The 9/11 attacks prompted an outpouring of international sympathy and support for the United States, but Washington’s subsequent “war on terror” undercut the superpower’s moral authority.
Ten years later, analysts say, America has not fully recovered its standing as a steadfast defender of liberty and fierce protector of the rule of law, handing Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda at least a partial victory.
Critics accused president George W. Bush of riding roughshod over civil liberties, signing off on torture, extraordinary rendition and warrantless surveillance as he waged his “war on terror” no matter what the cost.
Sweeping into office in January 2009 on a message of hope and change, President Barack Obama was supposed to be the leader to boldly restore those liberties, but he is now being tarred with the same brush as his predecessor.
“Although the Obama administration abandoned the Bush administration’s global war terminology, it has largely adopted (the latter’s) global war legal framework,” Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union told AFP.
With indefinite detentions, military trials and targeted killings of terror suspects, the Obama team has “actually entrenched the global war framework,” Shamsi said.
On a false premise of searching for nuclear weapons — which US officials said at the time could end up in terrorist hands — the Bush administration infuriated much of the world when it led the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It also drew fire for labelling suspects in the “war on terror” as “unlawful” combatants who were not allowed the full protections of the Third Geneva Convention.
Under the term “extraordinary rendition,” it abducted suspects and secretly transferred them to overseas prisons where many languished for years suffering suspected torture without charge or trial.
The US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — which Obama promised but failed to close — became a symbol of those excesses.
But allies were also furious over the treatment of suspects held in Afghanistan and in a network of secret prisons worldwide operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
US forces have carried out and still carry out “targeted killings,” or what critics call extrajudicial executions, hunting down and killing suspects using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
Shamsi said the Obama administration’s “commitment to dismantling Guantanamo has been undermined by its assertion of authority to detain people indefinitely without charge or trial at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan.”
And while the Obama team can make a case, she said, for drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal border areas, which Afghan militants use as a rear base, it has less of a case in Yemen and Somalia, where America is not at war.
After initially seeking to try suspects in civilian courts, the Obama administration has again resorted to military tribunals, albeit with reforms in place and only because its hand was forced by Republican opposition.
There is recognition that Obama, who ordered the Navy SEAL raid in May that killed bin Laden, has tried to right the ship.
Shamsi praised the Obama administration for having categorically prohibited torture and outlawed secret detention sites.
And Wendy Chamberlin, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, said that while Obama had dashed some expectations, particularly with the failure to close Guantanamo, America’s standing was now much higher than under Bush.
Bush’s policies “hurt us enormously,” Chamberlin, now president of the Middle East Institute, told AFP.
“All over the world, including Europe, including our allies, (people) lost confidence in our moral leadership.”
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, agreed that the United States squandered the goodwill it had after September 11 and said things have improved only marginally under Obama.
“After a brief period of empathy from the rest of the world in the aftermath of the attacks, we saw a sharp downward spiral with the start of the Iraq war,” Katulis told AFP.
“The simple fact of the matter is that we didn’t end up doing a lot of the things we said we would do (under Obama), whether it was closing Guantanamo Bay or advancing the Middle East peace process.”