Irene Khan, secretary general of the world-famous Amnesty International organization, recently gave a speech describing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay as "the gulag of our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law."
U.S. officials fired back, with President Bush describing the charges as "absurd," Vice President Dick Cheney saying they "offended" him, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calling them "reprehensible," and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers describing them as "totally irresponsible."
As a former Amnesty International activist and volunteer, and a frequent critic of this administration, I find it necessary to say there is no reasonable basis for the Amnesty charge against the United States. Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers are totally in the right, and it is a good they rebutted Amnesty publicly and forcefully.
There are three main problems with Mrs. Khan's allegations:
(1) On the merits, they are wrong.
(2) They foster unwarranted anger against the United States and its friends and allies—that is, they risk aiding jihadism.
On the first point, the merits of the argument, few Americans need convincing that whatever our wrongs at Guantanamo, they do not begin to compare in scale or severity to the gulags of the Soviet Union. The latter incarcerated millions, often for many years or decades, mistreated prisoners systematically as a matter of policy, and killed off many tens of thousands.
Gitmo and other controversial U.S. facilities in recent years have held a few thousand prisoners at a time, of which several dozen have been mistreated and perhaps several hundred held too long. The mistreatment has clearly been inexcusable, and the excessive detentions regrettable. But these have been neither enormous nor intentional acts of the state.
This is not to defend the Bush administration's handling of all prisoners taken during the war on terror. To my mind, the administration made an enormous mistake in suggesting Geneva convention standards would not be applied to the detainees, and in refusing to set up an independent review to ensure fair treatment of prisoners as well as prompt attention to their cases. Even if the number of individuals abused has been very small, the perception we care less for Muslims than for other peoples has cost us hugely in the war on terror. And it was largely preventable through smarter policy.
And Amnesty officials have been right, and within their proper realm of expertise, to critique the administration harshly on these specific points (as in their excellent annual report, well worth reading). But specific tough criticisms are one thing; analogies to Stalin quite another.
Second, the implications of Mrs. Khan's charge for the war on terror are extremely counterproductive. From the madrassas of Pakistan to the streets of Cairo to the radical mosques of Yemen, jihadists whip up hatred of the West by taking statements like Mrs. Khan's and portraying them as fact.
When Americans come to Muslims' aid, as in the Bosnia and Kosovo and Iraq wars, their motives are impugned or their efforts forgotten. When we make mistakes, as we admittedly often do, the errors are magnified and portrayed as deliberate policy. This vicious cycle of misinformation, which engenders more hatred and radicalism, helps explain why the global jihadist movement remains so strong today. We do not need more of this dynamic. We need less.
Finally, Mrs. Khan's words hurt Amnesty, its employees—and most of all, those voiceless and powerless and mistreated individuals around the world that Amnesty was created to assist. The egregiously ludicrous exaggeration of the Amnesty leader taints the organization's reputation for integrity, fairness and commitment to its core mission.
That many Amnesty personnel may share Mrs. Khan's dislike for the Bush administration does not justify violating longstanding Amnesty traditions of focusing on facts, and on promoting human rights, accurately and soberly. Doing so does not require dispassion; Amnesty is at its best when pulling no punches and tirelessly holding all officials around the world, including in the West, to the highest standards. But it does require dispassionate analysis, and most of all fairness.
It is not too late. Mrs. Khan should formally retract her remarks and apologize for them. If she insists on using the same occasion to repeat her specific critiques of American policy, and specifying ways in which the U.S. can better honor the ideals on which its nation is based, so be it. I hope she does.
But the first priority must be to make amends for what was unquestionably a most egregious and unfortunate mistake.