CONTROVERSY has mounted in recent weeks over the treatment meted out to detainees at U.S. facilities in Guantanamo Bay and other locations around the world. The White House and its allies have responded by blasting critics such as Amnesty International, charging that their comments damage the image of the United States, endanger U.S. troops and hurt the war on terrorism.
Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois is the most recent target.
Last week, on the Senate floor, Mr. Durbin, who has successfully led the effort to pass anti-torture legislation, read aloud a statement by an FBI agent describing the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said that the techniques described by the agent called to mind those used by repressive regimes, including the Nazis and Soviets.
The response has been quick and harsh. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Mr. Durbin's comments appeared on Al-Jazeera television and that "you cannot have a public official quoted throughout the world by our enemies describing the U.S. in these terms - it puts every young American in uniform at risk."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee went further, alleging that Mr. Durbin's statement was "anti-American and only fuels the animus of our enemies. ... It is this type of language that they use to recruit others to be car bombers, suicide attackers, hostage takers and full-fledged jihadists."
The rhetorical excesses of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Frist are dead wrong.
What damages the U.S. image and endangers us is not comments by Mr. Durbin and other critics of Guantanamo Bay. It is the Bush administration's detention and interrogation policies. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld explicitly authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. FBI agents and the Red Cross both concluded that the use of these techniques at Guantanamo constituted "torture." In the past, the United States always has condemned the use of such techniques. Now we apparently approve of them.
According to polls we have conducted, Arab attitudes toward the United States have dropped to dangerously low levels. The treatment of Arab and Muslim prisoners is a big reason, rivaling regional disapproval of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq.
Buttressing these poll results are my experiences in the Arab world, where I travel frequently. In conversations with opinion leaders and average citizens across the region, they often note their deep disappointment with our current human rights policy. Many Arab reformers tell me that our behavior mimics that of their own governments.
President Bush rightly has linked the spread of democracy to the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, the indefinite secret detention and highly coercive interrogation of Arab and Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other locations has harmed our ability to advocate credibly for democratic reforms in the Middle East. Indeed, some Arab governments now point to American practices to justify their own human rights abuses.
As Mr. Bush suggested, and as we have learned so painfully, antidemocratic practices and human rights abuses promote instability and create the conditions that can breed terrorism. Democratic reformers and human rights activists used to look to the United States as an exemplar, the city on a hill. Now they are dismissed by their countrymen when they point to the American experience.
Once we set a high standard for the world. Now we have lowered the bar. The damage to our image, to the values we have sought to project and to our ability to deal more effectively with root causes of terror has been profound.
Comments by Mr. Durbin and other critics help, not hurt, our image in the Middle East. People there are already outraged about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. That Mr. Durbin and others have demonstrated the courage to speak out and challenge these shameful and abusive practices illustrates to the Arab world that not all Americans support what the world knows we have done.
As their criticism makes clear, there are still Americans who hold high the values we call on others to emulate. At a time when we're trying to spread democracy, Mr. Durbin and other critics show people in the Arab world how a democracy works.
James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.