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Exceptionalism Again: The Bush Administration, the “Global War on Terror” and Human Rights

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 August 2010


When former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, gave his farewell address in December 2006, he expressed his dismay at the Bush administration's conduct during its anti-terrorist campaign. The United States had given up its vanguard role in the promotion of human rights, he averred, and appeared to have abandoned its ideals and principles. There have been many statements similar to this one made in the period since September 2001. Even close allies, such as the British government, for example, have called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility on the grounds that, as a symbol of injustice, it had tarnished the United States as a “beacon of freedom, liberty and justice.”

Part IV. Law, War, and Human Rights
Copyright © the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois 2008

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1. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, Harry S. Truman Library, at (11 Dec. 2006); statement by the UK Attorney General, “UK told US won't shut Guantanamo” at (11 May 2006).

2. Ignatieff, Michael, ed., American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 2.Google Scholar

3. The Human Rights Committee stated with reference to US signature of the ICCPR: “The Committee regrets the extent of the State party's reservations, declarations and understandings to the Covenant. It believes that, taken together, they intended to ensure that the United States has accepted what is already the law of the United States.” Quoted in Schabas, William A., “Spare the RUD or Spoil the Treaty: The United States Challenges the Human Rights Committee on Reservations,” in The United States and Human Rights: Looking Inward and Outward, ed. Forsythe, David P. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 111Google Scholar.

4. Andrew Moravcsik suggests that four forces are responsible for America's ambivalent and unilateralist human rights policy: the stability of its democracy; its geopolitical power; ideological conservatism; and political decentralization. See his“Why Is U.S. Human Rights Policy So Unilateralist?” in Multilateralism and U.S. Foreign Policy: Ambivalent Engagement, ed. Patrick, Stewart and Forman, Shepard (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002), 345–76Google Scholar.

5. On different rules, seeReisman, W. Michael who argues that America's role as the “ultimate custodian of international order”Google Scholarmay require it “to act extra-legally or supralegally with respect to those [international] institutions when an urgent issue of minimum world public order is at stake.”The United States and International Institutions,” Survival 41 (Winter 1999-2000): 6364Google Scholar.

6. On torture, see Foot, Rosemary, “Torture: The Struggle over a Peremptory Norm in a Counter-Terrorist Era,” International Relations 20.2 (2006): 131–51Google Scholar; and Dunne, Tim, “‘The Rules of the Game Are Changing’: Fundamental Human Rights in Crisis after 9/11,” in International Politics 44.2/3 (March/May 2006), esp. 276Google Scholar.

7. Patrick, Stewart, “Multilateralism and Its Discontents,” in Multilateralism and U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. Patrick, and Forman, , 18Google Scholar. Michael Lind sees this as more sectionalist than nationalist. George W. Bush represents, he states, the “unilateral militarism” of the Protestant Religious Right in Texas and in other southern states. See hisMade in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2003)Google Scholar.

8. Bolton, John R., “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?Chicago Journal of International Law 1 (Fall 2000): 206Google Scholarand quoted inRuggie, John Gerard, “American Exceptionalism, Exemptionalism, and Global Governance,” in American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, ed. Ignatieff, , 324Google Scholar. The second Bolton quote is fromPatrick, , “Multilateralism and Its Discontents,” 18Google Scholar. And see too the 2000 quote from Condoleezza Rice who criticized the Clinton administration for giving priority to “the interests of an illusory international community” whose support was allegedly necessary for “the legitimate exercise of power.” Ibid., 13.

9. Koh, Harold Hongju, “America's Jekyll-and-Hyde Exceptionalism,” in American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, ed. Ignatieff, , 112Google Scholar. Seymour Martin Lipset sees the classic emphases of exceptionalism as“liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” In American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: Norton, 1996), 31Google Scholar. Note also the title of chapter one of Stephanson's, Anders book, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995)Google Scholar: “Choice and Chosenness, 1600-1820.” Stephanson argues that from the very beginning the United States “was a sacred-secular project, a mission of world historical significance.” Ibid., 28.

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12. For one of many discussions of this, seeSands, Philippe, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (London: Allen Lane, 2005), esp. chap. 7Google Scholar.

13. International Herald Tribune (18 September 2006), 8, editorial.Google Scholar

14. Luban, David, “Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb,” in Virginia Law Review 91 (2005): 1425–61Google Scholar. For other examples, see Foot, , “Torture,” esp. 138Google Scholar.

15. Sands, , Lawless World, 205Google Scholar. Sands also quotes George W. Bush on 11 Dec. 2003 stating: “International law? I better call my lawyer…. I don't know what you're talking about by international law.” Ibid.

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17. Roberts, Adam, “Human Rights Obligations of External Military Forces,” in The Rule of Law in Peace Operations: Recueil of the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War, 17th International Congress, Scheveningen (16-21 05 2006), ISMLLW, Brussels, 2006, 433Google Scholar. For a fuller discussion of occupation law, see hisTransformative Military Occupation: Applying the Laws of War and Human Rights,” American Journal of International Law 100.3 (July 2006): 580622Google Scholar.

