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U.S. Must Work to Restore Image, Credibility Around the World


During a recent visit to a hospital in Michigan, I stopped and asked a veteran who was laying on his bed, “What can we do to help you?”

“Win back the respect of the people around the world for America,” he answered.

Terrorism is the greatest threat to our security since the Cold War. But the struggle against terrorism has been undermined by how America is viewed in the world. To deal with that threat, we need respect and we need allies.

Since the world embraced us after 9/11, America’s standing around the globe has been dramatically diminished. The unilateral policies of the Bush administration, the cockiness of some of its rhetoric, and the dramatic and vivid reports of our abusing prisoners have hurt us. A recent BBC poll found that only 29 percent of the people in the world say the United States is generally a positive influence. That number should be setting off alarm bells in Washington.

Consider that one person halfway around the planet could prevent the mass murder of our citizens by informing someone in law enforcement if he overhears a terrorist plotting an attack against us. We need that informant to report what he hears, but he is less likely to report the threat if he views America as an arrogant bully.

The tarnishing of America’s image is partly the result of our decision to go to war unilaterally and the way in which the war has been conducted. But the problem goes deeper: America’s image has been most tarnished when we have failed to live up to the standards that we profess.

Some congressional staff recently went to Saudi Arabia and met with senior Saudi government officials. The staff raised concerns about the highly publicized case of the female rape victim who spoke out publicly and had her sentence doubled to six months in prison and 200 lashes. Saudi officials responded with “Guantanamo” and “Abu Ghraib,” as if to say, “Who are you to lecture us about due process and human rights?”

In 2002, the Bush administration decided to permit the use of aggressive, indeed abusive, interrogation techniques. Recently we learned that the CIA destroyed evidence of those interrogations.

In the last Congress, the White House successfully persuaded a majority of my colleagues to pass a new law authorizing the administration to unilaterally redefine obligations under the Geneva Conventions, to narrow the accepted definition of cruel and inhuman treatment, and to give immunity from lawsuit to senior administration officials for detainee abuses.

A captain in the 82nd Airborne Division wrote to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) about his struggle to obtain clear guidance on how his men should treat detainees. The captain posed what he called the most important question that his generation will face — “Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security?” — and concluded that he “would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of that idea that is America.”

We must live up to our own standards, the rule of law that defines the “idea” that is America. America must always strive to be the shining city on the hill of which President Reagan spoke. But today that sheen is gone in the eyes of much of the world.

By understanding the strength that comes when we live up to our ideals, we can regain that luster. And when, as that veteran in that V.A. hospital in Michigan urged, we win back the respect of people around the world for America, we will make the lives of our children and grandchildren and our beloved nation more secure.

Carl Levin is a Michigan Democrat and the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. This article was adapted from a Dec. 8 speech that he delivered at a recent gathering in New York City of supporters of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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