America, a Symbol of . . .

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

May 30, 2005

This Memorial Day is not a good one for the country that was once the world's most brilliant beacon of freedom and justice.

State Department officials know better than anyone that the image of the United States has deteriorated around the world. The U.S. is now widely viewed as a brutal, bullying nation that countenances torture and operates hideous prison camps at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in other parts of the world - camps where inmates have been horribly abused, gruesomely humiliated and even killed.

The huge and bitter protests of Muslims against the United States last week were touched off by reports that the Koran had been handled disrespectfully by interrogators at Guantánamo. But the anger and rage among Muslims and others had been building for a long time, fueled by indisputable evidence of the atrocious treatment of detainees, terror suspects, wounded prisoners and completely innocent civilians in America's so-called war against terror.

Amnesty International noted last week in its annual report on human rights around the world that more than 500 detainees continue to be held "without charge or trial" at Guantánamo. Locking people up without explaining why, and without giving them a chance to prove their innocence, seems a peculiar way to advance the cause of freedom in the world.

It's now known that many of the individuals swept up and confined at Guantánamo and elsewhere were innocent. The administration says it has evidence it could use to prove the guilt of detainees currently at Guantánamo, but much of the evidence is secret and therefore cannot be revealed.

This is where the war on terror meets Never-Never Land.

President Bush's close confidante, Karen Hughes, has been chosen to lead a high-profile State Department effort to repair America's image. The Bush crowd apparently thinks this is a perception problem, as opposed to a potentially catastrophic crisis that will not be eased without substantive policy changes.

This is much more than an image problem. The very idea of what it means to be American is at stake. The United States is a country that as a matter of policy (and in the name of freedom) "renders" people to regimes that specialize in the art of torture.

"How," asked Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, "can our State Department denounce countries for engaging in torture while the C.I.A. secretly transfers detainees to the very same countries for interrogation?"

Ms. Hughes said in March that she would do her best "to stand for what President Bush called the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity." Someone should tell her that there's not a lot of human dignity in the venues where torture is inflicted.

The U.S. would regain some of its own lost dignity if a truly independent commission were established to thoroughly investigate the interrogation and detention operations associated with the war on terror and the war in Iraq. A real investigation would be traumatic because it would expose behavior most Americans would never want associated with their country. But in the long run it would be extremely beneficial.

William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in an interview last week that it's important to keep in mind how policies formulated at the highest levels of government led inexorably to the abusive treatment of prisoners.

"The critical point is the deliberateness of this policy," he said. "The president gave the green light. The secretary of defense issued the rules. The Justice Department provided the rationale. And the C.I.A. tried to cover it up."

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, most of the world was ready to stand with the U.S. in a legitimate fight against terrorists. But the Bush administration, in its lust for war with Iraq and its willingness to jettison every semblance of due process while employing scandalously inhumane practices against detainees, blew that opportunity.

In much of the world, the image of the U.S. under Mr. Bush has morphed from an idealized champion of liberty to a heavily armed thug in camouflage fatigues. America is increasingly being seen as a dangerously arrogant military power that is due for a comeuppance. It will take a lot more than Karen Hughes to turn that around.