Thursday, March 09, 2006


By William Fisher

One of my proudest moments as an American working in Egypt always came at about this time of year, when the U.S. State Department issued its annual report on the state of human rights around the world. I remember sitting in front of a computer in a Cairo living room a year before 9/11, while a group of young journalists, human rights activists and academics downloaded the report from the Internet, eager to see what the world’s most trusted authority on the rule of law had to say about their country and their region.

Their reaction was what made me grateful for having been born in the U.S.A. Because they were bright, well-informed, and fiercely pro-democracy, they quibbled about how the report phrased a particular human rights abuse or why this or that infraction hadn’t been given more or less emphasis.

But there was not the slightest doubt among them that this report spoke truth or that, of all the world’s countries, only the United States of America had the performance record to speak with authority and credibility on this subject.

When this year’s Human Rights report appeared last week, I e-mailed it to six of these old friends and asked them for their reactions “off-the-record”.

They had a lot to say, but it all came down to this consensus: The United States had forfeited its right to report on abuses committed by others by committing its own, failing to correct them, and then holding no one in authority accountable. They said they would have expected this behavior in their own countries, but not in mine.

The keywords in their e-mails to me included Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, imprisonment without trial, ghost prisoners, kidnappings, renditions, unilateralism, bribing journalists, and Bush & Company and their whole Iraq adventure.

One of them wrote, “What kind of democracy is George Bush trying to spread anyway?”

Lest Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney are immediately tempted to attack the people who wrote to me, they need to know that these men and women were as disbelieving and horrified by 9/11 as was most of the rest of the world. Many of them had attended American universities. They put their freedom on the line every day by fighting autocratic rule. They are people who once thought of us as the world’s last best hope for progress and equity. And, yes, they are all Muslims.

In short, these are precisely the people Karen Hughes is supposed to be reaching through her public diplomacy efforts to win hearts and minds.

Her job description ought to read, “How Do We Win Back the Hearts and Minds of Friends We Have Lost?”

Through exchange programs? By trying to bond with Muslim women by telling them that she, too, is a Mom? By insisting they drive the cars they’d rather have their drivers drive? By denying or remaining silent on what her country has become and by slavishly justifying whatever her boss, the President, does in the name of the “Global War on Terror?”

One of the young women I wrote to summed it up this way:

“We’re used to the iron fist of government in Egypt. We expect it. We used to have someone we could count on to show our leaders how to lead by setting an example of good governance without the iron fist. It was America. Now that’s gone. Now, the only people who are motivated by what America is doing are the very people it’s trying to defeat – Muslim extremists.”