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No Trust

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Tags Big GovernmentMedia and CultureThe Police StateWar and Foreign Policy

03/15/1999Arnold W. Green

There was a time when the public wrongly trusted in the government. The glory of the present political moment is that this is no longer true.

It's all to the good that this lack of trust has hamstrung the advocates of statism, but it has also upset some whose livelihoods hinge on an ever-growing Leviathan.

In the column below, Meg Greenfield appears displeased the declining status of government in national and world affairs. But at least she has put her finger on the real issue.


Newsweek Inc.
March 15, 1999; Page A17

Scammed Too Often
It was a truly odd event. People were saying that the American government had been exploiting the access it gained via U.N. weapons inspections to spy on Saddam Hussein -- not just monitor, but spy -- and that we had been manipulating UNSCOM's facilities to a fare-thee-well, covertly and for our own purposes. A dastardly charge, the sort of thing we had for years been routinely accused of and that we stoutly denied, only this time, after a short while, we confirmed the charge and we confirmed it haplessly and in the well- these-things-happen spirit of oh, yes, that . . . we did it, all right. And then we went on to other things. No big deal.

There was a time not all that long ago when one of several different things would have happened. Either the espionage wouldn't have been admitted, but rather lied about; or it would have been truthfully and indignantly denied, ideally because it wasn't true or someone in the U.S. government who walked us into such a stupid trap would have been made to pay for it. But this was different. It was insouciance personified. Why?

There are a lot of relatively obvious explanations. It has been a very long time since ringing, my-country-right-or-wrong thinking held sway or could even be articulated in many places without cringing and irony. On the contrary, at least since the height of the Vietnam War, the disposition has been the other way around. The problem for many of the most disaffected people has been keeping a straight face. By 11 o'clock at night on a day when there has been some outrage perpetrated against us, as we see it (the taking of hostages, the gunning down of citizens abroad), you can be sure some of our most sophisticated fellow citizens will be getting their faces painted up in the TV-station green rooms, preparatory to going on and admonishing the rest of us to wait a minute, that America is not so innocent in this situation either, whatever the situation is. When we are accused of diplomatic foul play or dishonest behavior or any kind of cheating at all, it has become much easier than it once was for plenty of Americans to accept the charge, or at the least to give it the benefit of the doubt. That is not just some aftereffect of the Vietnam War, although the Vietnam experience of wall-to-wall official lying certainly helped it along. It is the cumulative effect of more exposure of official lies and scams than anyone can any longer remember.

This has been a sudden season of World War II literature, of glorification of guys who won the military victory. A lot of people, younger as well as older, have joined in exaltation of those warriors. But when the exaltation stops, we revert to contemporary attitudes. It's as if that is apart. We deeply distrust our military machine. We have witnessed the spying that engages national attention and that continues fitfully to shock us, seeming to become less political and/or ideological and more mercenary, an apparently endless chain of intelligence types and officers and low-grade military personnel mortgaging their freedom and their honor for enough money to buy a really classy car. And, finally, national loyalties and ethnic sympathies have muzzed up the sharp, simple patriotic postures of another day.

And in any event, too much of the patriotic rhetoric is mere cant. You can talk about the noble enterprise of the World War II troops, but by now people have a vast reservoir of knowledge -- the kind they almost forget they have -- that undermines their confidence in their government's word and good faith.

No one is any longer surprised to hear of the U.S. government's cheating on the U.N. inspection team and denying it in full voice...and then saying, oh well, hell, we did it, so what? The answer to the "so what" can be provided by innumerable international civil servants, not to mention honorable Americans, who will tell you that this fiasco has really cost plenty in terms not just of the Iraqi inspections, but also in terms of future U.N. efforts to monitor dangerous arms situations -- in fact of all our future inspection undertakings.

It was, of course, the press that wrote the story of the American cheating on the U.N. inspection deal. By the time it leaked out it was a hopelessly compromised "secret." Instead of someone's continuing to squash it or reconfigure it in some damage-limiting way (although this doesn't seem a very promising prospect), the story was just let out with an abundance of detail providing confirmation for many real and fanciful allegations of American unreliability and perfidy as an arms-control partner. Who can disentangle the true from the false? Americans decided a long time ago -- somewhere around mid-Vietnam -- that we, as private citizens, knew as much as or more than our government did about these questions of truth telling and who was leveling with us.

It has become so involuted by now that we have created a strange realm of disinformation that we exercise on ourselves. And in the midst of the policy turmoil, we will call a sudden halt to whatever we are engaged in -- the combat, the planning, the warning -- and announce that the moment has come to work out our "exit strategy." Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against exit strategies, as such. I think that if Bill Clinton had crafted one for himself at the beginning of the Monica mess, he'd have been a whole lot better off right now. But we must be the only world power that initiates hostilities or strikes back against an assault by declaring that we are only going to stick around for so long and often adding, as well, that we don't mean anyone any harm.

What all this means to me is that we have a real disconnect between our military and our citizens. We have people running around all over carrying out highly classified missions of weapons inspection, and we have people running around all over disclosing the content of those missions. And we have people who don't give that much of a damn one way or the other. But you will very rarely hear anyone say people should take their government's word for it or that they should not spill the beans or that they should respect the government's secrets. That went out with the glories of World War II. They've been scammed too often. Someone has to think of something else.

(C) 1999, Newsweek Inc.
Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved
Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


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