Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

America's Moral Downfall

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, December 6, 2005 --  

Revelations that the American government has been running secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons in Eastern Europe, and has wrongfully abducted an innocent German citizen to an American-run prison in Afghanistan have added fuel to an already raging fire of anti-American opinion in Europe.

Even before the latest series of scandals, world opinion of the United States was near a low point. In June, the Pew Research Center compiled a series of international polls detailing the problem. In France and Germany, favorable opinion of the United States had dropped to about 40 percent, down from over 60 percent before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.1 Similar drops were seen in almost all of the 16 countries surveyed. Only in India and Poland did more than 60 percent of people retain a favorable image of the United States.

And even people in Poland may soon lose faith in America. ABC News has reported that Poland was one of the Eastern European countries where the CIA had set up a secret prison before it was quickly dismantled in recent weeks.2 As a result, other European nations are looking to punish Poland's government for its cooperation with America's human rights violations. So much for the benefits of Poland's alliance with America.

But it is in neighboring Germany where the anger at America's foreign policy has become most acute. After a recent visit by Rice, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said America had admitted kidnapping an innocent German citizen of Arab ancestry, Khalid Masri, and transporting him to a CIA prison called the "salt pit" in Afghanistan.3 Once the CIA realized he was carrying a legitimate German passport and was not the person they thought he was, they continued to hold him for months before dumping him in Albania to find his own way home.4 As a result of this incident, the American Civil Liberties Union has joined Masri in a lawsuit against the CIA director, alleging violations of U.S. and international laws.

Europeans accuse the American government of kidnapping their citizens and taking them to countries where they can be interrogated and tortured with impunity. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has been busy flying around Europe, denying these terrible allegations. The power of her denial of torture, however, is diluted severely when she is forced to admit that the secret prisons exist, and that American agents indeed have been "rendering" European nationals. Moreover, her denials of torture will carry little weight given that they come from an administration fighting attempts by Congress to unambiguously make torture illegal.

Rice's strained appearance at some news conferences is reminiscent of former Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the United Nations to present America's case for invading Iraq. Powell later said he regretted the speech, and rued it as a blot on his record.5 In displaying the same visible discomfort in recent days, it is possible that Rice will eventually express similar regret for her defense of an outrageous policy completely out of character with America's history.

There is little point in debating whether interrogation techniques used by the CIA or its regional allies actually amount to torture. In the court of world opinion, the Bush administration has not just lost the debate -- it has lost it so miserably that it has no hope of changing minds any time soon. To say the Bush administration has been a public relations disaster for the United States is an understatement beyond all description. Most people outside America's borders no longer believe that America is a model of freedom and democracy. America has completely lost the moral high ground.

This would be tragic enough if the Bush administration's human rights transgressions and loss of international goodwill had been necessary in order to protect Americans. The truth, however, is that they have not. Terrorism simply has never been that great of a threat to most Americans. Fewer Americans were killed on September 11th than were killed by a litany of mundane causes every year since -- fire, drowning, falling and poisoning all kill more Americans yearly.6 Yet nobody would advocate making America an international pariah to reduce drowning deaths.

During the Cold War, when America faced a very severe threat from a much stronger enemy, America always held the moral high ground on human rights. President Ronald Reagan relentlessly lectured Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders about respecting the human rights of their people. Today, due to the shameful policies of the Bush administration, America is now on the receiving end of these lectures, based on abuses it sponsored in the very same Warsaw Pact countries. The irony would be enough to make you laugh, were America's rapid moral downfall not so tragic as to make you cry.

Related Web Columns:

Shameless Politics
The Politicization of Human Rights
, June 7, 2005


1. Pew Research Center, U.S. Image Up Slightly, But Still Negative, June 9, 2005

2. Reuters, CIA prisons in Europe closed in November: ABC News, December 6, 2005

3. Associated Press (As reported by ABC News), U.S. Admits Botched Detention, Merkel Says, December 6, 2005.

4. The Times, An innocent man's five months in CIA 'salt pit', December 6, 2005.

5. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Powell regrets UN speech on Iraq WMDs, September 9, 2005

6., Fever Pitch, America's New Irrational Fear, October 11, 2005