Testing Government Reliability

The current Condition Delta global alert against terrorist threats called by the United States government last Friday because of allegedly credible threats from "Saudi millionaire" (as he’s always described) Osama Bin Laden’s organization could give us preliminary answers to an unsettling question. Is the U.S. government or the militant Taliban regime in Afghanistan closer to being a truth teller? Media discussion of the threat has already given us an unsettling preliminary answer to the question of whether top US policymakers take the US Constitution seriously.

Before acknowledging in some detail that the crisis might give us no clear-cut answer to the question so starkly presented above, it is important to note that the foundation for being able to entertain such a question seriously has been a long time abuilding, and the result should be a source of sadness to Americans who want to be patriotic. Time was when most Americans assumed that their country, while it might make mistakes in assessment or judgment, played the role of the good guys in international affairs.

After all, the United States defeated Hitler and stayed the long and sometimes ambiguous course of the Cold War. This country, while not always wise or forward-looking enough, usually stands for human rights and democracy in some defensible form or another. And because our leaders’ motives were usually good, they told at least a semblance of the truth most of the time.

Ambitious historians have uncovered duplicity and less-than-noble motives in some of these actions, of course, but they are not widely acknowledged among the populace. The undermining of the notion that while it bumbled sometimes the US eventually came out on the right side of most important international issues coincides fairly closely with the emergence of the United States as a reluctant and inconsistent imperial power. Some would cite the Tonkin Gulf incident, a purported North Vietnamese attack on a US warship that provided much of the rationale for escalating the Vietnam war – and later was shown to be almost entirely bogus, fabricated by US policymakers eager to commit American sons and daughters to combat on the other side of the world.

At least the Tonkin Gulf incident – and numerous subsequent incidents – was an effort to make US military action look defensive in nature. It was important back then that the United States not look like the aggressor. The appearance of responding to an outrage by a sworn enemy was considered an important aspect of maintaining US morale, resolve and support for an overseas action.

By the time of the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo and Serbia, not such pretense was considered necessary. Slobodan Milosevic had not invaded or threatened to invade a foreign country. Nasty as he was, he was not an international aggressor. The campaign against his regime was apparently considered fully justified by the fact that he was ruling his country in a way that displeased the Lords of NATO and Washington. It was not considered necessary for propaganda purposes to manufacture an incident that would make him look like an aggressor. Sufficient repetition of the phrase "ethnic cleansing" was sufficient to justify naked aggression against a country recognized as "sovereign."

During the bombing campaign, Milosevic and his government – hardly models of straightforward discourse and devotion to the truth – turned out to be closer to accurate more often than NATO or US spokesmen. From issues like the extent of ethnic cleansing to the thuggish nature of the KLA to the amount of damage done to military targets by the 15,000-foot bombing campaign, to the purposeful targeting of civilian targets by NATO planners, when all was said, done and investigated, the Serbs turned out to be closer to the truth, earlier in the game, than the NATOcrats or the Americans.

So a solid background has been laid, for some time but more intensively and consistently in recent years, for questioning whether official US spokesmen or the spokesmen of a regime as odious to most moderns as the Taliban regime are more likely to be telling the truth about matters that might be susceptible to factual analysis. Most Americans are likely to find this dispiriting, but it is important to recognize the possibility that our guys are bigger liars than their guys.

The two sides have certainly said markedly different things. The United States has put military forces in the general vicinity of the Persian Gulf on heightened alert, ordered some 20 warships out to sea, where they will presumably be less vulnerable to an attack like the rubber-raft bombing of the USS Cole last October, and put some 8,500 US Air Force personnel on an intense level of readiness for attack. American civilians traveling overseas worldwide have been put on notice that they might reconsider their plans or at least keep a low profile.

The reason is said to be credible threats of focused terrorist activity by the Bin Laden organization, which is blamed for or credited with bombing US embassies in Africa and other targets. As US national security authorities on Monday night’s "Nightline" tried to make clear to Ted Koppel, such a worldwide alert is not called lightly, on the basis of a single phone call.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has told the US not to be so concerned, that Bin Laden is indeed in Afghanistan as a guest, but the Afghan government has him under control. He is not allowed to operate a base for overseas terrorist activities from Afghanistan and the regime keeps an eye on him. It is more than possible, of course, that the ultimate outcome of the situation will not provide an unambiguous answer to the "who was lying" question. If nothing happens it is quite possible that US authorities will attribute it to the heightened condition of readiness, which successfully deterred one or more nefarious planned terrorist attacks – and it is quite possible that they will be right. Such things do happen. It might be years before the general public and its ostensible tribunes in the media will have a reasonably accurate picture of what really happened.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the Afghan government does have Bin Laden effectively bottled up in terms of launching attacks from Afghanistan itself, but that the man has overseas forces he is able to control in ways that have eluded Afghan authorities. It is also possible that an essentially freelance terrorist who has some connection – or a claimed connection – to Bin Laden without real control from Bin Laden will perpetrate some outrage. So even if a terrorist attack or a thwarted attack whose existence is made public fairly soon does occur, it will be possible that that Taliban regime didn’t actually lie.

The unsettling answer about the constitution was provided on "Nightline" by James Sternberg, a former Clinton administration national security official. Ted Koppel noted that military forces were scattered and in a defensive posture just now, crouching to avoid casualties. But if an enemy assembled tanks on the border of an ally, we would expect the US military to be right there, ready to fight and expecting to take casualties for the cause. Did this make the telephone threat a more ominous weapon than the tank?

Sternberg answered that if somebody were assembling tanks it would have been obvious for a while and "the president and his advisers" would have had an opportunity to assess the situation and make rational decisions about the nature of the threat, the casualties that might be involved and other factors that would determine whether a war was justified by the circumstances.

He never mentioned Congress, nor did it apparently occur to him to take into consideration what Congress might think or do in such a situation. The question of peace or war, in our modern or post-modern era, is up to "the president and his advisers," in Mr. Sternberg’s mind. The people and Congress, apparently, are expected to be bystanders, providing the personnel and the money the president and his advisers deem necessary.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).