Indonesia is a steady economic performer and an increasingly attractive destination for investment…the Indonesia of today has become…a success.” Sporadic terrorist attacks in Bali may occur, but the central government here is as much a victim of separatist groups hiding on remote jungle islands as are the European tourists sunbathing on its beaches. This is a complicated scenario, but it hardly renders the country a terrorist regime.

    So while grossly corrupt and minatory regimes shouldn’t be the target of behavior modeling, there’s another group that does need persuasion: the rest of the world. The reasoning behind this is simple: when anti-Americanism runs rampant, the U.S. will find it increasingly frustrating to achieve its foreign policy goals, from limiting weapons proliferation to creating the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas to the U.S. role in Asia and support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When other countries hate the U.S., foreign politicians find it increasingly popular to play to their citizens’ anti-Americanism. Moreover, as all but the most extreme would assert, it is desirable to accomplish objectives through soft power, in which other countries cooperate with U.S. policy because they want to; this is generally accepted and well-documented. Having to resort to hard power – economic pressure and military force – is costly and more difficult for the U.S., but is the default response when other countries stubbornly defy America. Stern tactics are certainly valid, legitimate, and useful however, they are more taxing on the U.S. The tone of U.S. policy plays an important role in this process, and a leader in The Economist this week perhaps makes the case more eloquently than can I.

    Ultimately it comes down to the justly described balance mentioned in your last post, between competing national objectives: security and liberty. The balance has been titled heavily towards security over the past several years, due to a legitimate security threat. Yet as the war on terror will theoretically last forever – because terror as a tactic will never cease to exist – the U.S. must be wary of the balance so that it doesn’t end up permanently undermining the liberty and freedom that helped it win the Cold War and that have defined the country for over 200 years.

    Didn’t succeed in my effort to keep it short, but I’m going against my genetic structure! Thanks for the comments!

    Comment by thescreamingpen | June 18, 2006 | Reply

  5. this one post very good. i enjoy very much!

    Comment by demon | February 22, 2007 | Reply

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