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Reevaluating Bush’s War on Terror : Why Human Rights and Civil Liberties are Essential Tools for, and not Obstacles to, Security

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Title: Reevaluating Bush’s War on Terror : Why Human Rights and Civil Liberties are Essential Tools for, and not Obstacles to, Security
Author: Tabata, Alexis
Advisor: Borowiak, Craig
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of Political Science
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Running Time: 210375 bytes166666 bytes
Issue Date: 2006
Abstract: The world has indeed become different place since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Often overlooked, however, is how the Bush administration has contributed to the deterioration of safety that they attribute to the rise of global terrorism. Bush’s war on terror has negatively impacted rights both at home and abroad. Both civil liberties and international human rights have been restricted in the name of security, justified by the administration as necessary to protect the American people and the international community. These restrictions, contrary to what the administration would have us believe, have made the U.S. and the world a less safe place. Americans are less safe from both the external threat of terrorism and the internal threat of their own government. The U.S. has lost its legitimacy as a human rights leader and provides other nations with opportunities to undermine international human rights standards. At the heart of the problem is the Bush administration’s adherence to the belief that rights and security are antagonistic goals. The opposite is true: human rights and civil liberties are essential to combating terrorism and ensuring our security. U.S. policy towards human rights and civil liberties over the past century is one of extreme inconsistency. History reveals that while the U.S. has taken leadership in the development of international human rights law, it has also supported oppressive regimes that provided it with a political or economic advantage. Chile’s brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet, for example, continued to receive aid from the U.S. until the end of the Cold War in return for his anti-communist loyalty. President George Bush senior resisted the efforts of Congress to use economic levers and sanctions against Saddam Hussein because Iraq was considered a strategic buffer against Iran. The U.S. also has a history of exceptionalism; evident, for example, in its tendencies to employ double standards and exempt itself from international laws. Inconsistency is characteristic of U.S. domestic policy as well. Civil liberties were grossly violated during the Second World War with the internment of the Japanese, but racial equality was promoted during the Cold War. U.S history demonstrates that the U.S. has been committed to human rights and civil liberties only insofar as they do not conflict with the security concerns that it deems more important. The current Bush administration has continued this tradition. It has been willing to undermine rights as part of its war on terror policy. President Bush, for example, has determined that al Qaeda and Taliban detainees are ‘enemy combatants’ and therefore do not qualify for the protections that the Geneva Conventions provide for ‘prisoners of war.’ The United States has also become tolerant and supportive of regimes with reputations for human rights abuse in return for their cooperation with anti-terrorism efforts. Domestically, the enhancement of governmental powers and the threat to civil liberties are embodied in the USA Patriot Act. The Bush administration clearly views international human rights law and domestic civil liberties to be constraints on its ability to achieve security. The impact of these restrictions have had very negative consequences. This is not imply that no good has come of the actions of the administration. Undoubtedly the Bush administration has improved its counter-terrorism intelligence and capabilities and is more prepared and able to intercept and prevent terrorist attacks. Bush has also made some genuine efforts to support human rights. However, such positive effects are overshadowed by the negative implications of the actions of the administration, which are overlooked by the government itself. Bush’s potential for doing good is often being undermined by the negative effects his administration has refused to acknowledge. First, America is less secure. Promoting and respecting human rights can help to destroy terrorism at its root. In this way, America is less secure from the external threat of terrorism. Restricting civil liberties makes Americans less secure from the internal threat of their own government. Second, the extensive controversy surrounding U.S. treatment of terrorist suspect detainees has threatened U.S. credibility and legitimacy. Without credibility as a human rights leader, the U.S. has lost some of its effectiveness in pressuring other nations to commit to human rights. Finally, the U.S. is creating opportunities for other states to undermine human rights by providing them with the pretext of antiterrorism. The Bush administration’s war on terror policy is based on the fallacy that security and rights are incompatible. This assumption, that security and rights are at odds with one another, is commonly adhered to because of prevailing notions of the state of exception. The state of exception is a time of emergency in which it is deemed necessary to restrict liberties and enhance the powers of the government. During a crisis, liberties are regarded as constraints on the government’s ability to move swiftly and forcefully against a threat. Thus, rights and security are regarded as antagonistic goals. President Bush adheres to this model, justifying many controversial actions as crucial to national security. Many other administrations have also adhered to the state of exception model. Bush’s war on terror and its impact on human rights and civil liberties, however, is much more alarming than the Cold War era or any other hot or cold war in American history. The ‘new war’ on terrorism defies the traditional spatial and temporal limits of war. This is having very dangerous consequences as the justification for the state of exception is that the period of crisis is brief and not, as the Bush administration claims, without foreseeable end. Some things have undoubtedly changed since September 11th, and terrorists undoubtedly pose a different and in some ways more dangerous threat than those posed by traditional wars and soldiers. However, the Bush administration cannot simply act unilaterally by creating its own model with disregard to international laws and precedents. In doing so it threatens to alienate the international community and undermine the authority and influential power of international human rights law. Acting thusly, without constraint or oversight, the U.S. runs the very high risk of becoming abusive and repressive. Furthermore, Bush’s policy assumes that rights must necessarily be restricted to achieve security. Rights, however, are important for both protecting America from terrorism and from the often overlooked threat of the government itself. This does not mean, however, that there exist no situations in which the curtailment of rights can be justified. But the Bush administration has gone too far and its global long war against terrorism is not one of those situations. Determining the right combination of security and rights is no easy task. It is one, however, whose balance must be found and whose necessity must be argued if the Bush administration is to be convinced that it is doing a lot of harm where it could be doing a lot of good. The U.S. is an exceptional nation and could be advancing the cause of human rights as part of its strategy against terrorism. That is the positive aspect of American exceptionalism: its potential for exceptional leadership. The Bush administration must work and act multilaterally and lead more by example, within the bounds of international law, than by basing its leadership on its ability to act outside of those bounds. Positive exceptionalism is leading by exceptional commitment to human rights and international standards, both at home and abroad, and not by maintaining the right to dispose of them at will. Many nations model their own behavior after that of the U.S. Imagine what a driving force for rights the United States could be if it gave them something more positive to emulate.
Subject: War on Terrorism, 2001-
Subject: Bush, George W. (George Walker), 1946-
Subject: National security -- United States
Subject: Human rights -- Government policy -- United States
Subject: Civil rights -- Government policy -- United States
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Tabata, Alexis. "Reevaluating Bush’s War on Terror : Why Human Rights and Civil Liberties are Essential Tools for, and not Obstacles to, Security". 2006. Available electronically from

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