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/ March 5, 2013
American Foreign Policy Changes, So Why Doesn’t Our Moral Compass?

While it’s easy to get caught up in the ridiculously entertaining riff-raff of national politics, the US has engaged in several serious international events over the past decade: war on a country, war on a concept, war on a substance, war-like non wars. With all this energy pouring into foreign conflict, it’s no wonder that the American moral compass for human rights needs some realigning.

Technically speaking, the US has a strong public image record of championing global rights. In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document that maintains, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (sound familiar?) And in 1994, Congress ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture, affirming “No exceptional circumstance whatsoever … may be invoked as justification of torture.” 

As it turns out, however, America harbors an immense history of engaging in controversial violations of those creeds: ignoring treaties, invading countries, and using interrogation tactics just shy of Colin Powell’s (debatable) definition of torture.

And under the guise of the War on Terror, those historical precedents are set to continue. While President Obama maintains that his administration’s “targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists” is consistent with American laws, extensive evidence challenges that assertion.

  1. Targeting:  According to “conservative” anecdotal evidence, 4,700 people  have been killed in drone strikes. Though the American public overwhelmingly supports the use of drones, General Stanley McChrystal says that drones “are hated on a visceral level” in the international community. Questions regarding accountability, transparency, and “basic rules of law” have been levied against the President, who remains largely silent on the issue.
  2. Detention: US detainment of suspected terrorists stains the Obama administration’s notion of adherence to human rights laws. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and several other organizations expressed outrage at the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, criticizing a provision that authorized the indefinite detention of terror suspects. And despite receiving international condemnation for ten years – “a decade of damage to human rights” – the infamous US detention center Guantanamo Prison still houses “approximately 166” detainees.
  3. Prosecution: If targeted killing and indefinite detention isn’t enough, the judicial rights of terror suspects follows a similarly dismal pattern. The “one of a kind military tribunals” – erected for trying suspected terrorists, and complete with soundproof glass, forty-second sound delays, and client-attorney spying – are Constitutionally shady, at best (see also: violations of habeas corpus, disregard for international law, and overreach of executive power.)

Political pundit Tucker Carlson (the bow tie guy) posited last year that the US can assume such expansive powers because it is,  “The only country with the moral authority … and the only country that doesn’t seek hegemony in the world.” Carlson’s rant – which later described all Iranians as “evil” “lunatics” – represents a dramatic stance on the exemplary position of America as the moral world leader. But while his sentiment is colorful, it is certainly not unique.

NYU Professor Jonathan Zimmerman notes American exceptionalism as a motivating force in its political authority, saying the first colonists, and even the founding fathers, “saw themselves as having a providential destiny; The idea was not just to start a new nation, it was to be a model for the rest of the world.”

“It’s ethnocentric – which can be problematic,” Zimmerman said. “To say we’re a model for the rest of the world implies consent and knowledge of it.”

That consent – if it ever existed – disappears entirely when the US nullifies its public “commitment” to human rights.

Though nations may not look to America for moral advice, they will likely look to the U.S. Model for Acquiring Drones (think: “follow the leader,” but with unmanned warfare and no actual leader.) And in the wake of sketchy detention and prosecution practices, international politics call US authority into question: in 2008, China blasted US criticism of other nations, citing hypocrisy for “widespread human rights abuses on its own territory.”

US moral authority – or lack thereof – is indicative of a serious discrepancy in how we tackle human rights issues: in encouraging democratic values and championing liberty, the US ignored its own framework.  The US can no longer bend the rules to satisfy morally ambiguity. Instead, it must champion – first and foremost – the real protections afforded people as citizens of the world.

We shouldn’t do it because of American exceptionalism. We should do it because of human decency.

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