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War on Terror Strips U.S. of Moral High Ground


The streets of Myanmar cities were eerily quiet today after the military brutally crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations over the last few days. The government of the country, also called Burma, has cut off much communication with the outside world, but reports from the region say protestors are losing hope and resorting to a plea for help from other countries.

President Bush urged the world to help when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly this week. He criticized not only Myanmar but also places like Zimbabwe and Iran. The targets of his speech then shot back saying that the U.S. has become no better than those it criticizes. And some observers agree, saying that actions taken in the name of the war on terrorism have cost Washington its moral high ground.


NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The president's goal was to rally world leaders to bring the United Nations back to its core values and uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He singled out a lot of places where he'd like to see change saying civilized nations should stand up for people living under dictatorships.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In Belarus, North Korea, Syrian, Iran, brutal regimes deny their people the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma.

KELEMEN: Many in the room could agree with his concerns about Myanmar, or for that matter, Zimbabwe. But when Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, took the podium, he had an easy response to Mr. Bush's speech.

President ROBERT MUGABE (Zimbabwe): He has much to attune for and very little to lecture us on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His hands, gripped with innocent blood of many nationalities, and today with the blood of the Iraqis.


KELEMEN: Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad picked up similar themes saying, quote, "human rights are being extensively violated by certain powers, especially by those who pretend to be their exclusive advocates."

And Cuba's foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who walked out on Mr. Bush's speech, told world leaders that the U.S. president came into office through fraud and deceit and has no credibility to judge anyone. He spoke through an interpreter.

Foreign Minister FELIPE PEREZ ROQUE (Cuba): (Through translator) He authorized torture at the Guantanamo Naval Base and at Abu Ghraib. And he's an accessory to the kidnapping and disappearance of people as well as to the secret plights in the clandestine prisons. He talked about the fight against terrorism but we know that he is lying.

KELEMEN: He accused President Bush of offering safe haven to terrorists - Cuban exiles who he said were behind Andy Castro's attacks in the past. The halls of the U.N. have often been a place for the anti-American rhetoric.

Lorne Craner, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights during President Bush's first term, says most people still see the U.S. as a champion of democracy though authoritarian leaders are always quick to point out America's imperfections.

Mr. LORNE CRANER (Former Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights): If you'd listen to speeches by dictators in the 1990s, they said the same thing. They said the same thing the 1980s. They said the same thing in the 1970s. You can always find something wrong with America. America is not perfect. We've never claimed that democracy makes perfect leaders.

But Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, says the actions of the Bush administration have given authoritarian leaders far more ammunition. And he says this year speeches at the U.N. General Assembly reaffirmed his belief that America is losing its standing in the world.

Colonel LAWRENCE WILKERSON (Retired, U.S. Army; Professor, Government, College of William & Mary): I do think it's a reflection of what's happening to America's image and ultimately America's power.

KELEMEN: Now, a professor at the College of William & Mary, Wilkerson says, he's found even U.S. allies nervous about this.

Col. WILKERSON: As one Canadian former prime minister said to me not too long ago, you know, it's not that we're anti-American, it's not that we hate you Americans - we couldn't exist without you Americans. What we really are fearful of is a headless giant in the world.

KELEMEN: Wilkerson says many are waiting to see how, or if, future U.S. presidents can restore America's place. He's not so sure if the candidates have good ideas about how to do this.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.