Friday, July 4, 2008

"A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind ..."

"A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind ..."

In 1788, Thomas Jefferson warned against the suspension of habeas corpus in times of "rebellion or invasion," noting that a loss of habeas corpus "will do evil ..." and could become "habitual" and the "minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension."

Wm. Scott Harrop and R.K. Ramazani

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Irony abounds in President George W. Bush's decision to speak at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, on the last July 4th that he will occupy the Oval Office. For it was Jefferson who wrote in America's Declaration of Independence that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" the colonies to set forth the reasons for their rebellion before a "candid world." America's founders agreed - international legitimacy mattered. Two hundred and thirty-two years later, the conscious disregard for the "opinions of mankind" has come to define the Bush presidency.

In the Bush view, the world is commonly reduced to being either "with us or against us." His former press secretary, Scott McClellan, illustrates the problem in his recent book, "What Happened?" Lacking respect for international opinion, Bush created alliances with leaders of a "coalition of the willing," not their citizens. Bush praised those leaders who stood with him for being "tough" and "strong" despite intense criticism from their own publics.

This disregard for the opinions of mankind yielded a bitter harvest. In the aftermath of 9/11, most of the world sympathized with America. But America's reputation abroad plummeted since 2002, as documented by multiple international public opinion surveys. In one recent BBC survey of 34 countries, barely a third found the United States to be a "positive force in the world." The most recent Pew World Public Attitudes poll found that a "majority or pluralities" in most of the 47 countries surveyed "disliked American ideas about democracy." Within Muslim countries surveyed, "the US image remained abysmal."

To reverse such negative attitudes abroad, the US government spends over one hundred million dollars annually on Arab-language programming. Responding to criticism that such broadcasting has not discernibly lessened anger at America, new Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman remarkably asserted on June 23 that "our mission is not to improve America's standing in the world." If so, his office has abandoned its mandate to "influence" foreign publics - the "opinions of mankind."

Explanations for weakening American stature abroad during President Bush's tenure include the controversies over the US-led war on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq without a UN mandate and maltreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

No issue has harmed America's image abroad more than the Guantanamo prison, where hundreds have been held without charge. "Gitmo" has become a world symbol of American injustice and hypocrisy.

The recent Supreme Court Boumediene v. Bush ruling may reverse the tide by insisting that habeas corpus, the historic judicial check against arbitrary imprisonment, applies to Guantanamo.

President Bush strongly disagrees with the decision. A "conversation" with Jefferson might persuade him otherwise.

More than any other founder, Jefferson recognized the fundamental importance of habeas corpus. In his first presidential inaugural message of 1801, Jefferson counseled his "fellow-citizens" to understand that "freedom of persons under habeas corpus" is among the "essential principles" of our democracy. Along with freedoms of religion and the press, and "honest friendship with all nations," these "principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation."

In the same enumeration of essential principles, Jefferson speaks of "equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political." Citizenship was not required. As Jefferson wrote in 1798 to an Irish dissident, "Habeas Corpus secures every man here, alien or citizen, against everything which is not law, whatever shape it may assume."

Jefferson also cautioned against justifying the "suspension" of habeas corpus in time of "rebellion or invasion." In a letter to James Madison in 1788, Jefferson warned that the want of habeas corpus "will do evil ..." and that suspensions thereof can become "habitual" and the "minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension." This was no idle speculation. During the American rebellion, the British public tolerated six Parliamentary bills denying habeas corpus - to all Americans.

Critics who contend the recent Court decision favored international over domestic opinion disregard the latter. As recent Pew Polls demonstrate, large majorities of Americans consider the fact that "the United States has lost global respect" to be a "major problem." They also agree that legal protections accorded terrorism suspects should be the same for citizens and non-citizens, regardless of where they are captured.

In these sentiments, American and world opinion concur. The problem has not been a cultural "clash" of American values at war with an alien world, but of America not living up to its own values. If America commits anew under the next president to having a decent respect to the opinions of humankind, then respect for America will increase.

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