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Truth-Telling Isn't All It's Made Out to Be

Milosevic, Zhu and other world leaders have to know that, whatever is said, the U.S. is a credible foe.

April 06, 1999|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. E-mail:

In statecraft, truthfulness is worth something, but credibility is everything. A bit of diplomatic dissembling didn't hurt Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1971 when he was said to have the flu in Pakistan when in fact he was having a secret meeting in Beijing. By the time it was learned that Kissinger had fibbed, he was credited with arranging the greatest diplomatic coup in modern times--the U.S. rapprochement with the People's Republic of China. And so while Kissinger's reputation as a truth-teller was tarnished, his reputation for getting things done was burnished.

Bill Clinton, of course, has based his entire presidency on the idea that even if he personally can't be trusted, his policies must be taken seriously. But outfoxing Newt Gingrich or Bob Dole proved easy compared to outmuscling much tougher customers abroad, such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. And now, in the midst of the Balkans crisis, Clinton must demonstrate his credibility to potentially the toughest customer of all, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.

It is said that truth is the first casualty of war; perhaps that's the way it has to be. In 1983, when the U.S. was preparing to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada, White House spokesman Larry Speakes was asked point-blank whether such an invasion was imminent. "Preposterous" was Speakes' answer, and the surprise mission was successfully sprung. Similarly, in Operation Allied Force, NATO commanders can hardly be blamed for being stingy with details. Yet after nearly two weeks of bombardment, it's clear that the real target of the deception was not the Serbs but rather the Western public.

Every day in Brussels, NATO spinner Jamie Shea has announced that all's well on the Balkan Front: Allied airplanes continue to "degrade," "disrupt," and occasionally "destroy" Serbian assets. Shea backstopped the fuzzy verbiage--"it's a snowball affair . . . there will come a moment when the pressure reaches a breaking point"--with fuzzy pictures of bridges and buildings being blown up. Impressive perhaps, but mostly irrelevant to the situation on the ground, as Kosovo Albanian refugees can attest. Finally, reporters figured out that Shea's spiel was concealing not how much damage was being done to Serbia but rather how little. On Friday, nine days after Operation Allied Force began, the Washington Post reported that the average rate of strike sorties was about 50 a day, compared to 1,000 a day during the Gulf War. No wonder the Serbs accelerated their ethnic cleansing in Kosovo: NATO was more interested in appearing tough than in getting tough.

For the U.S. in Vietnam, the failure of American military policy ultimately fed back and poisoned Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. As his press secretary, Bill Moyers, lamented, "The credibility gap . . . is getting so bad we can't even believe our own leaks." And so after four years of quagmiring, in 1968, both our North Vietnamese enemy and our South Vietnamese ally were emboldened to toy with Uncle Sam at the Paris peace talks.

In the short run, it might not matter much if Clinton breaks his pledge not to send in U.S. ground troops. But it does matter if Milosevic believes he can wait the U.S. out, if he thinks that the administration will settle for a face-saving deal that will put a "decent interval" between photo op and evacuation.

Ultimately, little Kosovo is Europe's problem. But big China is America's greatest foreign policy challenge in the next century. Zhu is scheduled to meet Clinton on Thursday; Saturday, April 10, marks the 20th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, which guarantees, sort of, that the U.S. will defend Taiwan's independence against an attack from China. Yet if the Clintonians have so much difficulty dealing with Serbian irregulars, how effective will they be in a possible showdown with China--especially if the People's Liberation Army is now equipped with the latest ballistic and nuclear technology, courtesy of Hughes Satellite and the Los Alamos National Laboratories?

Machiavelli advised the shrewd prince to prefer potency over purity. For six years, Clinton offered Americans one but not the other, and that seemed good enough.

Yet if Clinton's campaign in the Balkans undermines America's claim to be peace-loving even as it underscores Clinton's fecklessness, then the longstanding Chinese perception that the U.S. is a paper tiger will be confirmed. It may not matter if Clinton tells the truth, but it still does matter if he is taken seriously.

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