Stop the Bleeding of American Legitimacy

Patrick M. Cronin Patrick M. Cronin

LONDON – Branding the suicides of three Guantanamo detainees "an act of asymmetric warfare," as U.S. Rear Admiral Harry Harris recently did, is an act of superpower suicide. The global perception of a disregard for ethics and human life costs the United States the currency of international affairs: legitimacy. Compounding bad policy with bad public diplomacy suggests just how far removed Washington is from the reality shared by most of the world.

Nearly five years after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, there is no sign that the threat of radical Islamist terrorism is abating. But there is ample evidence to suggest that the United States is ceding global legitimacy to ruthless terrorists who kill civilians and children in the name of religion. The United States is not in an electoral contest with Al-Qaeda, but the evidence that the world's superpower has vastly diminished legitimacy to act in the world today than it did a decade ago is empirically based. Emblematic of this loss of global credibility is the June 2006 Pew poll showing more people see the United States as a greater risk to international security than countries like Iran and China. The decline of U.S. legitimacy also has strengthened rogue states like Iran, which is taking advantage of the favorable balance of power in the Middle East, and opened a power vacuum for rising authoritarian states like China.

Whatever inspired Harris, the commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, to equate the triple detainee suicide to an act of irregular warfare against the United States and "good public relations," the perception abroad is of the United States as a cold, Islamophobic and Machiavellian regime. The mere fact that people have been detained so long in such relative obscurity without due process of law was invariably going to be seen as the underlying cause and the suicides as a mere effect of Guantanamo Bay. One may as well as imagine the Red Army trying to explain to the media that hunger strikers in a Soviet gulag were using asymmetric warfare by starving themselves to death; yes, of course we hope that people give a democracy the benefit of the doubt, but the point is that they no longer are, and that is related to our loss of legitimacy. The fact that this is a complete misrepresentation of the United States hardly consoles the agony I feel about the chief national victim of September 11, 2001—the United States—becoming the world's biggest scapegoat.

Britain's liberal Guardian newspaper said that Harris's statement reeked of the "demented logic of Dr. Strangelove," whereas the conservative Times gently called it "unwise rhetoric." Some will dismiss at least the Guardian editorial as leftist cant; I would remind them that many in the greater Middle East see the Guardian as a propaganda rag of Western imperialism and our words must at least take that audience into consideration. How can we win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world when we cannot even win over our friends in Britain? As one Belgian paper put it, "Guantanamo is first and foremost an incredible feeder of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world… the perfect schoolbook example of a country that gives up its fundamental rights in the name of the war on terror."

Every time we seem to be on the cusp of regaining some momentum—such as successfully ending Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's reign of terror in Iraq—we then inflict another wound on our public diplomacy campaign.

For the past year, the Administration has been waging ferocious internecine warfare within its departments and the White House over how to win back friends and influence people despite flouting international law and public opinion with the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists. One problem is that many of the 'terrorists' held in Guantanamo without charge have been mere foot soldiers who lack an ability to wage a wider struggle. Recent moves to release many of these lesser detainees have eased the prison burden but not won the public relations battle. Meanwhile, our inability to draw distinctions or to set limits—and our apparent eagerness to underscore American exceptionalism—has made Guantanamo a millstone around Uncle Sam's neck. Our policy to date has been analogous to a military tribunal: swift, sure, resolute and without review.

Some courageous Republican appointees inside the Administration have made intelligent proposals for limiting the damage to America's reputation by bringing U.S. conduct in line with international law while simultaneously safeguarding security. But too many of those proposals have fallen on deaf ears. Frequent back-channel discussions in Europe have raised expectations that we would soon see the Administration provide a roadmap for closing Guantanamo. But actions to date have been feeble and half-hearted. The outlook remains one of the United States failing to get ahead of the curve on this issue.

Only dramatic and direct intervention by the President can help dig America out of its deep international rut. President George W. Bush should announce a date for the certain closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison. Such an act would stanch the bleeding of our legitimacy and remind our friends that we really are the good guys in this long struggle. If the President does not act decisively, then members of Congress on both sides of the aisle should move to heal this wound to our national credibility.

Read More: Human Rights, Terrorism, Human Rights, U.S. Foreign PolicyWar on Terror, , United States

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