A foreign policy centered on killing and countering terrorists poses risks for the global human rights order, and for U.S. security and global standing. Obama acknowledged these dangers not so long ago. In a 2007 article, he wrote that "to build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law." While the president has ended some of these practices, he has endorsed others with equally corrosive effects. By stepping up drone attacks, he has turned angry families in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere into terrorist sympathizers, stoked anti-American sentiment, and set an example that other regimes use to rationalize abusive behavior.
Obama now faces a fateful decision: Is the killing of bin Laden the emblem of a foreign policy in which counterterrorism goals automatically trump human rights? Or will he use his second term to revive his 2008 assertion that America's "global engagement cannot be defined by what we are against. It must be guided by a clear sense of what we stand for"?
This latter course dictates several steps. First, he should publicly recommit himself to closing Guantánamo without bringing its detainees onshore for indefinite detention. He should transfer the 55 detainees already cleared and press for federal trials of detainees in appropriate cases. (A good starting point would be Shaker Aamer, who has been at Guantánamo for more than 10 years and was first cleared for release to his home country, Britain, by George W. Bush in 2007.) Second, he should announce that the United States' use of drones will henceforth conform to international human rights law. This will require unmasking the secrecy that surrounds the program and ensuring accountability. Third, he should install in the White House a top human rights advisor with a broad mandate and access and influence equivalent to what counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has enjoyed. Since the early departure of White House Counsel Gregory Craig, no senior member of the president's inner circle has pushed for the realization of his human rights promises. U.S. human rights leadership will not be restored without a top, trusted White House official able to go toe-to-toe with the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon.
Some Obama enthusiasts in the human rights community suggest that the president's apparent indifference to his human rights legacy is a temporary nod to the politics of the day and to American voters who may not prize American human rights credibility. With his reelection behind him, we will soon learn what Obama really stands for.