Leadership requires a positive vision shared by others and conduct consistent with that vision. The campaign against terrorism is no exception. The United States, as a major target, took the lead in combating terrorism. But the global outpouring of sympathy that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001 soon gave way to a growing reluctance to join the fight and even resentment toward the government leading it. 1
How has this goodwill been depleted so quickly? In part the cause is traditional resentment of the U.S. and its role in the world—resentment which was softened only temporarily by the tragedy of September 11. In part it is opposition to U.S. policy in the Middle East—in Israel, Palestine, and Iraq. And in part it is growing disquiet that the means used to fight terrorism often conflict with the values of freedom and law that most people embrace and that President George W. Bush says the United States is defending.
Despite its declared policy of supporting human rights, the Bush administration in fighting terrorism refuses to be bound by human rights standards. Despite a U.S. tradition at home of government under law, the administration rejects legal constraints, especially when acting abroad. Despite a constitutional order that is premised on the need to impose checks and balances, the U.S. government seems to want an international order that places no limits on its own actions. These attitudes are jeopardizing the campaign against terrorism. They are also putting at risk the human rights ideal.
This is not to say that the United States is among the worst human rights offenders. But because of America's extraordinary influence, the Bush administration's willingness to compromise human rights to fight terrorism sets a dangerous precedent. Because of the leadership role that the U.S. government so often has played in promoting human rights, the weakening of its voice weighs heavily, particularly in some of the frontline countries in the war against terrorism, where the need for a vigorous defense of human rights is great. This degrading of international standards threatens to come back to haunt the United States.