Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Strategic Implications of Government Mistrust

          Last summer I spoke at a conference of law enforcement officials from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. One of the other speakers was a senior representative of Customs and Border Protection, the DHS agency that houses the U.S. Border Patrol. He repeated a statement that the Secretary of Homeland Security began using more than two years ago, and has used as a consistent theme in her most recent appearances: “Our southern border is the safest it has ever been.”
            A wave of laughter rippled across the room. A senior official from the US government was repeating as the government’s official position, a statement that experts in the subject knew to be untrue.  Ironic laughter was the only response anyone could think of.
              That ironic distance between ground truth and fiction masquerading as policy has been on full display recently, and especially during the budget debates. The point of this article is not to support one side or the other in the budget battles, or the battle over immigration, or the arguments over Benghazi, or the mud-slinging match over the sequester. My point is that the broad political response by the public to this habitual campaigning is a growing tendency not to believe anybody. And that can be a national threat in a national emergency.
              I (part of the point of a blog is that you can use the first person) am not suggesting that we have drifted away from some golden age of the past where citizens and their representatives spoke in measured tones of their honorable opponents.  Republicanism (or democracy if you prefer) has always been a rough and tumble sport where opponents play fast and loose with the facts. But from a strategic perspective, it seems to me that the United States has arrived at a particularly dangerous moment when a large part of the populace simply does not believe the US government and its agents -- to include the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State – on a day-to-day basis. The implications for our ability to mount a unified national response to a crisis are not good.
              The reasons we have arrived at this nexus of distrust are many – some technological, some ideological, some just a matter of how bureaucracies work. I will cite but a few.
              Changing technology allows attackers to quickly turn charges into broadly accepted “truths” that stick, destroying the opposition by destroying their reputation. The Romney primary campaign is a good example. Nixon suffered a major political defeat and came back to be President. So did Reagan. So did Bush (41). And Romney was defeated in a presidential primary, only to come back and win in the next cycle.  But Romney’s own negative campaign against Republican primary opponents one after another didn’t just defeat them. It delegitimized them – probably knocking them out of future contention. Then Obama did the same to him. The result on both sides was a sense that the opponent was not just wrong on policy issues, but morally defective and not to be trusted.
              An associated catalyst is the growing polarization of America into two camps, so opposed in their beliefs that only one can survive. It is now clear that Progressives have no intention of reducing the National Deficit or Debt, and instead plan to tax or otherwise confiscate wealth for social redistribution, under the theory that whoever has wealth has it unfairly. Conservatives for their part increasingly see Progressives as a band of lawless looters, using bureaucracy and executive orders in a politically and economically oppressive way, and relying on “rule of law” only when it is to their advantage. The result is a climate of fundamental distrust on every issue.
              A third factor in national alienation from our political leaders is the growing conviction that officials everywhere are “cooking the books” to advance their policy prescriptions. Arguing with the opponent’s statistics is nothing new, nor is releasing questionable numbers that support your side of an argument.  Candidate Kennedy argued that the Republicans had allowed a “missile gap” to develop, even though he knew that was not the case. But this did not prevent the two parties from working together during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or supporting the national interest in other crises that followed. Dishonesty about Vietnam and Cambodia and Iran ended the presidencies of Johnson, and Nixon and (nearly) Reagan. But none of that ended the American government or American system.
              But I have a sense (as do others) that something is different today.  Dishonesty (or poor judgment - take your pick) over the presence of WMD in Iraq left a significant part of the citizenry distrustful of the entire war with terrorists.  The terrorists attacked us by the way, which all the world could see, but our government’s behavior has left some people trusting the enemy’s communiques more than our own.
              On the other hand, warrantless wire-tapping, born in a Republican administration, has now become proof to some of the nefarious intent of a Democratic administration – leaving people on both sides distrustful. By the way, in a great example of bipartisan distrust, Tea Party members have been most vocal about their concern over government surveillance, but it was the ACLU which brought suit to end the wire-tapping program. And it was the conservative side of the Supreme Court which affirmed the Obama administration’s program of massive monitoring and copying of conversations, while the liberal minority strongly dissented.
              How many examples of RECENT government half-truths or lack of transparency can you think of in 60 seconds?  Here is my list.
·         The Sequester. Benghazi.  The Fed. The Fiscal Cliff.  1.8 Billion bullets purchased by DHS. Counterinsurgency success in Afghanistan. Drones. Domestic Drones. The security of the US border. The claim that we can solve the debt problem “if the rich will pay just a little more.” The claim that we can solve the debt problem “if we just cut corporate taxes and reduce regulations.” The idea that we can destroy private health care with a huge government program “but you can keep your own doctor and program if you want.” The protection of Green Jobs. The protection of Defense Contractors. Printing our way to economic stability. The claim from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that we can put women in combat jobs without reducing physical standards. The structuring of budgetary cuts to inflict the maximum possible pain on the American people so they will call their congressman and demand a change. The bank bail outs. TSA scanners. Government conferences. Education standards. Cyber security. Katrina response. Sandy response. The Drug War. FEMA camps. Money to Brazil to drill for oil. Tanks to the Muslim Brotherhood. The failure to pass a federal budget – for 4 years. The GSA. The Secret Service.
That only took 60 seconds.  I could go on and on.  So could you.
              At this point, if you are trying to figure out whether I am criticizing Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, you have missed the point.  Here it is: Our political differences and the dishonest way they have played out leaves a significant part of the US population skeptical about anything anybody on any side of government says. People are worried that any crisis could be used to further some unrelated agenda – gun control, internet censorship, property confiscation, raising taxes, cutting taxes, illegal immigration, environmental restrictions, welfare expansion – there seems no end to way the people paid to look out for us are ready to manipulate us at the drop of a hat.  And that could be very dangerous in a national emergency in the future.
              We have just passed the 20th anniversary of the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. After his conviction, the mastermind of the attack flew over the site on his way to jail. Gesturing to the WTC, an FBI agent said: “It’s still standing.”  “We’re not done,” the terrorist replied.
              They will be back. And when a bad thing happens we need to be worrying about our enemies and not our government. A bit more honesty a bit less demonization of political opponents would help us prepare for that moment. As would an active and professional media which would hold people accountable for what they say.

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