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19. Ibid., 442.

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21. Mead, Walter Russell, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 115.Google Scholar

22. Jervis, Robert, American Foreign Policy in a New Era (London: Routledge, 2005)Google Scholar; Katzenstein, Peter J., “Same War-Different Views: Germany, Japan, and Counterterrorism,” International Organization 57 (Fall 2003): 740–41Google Scholar.

23. Vice President's Remarks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, (28 Aug. 2006) at 5.

24. Bush quoted in Lieven, Anatol, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 52.Google Scholar

25. Crockatt, Richard, America Embattled (London: Routledge, 2003), 9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26. Ibid., 35, referring to the work of John Thompson.

27. Poe, Steven C., Tate, C. Neal, and Keith, Linda Camp, “Repression of the Human Right to Personal Integrity Revisited: A Global Cross-National Study Covering the Years 1976-1993,” International Studies Quarterly 43.2 (1999): 291313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28. Sweig, Julia comments on some of these instances in Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2006), 17 and 26Google Scholar. See also Kinzer, Stephen, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006)Google Scholar.

29. “Detention and Interrogation of Captured ‘Enemies’: Do Law and National Security Clash?” transcript prepared from a tape recording, the Brookings Institution, (12 December 2005), 1321Google Scholar. For the views of a powerful voice within the OLC between 2001 and 2003, reflective of Berenson's perspective, seeYoo, John, War by Other Means: An Insider's Account of the War on Terror (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

30. Vice-President Cheney quoted Roosevelt as stating during WW II: “Modern warfare against treacherous enemies is a dirty business. We don't like it-we didn't want to get in it-but we are in it and we're going to fight it with everything we've got.” Remarks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention (28 Aug. 2006) at

31. This phrase is typical of the language used in major Bush administration speeches. This one is taken from Bush's address to the American Legion National Convention, Salt Lake City (31 Aug. 2006) at html. Secretary of State Colin Powell argued against the Gonzales claim that Geneva did not apply. See Sands, , Lawless World, 154.Google Scholar

32. Bush's American Legion speech(see above, note 31).

33. Sweig, , Friendly Fire, 27 and 160Google Scholar. Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, reflected this myopic point of view when he said in February 2003, “we're not talking about the occupation of Iraq. We're talking about the liberation of Iraq… therefore, when that regime is removed we will find [the Iraqi population]… basically welcoming us as liberators.” Quoted in Roberts, , “Transformative Military Occupation,” 608Google Scholar.

34. Sikkink, Kathryn, Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 113Google Scholar, quoting the memoirs of former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.

35. Katzenstein, Peter J., “Same War-Different Views,” 740–41.Google Scholar

36. UN Doc. S/PV.5104, 17 Dec. 2004, p. 8.

37. Cronin, Audrey Kurth, “How al-Qaida Ends: The Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups,” International Security 31.1 (Summer 2006): 7, 39, and 4647.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38. President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point (1 June 2002), Vice-President's Remarks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention (28 Aug. 2006), at 6.

39. Cronin, , “How al-Qaida Ends,” 45.Google Scholar

40. What the existence of this Convention can mean for signatory states, at least those that have developed national legislation based on the Convention, is illustrated by the Al- Skeini case, heard before the UK Court of Appeal in December 2005. Baha Mousa died in UK custody in Basra, and the family accused British troops of having violated the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act. The Court of Appeal concluded that because the UK was “exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction” the case could come before a UK court. SeeRoberts, , “Transformative Military Occupation,” 598–99Google Scholar.

41. Mertus, Julie A., Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy (London: Routledge, 2004), 211–14.Google Scholar

42. Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 268, n. 9.Google Scholar

43. Dunne, , “‘The Rules of the Game Are Changing,’” 271.Google Scholar

44. The former two were opened for signature in 1966 and the latter in 1984.

45. See in particular, Borgwardt, Elizabeth, A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005), Intro. and chap. 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

46. As President Clinton put it in 1999 during a visit to Guatemala after the publication of the Historical Clarification Commission report on that country: “For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engage in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.” Quoted in Sikkink, , Mixed Signals, 181.Google Scholar

47. Foot, , “Human Rights in Conflict,” Survival 48.3 (Autumn 2006): esp. 115–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

48. FT Interview, “Bush Ally Hopes to Win over Islamic World,” Financial Times (15 January 2007), 8.Google Scholar

49. A point made inChayes, Abram and Chayes, Antonia Handler, The New Sovereignty: Compliance with International Regulatory Agreements (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 2526Google Scholar.

50. Human Rights Watch 2006, quoted in Dunne, , “‘The Rules of the Game Are Changing,’” 281.Google Scholar

51. “Statement of Senator John McCain, Amendment on Army Field Manual,” at (25 July 2005)Google Scholar. McCain, however, put his signature to the 2006 Military Commissions Act, which permits evidence obtained through abusive means to be used in any trials of detainees.