Trusting the Government

by Jonathan Wallace

The government has just announced that it has concrete evidence of Iranian revolutionary guards assisting an Iraqi Shi'ite militant group in the killing of five American soldiers. I can believe this may be true. The Iranian government in the last few years, after a period of liberalization, has swung back to the crazy Islamic fringe. An Iranian-Canadian photojournalist was beaten to death in prison over there a couple years back, elderly Iranian-American professors are being arrested during routine visits and accused of treason, there was that exhibition of Holocaust cartoons, and increasingly intemperate language (like today's statement that even American dissidents are still part of the "Great Satan".) Anyway, it is common knowledge that Iran is very decentralized, with competing power centers, and it was quite imaginable that even during the more liberal years, relics of the old guard would get involved in secret efforts to kill Americans.

So why am I uneasy now? Because after the WMD fiasco, nothing this government says or does can be trusted. Vice President Cheney, who has always worn the pants in this administration, reputedly has a hard-on for Iran as big as the one he had for Saddam. Never mind that we are overextended, strapped in Iraq and lack the resources to open a second non-Al Qaeda front in our never-ending War on Terrorism. What Cheney wants, Cheney gets.

Convince me that Iran is really shipping IED's to Iraq to blow up Americans, and assisting in the planning and execution of murder raids, and I will eagerly join in a public thought process regarding what to do about it. Reinstitute the draft? Is there diplomacy we can use? What power can we exert to back them off? If we have no other choice, will a carefully aimed air raid or two be enough to convince them not to kill our people? I won't get up on my high horse and refuse to have a conversation about it. But in order to have that conversation, I must know the truth.

How can we ever know that here? This administration made extremely specific claims about the nature and location of the weapons of mass destruction we would find in the desert after the collapse of the Hussein government. None of them existed. There has been no public reckoning, no apology, no-one has fallen on a sword in order to cleanse this government of its dishonesty. But the result is, there is no process by which the Bush administration can any longer bring evidence to the table without making me (and everyone else) wonder if it has been fabricated.

This is not a problem unique to the Bush administration. Bill Clinton lied when he denied having sex with "that woman". John F. Kennedy lied about the Bay of Pigs, then (in a remarkable moment not imitated by many presidents since) came clean about it (though he blamed his advisors). There has always been a convenient understanding that secret knowledge and action are necessary to sustain our democracy, that the public is better off not knowing what is happening, and therefore the public can be lied to for its own good when necessary.

This premise needs to be re-examined. It is hard to understand how a democracy can do business if the government cannot be trusted to tell the truth. Most governments have functioned on the premise that "we will tell you the truth most of the time" or "except on the subject of X". However, this is the exception that eats the rule: if you will lie some of the time, how do I know you are ever telling the truth? Maybe "except on the subject of X" is a deception and you really mean "X, Y, Z etc."

The Bush administration seems to function on the understanding that it will lie to us whenever it finds it convenient to do so, which means all the time. The Bushies have run the philosophy of secrets and lies right out of the end zone and into the stands. What's left that we can believe? That we are winning the war? We don't torture? We have compelling evidence justifying the imprisonment of every Guantanamo detainee? Or that Iran is funding and supplying people who kill our soldiers?

We're in a big mess. The first thing the next president, Democrat or Republican, needs to do is open a bunch of windows, let some light and breeze in. Create a new baseline of truth, something we can count on, and we go from there.