In a chapter entitled "The Eclipse of Human Rights," Richard Falk makes a case that September 11th has halted America's global leadership on human rights and development. The absence of the Cold War during the 1990s afforded the U.S. the opportunity to attach a level of benevolence to its foreign policy that crumbled with the Twin Towers. Replacing Clintonian foreign policy (intervention, globalization, free/fair trade) is a doctrine of neo-Realism (neo- because of the lost primacy of the state) based on zero-sum alliances and actions. Combating global crises can only be justified if they are seen as sources of threats.
"Undoubtedly, part of the hidden cost of patriotic excesses is the tendency to become insensitive to infringements on liberties at home, and human rights generally. To the extent this pattern can be attributed to the impact of September 11, it represents an indirect victory for the al-Qaeda attacks, compromising the most legitimate elements of the American reality, including its own proudest traditions as first enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, heroically enacted in the Revolutionary War, and enshrined in the Constitution on the basis of the Federalist Papers and an exemplary constitutional convention." (The Great Terror War, Falk)
I won't argue that America's record on human rights, even during the 90s, was superb, however it is clear that our focus on rights has shifted--subjugated to the apparent demands of a stateless terrorist threat. Abuse, torture, war rather than intervention, all point to a switch to an offensive stance by the United States. It is a perspective that enables policy makers in power to ignore complexity because of one simple, undeniable truth: there is a threat.
The problem with this outlook is that by ignoring complexity in the form of economic and social problems, the current Administration has launched a pinpointed attack on what is a very broad problem. While tearing Iraq apart and then attempting to rebuild it may change that country, the approach ignores the issues that cross national borders. The influence of Iran in Iraq's recent elections, for example, demonstrate that a single-nation-building solution is insufficient.
The beauty of the 1990s awakening was that people realized the need for a broad approach to global problems, coupled with specific policies based on that approach. AIDS in Africa, support for moderate leaders in the Middle East, trade with South America can all be understood as attempts to strengthen the world atop which the United States so firmly stood. Bush's aggressive foreign policy is limited and symbolic, much in the way that the September 11 attacks were: our new policy is designed around making a statement instead of making a difference.
Iraq is a mess. Afflicted with all the problems that skeptics of the war predicted, the country is fighting against religion, sectarianism, colonialism, and imperialism. It may be too much for the country to handle. Afghanistan is suffering as well, especially from the drug trade, in part because we failed to complete our mission there.
This should inform our future policy decisions. Afghanistan could have been a success, I believe, partly because of the extent of the Taliban's totalitarianism and partly because of its role in attacking the United States. Iraq, however, was a statement rather than a retaliation--or even a true preemptive war as no WMDs existed there. With the specters of Iran and North Korea (and perhaps one day Saudi Arabia, China, or Egypt) on the horizon, we must be clear that September 11 should have only justified retaliation, not excursions into statement-making. We must protect ourselves, but not at the expense of justification. Preemption only works when there is a threat.
While we keep close tabs on potential threats (by finally committing to improved and less faulty intelligence), we should also explore new ways to offer hope through aid, economic development assistance, and global leadership. Currently, Iraq is the biggest barrier to a return to this approach, which provides yet another reason to remove Americans from the country. A related barrier is our current reputation for human rights abuses. This must also be remedied by exposing our activities to global scrutiny and declaring a new willingness to cooperate.
Some concrete missions that America should engage in include the formation of a NATO for the Middle East, the revival of the global AIDS war, and battling unfair trade practices that skew the global flow of goods, services, and jobs. As Mr. Falk suggests, abandoning our commitment to human rights and development is a victory of terrorism that cannot be undone by arms alone.
Cross-posted at The Baltimore Group