Wartime Wrongs on Rights

In 1981, at the height of the cold war, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush visited Manila and made a statement to the dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, that the elder Mr. Bush now probably regrets: "We love your adherence to democratic principles and processes."

Today, in this next global conflict called the war on terrorism, similar scenes are being played out by the administration of President George W. Bush as it holds its nose and cozies up to authoritarian rulers out of a necessity for allies.

Last month, for instance, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Djibouti, a tiny country on the Horn of Africa (whose main export is salt), and praised Ismail Omar Gulleh, its leader and former chief of intelligence. His party has held power since 1977 with a tight rein on the opposition. He recently held an election that was widely seen as a sham.

But Djibouti, which sits strategically between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, has just given the US a military base from which to hunt for terrorists and provide support for a possible war on Iraq.

The US has courted similar regimes on the Horn, such as in Eritrea and Ethiopia. It's working with Pakistan, whose military has a constitutional hand over elected civilians. It's renewed ties with Indonesia's military, despite the atrocities in East Timor.

Despite Mr. Bush's desire to bring democracy to Arab states through regime change in Iraq, the US relies heavily on Saudi Arabia's monarchy.

When asked about rights abuses in Eritrea while on his trip there last month, Mr. Rumsfeld said he brought up the issue. But he said such countries "deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate for them."

As a standard-bearer for political rights and civil liberties, the US must not bend its principles too far in war. Yet the Bush administration must also provide a common defense, for itself and for many others. That balance is being set almost daily in this war.

This month, for instance, a US appeals court ruled in favor of the government's detention of an American-born member of Al Qaeda as an enemy combatant with few rights. The decision stated there is a collective right of the people in wartime to defend themselves that's as important as individual rights, and judges should give the executive branch lee-way in such decisions.

But as the US has learned from past wars, doing such things as getting into bed with dictators or eroding civil liberties for the sake of security can backfire. More vigilance is needed to ensure the government doesn't take steps Americans will later regret.

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