Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

In all the hoopla spread across the front pages of the nation's leading newspapers about secrets and the CIA, there has been almost no discussion of what should be kept from public knowledge and what should not. The CIA apparently has the right to classify anything they wish and to refuse to answer questions about why they did it. This, of course, is a licence to commit crimes and keep any legal authorities from knowing about them. And, this, we are told, is necessary for the security of the nation. Do we not have the right to ask who protects the nation against the CIA? It is a truism that power exercised without restraint and without scrutiny will lead to misbehavior. And yet, the government appears to be saying that such action is the price of our safety. How do we know? We need scholars to tell us whether the totality of secrecy the CIA has employed over the course of its existence has helped or harmed the nation. I realize we have no yardsticks that would answer the question beyond doubt. But if it were asked and debated seriously, we would be a far freer people than we are now, and more secure too.

To denounce someone, or someone's argument, merely because persons of less than admirable character agree is an ancient and despicable rhetorical technique. It can appeal only to lame brains. Yet it continues to be employed in political debate here in the United State, and not always without effect. Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies used it vehemently on April 5, 2006, in the Washington Post to smear John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for their article about the effect of the Israeli lobby on American foreign policy. I recall that when I read the article Cohen's tone seemed a bit maniacal, so I'm glad to see that Richard Cohen, the Post columnist, is now agreeing with me. "Offensive" is the term that Richard Cohen uses for the piece. His point calls to mind that there are certain subjects that seem to elicit radically emotional responses in this country now and those are exactly the ones we need to be most careful in analyzing. When something becomes so sacred that you can't look at it from a variety of viewpoints that's when you are most in danger of being led down a primrose path.

I don't know how many Americans are familiar with Tony Snow, George Bush's new press secretary. Anyone who has watched Fox News knows that Snow is a rabid right-winger, with a penchant for sneering at anyone who disagrees with him. He doesn't have the sort of personality you would think a president would want in a press secretary. Of course, there's always the possibility that a new job makes a new man. One of the things you can never be sure about with respect to Fox News personalities is whether they really believe the blather they spew out or are simply following the Fox line for the sake of ratings. If you've watched Snow consistently, though, it's hard to avoid the belief that he really is a rightist ideologue. At times, he ever outdoes Bill O'Reilly in that respect. There's been a good deal of talk lately about a new Bush, a president tempered and made more open by the resistance his policies have raised. But the appointment of Snow shows pretty clearly there is no new Bush. And that's hardly surprising. There's not much in the president's head to make anything new out of.

Now that the CIA has said that Mary McCarthy is not charged with putting out information about secret prisons in Europe, we are left to wonder why she was fired. And we don't know why it was done in such a humiliating fashion just days before she was scheduled to retire. I'm sure Porter Goss and George Bush would say it's none of our business. After all, what right do citizens have to know what's going on inside their government? The problem is governments decay from within when interior rivalries and backbiting become more important than service to the public. Infighting is never going to be eliminated from government service but when it can take place in complete secrecy, then public trust in the government is bound to wither. In the United States that withering is far advanced. When we reach the point that government is seen as more our enemy than our friend we will be in the position of countries we have traditionally denounced as tyrannies. I don't know how close we are to that position now, but I do know that's the direction in which we're headed.

The back cover of The New Yorker for the day of my birth has an ad which begins with the phrase, "The fast pace of Modern Living put an extra strain on Digestion." You might think this is a pitch for some sort of antacid, but it's not. It's an attempt to sell Camels. It goes on to say that "The effects on digestion are known to all! In this connection, it is an interesting fact that smoking a Camel during or between meals tends to stimulate and promote digestion." The accompanying photograph shows Mrs. Ernest DuPont, Jr, at her table in the Rainbow Room of Rockefeller Center, 65 stories above the streets of New York, holding a Camel (or, at least, some kind of cigarette) elegantly in her right hand. The aristocracy we have with us always. I don't suppose Mrs. DuPont knew then that smoking Camels was likely to kill her. She has a blank look on her face which indicates it might be hard for her to know anything. But, that's probably too cruel. The main lesson I take from this tiny vignette of my birth year is that humans are fascinated with wealth and despite all the great teachings that it conveys neither happiness nor meaning, that they probably always will be. That being the case, they'll be perpetually ready to sell you anything, and they don't care how absurd the sales slogan is as long as it works.

Russia has announced that it will sell Tor M1 air defense missiles to Iran, which will be used to protect Iranian nuclear sites. These missiles will be operational by September. Rosa Brooks of the Los Angeles Times thinks there's a possibility the Israelis will decide to attack the nuclear facilities before the missiles are installed. If that happens there is no telling what will follow. But it's pretty clear the American position in Iraq would become more difficult than it is now. The entire Arab world would believe the United States had authorized the Israeli attacks. And nothing we could say would change their beliefs. Various powers around the world are becoming adept at manipulating the American reputation for reckless military action in order to enhance their own power position. And, currently, the American government is helpless to stop them. This is the position to which we've been brought by the cowboy diplomacy that has marked our foreign policy over the past five years.

A New York Times headline reads, "Death Toll for Americans in Iraq Is Highest in Five Months." The article by Sabrina Tavernise goes on to survey other mayhem in the country and ends with Vice President Mahdi's estimate that 100,000 families have been forced to run away from their homes because of the violence. Meanwhile there continues to be talk of defeating the insurgency by the people who are actually feeding it. There will be no peace in Iraq until American forces get out. How could there be? The psychological naivete in the upper ranks of the American government remains astounding. Our political panjamdrums continue to believe they can invade a country, blow it's infrastructure to smithereens, kill tens of thousands of its citizens, and be thanked for it. And why is this? Because we're the good guys. Our generals go out to meet Iraqis dressed like space aliens, with so much gear protruding from their bodies it's hard to see how they can stand up, and are blind to the ridiculous image they provide for the Iraqi people. The generals' image of themselves is a feature of pathological arrogance.  And it will keep on fueling the insurgency as long as we keep cramming it into Iraqi faces. It's a big price to pay for the support of bloated egos.

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