The Diplomatic Trade

ON MY MIND / By A.M. Rosenthal
March 12, 1999 - The New York Time

Falsehood, withholding critical information, distortion, cover-up. Diplomacy, a branch of government that often makes the difference between war and peace, uses these tools at least as often to deceive its own people as a potential enemy.

Diplomats working for dictatorships or for democracies often share a common operational philosophy -- what we do or say is good for the country and our leader, in power by election or force. So, utterly content with their wisdom, they believe that what they choose the people should not know is exactly what the people have no business to know.

Citizens of dictatorships take this for granted. I have never met one foolish enough to be surprised that his government was routinely misleading him. The diplomats and their master barely ever trouble to deny it.

But in the democracies diplomats pretend indignation at the idea. Americans by the million announce their mistrust of government. But even though they know that their government is unlikely to execute or torture them for protesting concealments that could lead to war or military weakness, they remain passive and unquestioning.

Many tell themselves that the government is simply guarding national security or counterintelligence. Sometimes that is true. But often it is not security interests that are being protected but the political interests of the existing administration, and the embarrassment of seeing policy failure revealed -- or seeing no policy at all.

Emphasis: This attitude is not true of all American diplomats. At home and abroad, I have found diplomats risking their careers to fight cover-ups. But there is enough pressure and self-interest in going along so that some form of deliberate governmental distortion is almost always taking place, at the moment at least three that should shake American public apathy.

1. Since 1995, high Government officials knew of evidence that China had stolen one of the top secrets in the American armory -- the ability to make small nuclear weapons that could be launched simultaneously at multiple targets. Incredibly, virtually nothing was done until The New York Times broke the story last week.

In two highly touted summit meetings with China, President Clinton said nothing to the Politburo, or the American and Chinese publics. To tell the story would have exposed as sickeningly false the myth he prattles to Americans -- appeasement of China is making it a "strategic" partner of America.

Of course, his silence made him a different kind of partner for China -- a party after the crime.

2. Clinton inherited President Bush's historic error -- allowing Saddam Hussein to rule after the Iraqi defeat in the gulf war. He also inherited the most important arms inspection machinery of our time -- the U.N. commission preventing Iraq from making weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam rules after six years of Clinton's Presidency. And the commission is dead.

It was killed by such friends as France, Russia, China and U.N. officials. All the while it was dying in closed U.N. meetings, Washington kept saying that behind those doors was a strong consensus to keep the commission strong. Simply untrue.

3. The NATO treaty was drawn up, and signed by the U.S., to protect Western Europe against the Soviet Union. Now the U.S. and other NATO members use the alliance to bomb or threaten countries involved in a civil and religious war, as in Bosnia, or a movement for relief and independence, as in Serbia's Kosovo Province.

At what point were the new NATO responsibilities created, and at what point did Americans agree to sign up? Americans do not ask, nor do they ask how the disarmament commission died while it was supposed to be under U.S. protection, or how long U.S. forces will remain in Bosnia or Serbia, whether Clinton has the faintest idea, or what the criteria for further local interventions will be, and what other spots might be selected -- if Clinton and his diplomats have the faintest idea. Do Americans get to choose? And what are his plans for Saddam's exit?

If the U.S. public does not care about what they are told and when, if they are told at all, shouldn't Congress demand the answers? Or would that be considered nervy rudeness toward diplomats, their working habits and our elected leader?

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