Fundamental changes are taking place in the historical policies of the United States with regard to human rights, our role in the community of nations and the Middle East peace process -- largely without definitive debates (except, at times, within the administration). Some new approaches have understandably evolved from quick and well-advised reactions by President Bush to the tragedy of Sept. 11, but others seem to be developing from a core group of conservatives who are trying to realize long-pent-up ambitions under the cover of the proclaimed war against terrorism.
Formerly admired almost universally as the preeminent champion of human rights, our country has become the foremost target of respected international organizations concerned about these basic principles of democratic life. We have ignored or condoned abuses in nations that support our anti-terrorism effort, while detaining American citizens as "enemy combatants," incarcerating them secretly and indefinitely without their being charged with any crime or having the right to legal counsel. This policy has been condemned by the federal courts, but the Justice Department seems adamant, and the issue is still in doubt. Several hundred captured Taliban soldiers remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay under the same circumstances, with the defense secretary declaring that they would not be released even if they were someday tried and found to be innocent. These actions are similar to those of abusive regimes that historically have been condemned by American presidents.
While the president has reserved judgment, the American people are inundated almost daily with claims from the vice president and other top officials that we face a devastating threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and with pledges to remove Saddam Hussein from office, with or without support from any allies. As has been emphasized vigorously by foreign allies and by responsible leaders of former administrations and incumbent officeholders, there is no current danger to the United States from Baghdad. In the face of intense monitoring and overwhelming American military superiority, any belligerent move by Hussein against a neighbor, even the smallest nuclear test (necessary before weapons construction), a tangible threat to use a weapon of mass destruction, or sharing this technology with terrorist organizations would be suicidal. But it is quite possible that such weapons would be used against Israel or our forces in response to an American attack.
We cannot ignore the development of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, but a unilateral war with Iraq is not the answer. There is an urgent need for U.N. action to force unrestricted inspections in Iraq. But perhaps deliberately so, this has become less likely as we alienate our necessary allies. Apparently disagreeing with the president and secretary of state, in fact, the vice president has now discounted this goal as a desirable option.
We have thrown down counterproductive gauntlets to the rest of the world, disavowing U.S. commitments to laboriously negotiated international accords.
Peremptory rejections of nuclear arms agreements, the biological weapons convention, environmental protection, anti-torture proposals, and punishment of war criminals have sometimes been combined with economic threats against those who might disagree with us. These unilateral acts and assertions increasingly isolate the United States from the very nations needed to join in combating terrorism.
Tragically, our government is abandoning any sponsorship of substantive negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Our apparent policy is to support almost every Israeli action in the occupied territories and to condemn and isolate the Palestinians as blanket targets of our war on terrorism, while Israeli settlements expand and Palestinian enclaves shrink.
There still seems to be a struggle within the administration over defining a comprehensible Middle East policy. The president's clear commitments to honor key U.N. resolutions and to support the establishment of a Palestinian state have been substantially negated by statements of the defense secretary that in his lifetime "there will be some sort of an entity that will be established" and his reference to the "so-called occupation." This indicates a radical departure from policies of every administration since 1967, always based on the withdrawal of Israel from occupied territories and a genuine peace between Israelis and their neighbors.
Belligerent and divisive voices now seem to be dominant in Washington, but they do not yet reflect final decisions of the president, Congress or the courts. It is crucial that the historical and well-founded American commitments prevail: to peace, justice, human rights, the environment and international cooperation.
Former president Carter is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company