Not to be trusted

Sydney H. Schanberg

February 27, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg

TRUST US, the men in the White House keep saying to America: We know what's best for you; this war is best for you. But trust must first be given to be received. Why have President Bush and his men treated us as infants unable to think for ourselves? Why have they trusted us so little as to feel it necessary to tell us fibs that veered perilously close to deception throughout the process that led to this war?

The answer is quite simple -- and profoundly insulting. It is clear now that Bush and his advisers believe that to tell the public anything approaching the whole truth might get people thinking and worrying and questioning. In other words, it would have made it harder to take the country to war if the president had told the people who elected him that almost from Aug. 2, when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, he had come to the belief that only a war could reverse that invasion and dislodge Saddam Hussein.

Instead, Bush didn't trust the people, didn't trust them to hear the truth and come to their own conclusions. So he did not speak to them about the likelihood of war that was in his mind. He told them instead that he was going to get Hussein's troops out of Kuwait by economic strangulation, by mounting an international embargo against him.

Bush fumbled at first with the rationale for rallying the whole world against Hussein, a foul and brutal tyrant, but only one among the many on this planet (some of whom the White House is still associating with, as in China and Syria). Caught off guard without their spin control in place, Bush and his men talked initially about oil and the fear that Hussein would destabilize the globe if he controlled so large a portion of the petroleum reserves. But then some people laughed sardonically and asked, "Would we be in such high dudgeon if Kuwait's chief product had been carrots instead of oil?" Since the answer was clear, the White House changed its line.

It switched from oil to poison gas. It warned that Hussein was a threat to world order because he was close to producing nuclear weaponry and close to having the capacity to deliver chemical weapons over long distances. Overnight, it went from being an oil cause to a just cause.

But wait a minute, some thinking people called out. You say this man is crazy and power-obsessed, but wasn't he crazy and power-obsessed when Washington was taking his side in the Iran-Iraq war? Didn't the White House know this when it was sending money to help him build his military machine? Didn't George Bush get advance information on his invasion of Kuwait, and didn't the president then sit on the information without so much as a warning to Saddam Hussein? Didn't the Iraqi leader read this as a signal that Washington would not interfere with his military adventure?

These cries for explanation and honesty were not welcomed in the war room. The thought police said it was impolite to suggest that the president was flimsily clothed at a time of crisis when he was trying to pull the nation together to kick some butt. The war enthusiasts and jingo writers said that if we were good Americans, we would trust the president, for he was orchestrating the script with consummate skill.

But what script? First we heard the embargo was working, and then all at once the intelligence estimates shifted and said it wasn't. Sorry, the scriptwriters said, but a rewrite is in order. War became the only option.

Our troops were described at the start as defensive, but suddenly we were told they were an offensive force. Their numbers began at 100,000, then rose to 200,000 and finally to more than 500,000. Give war a chance.

Throughout this glorious transmogrification, the flow of information to the public was controlled by the thought police to a degree never seen before in modern America -- certainly not in any of the conflicts of the last half-century. The press was handcuffed, spoon fed and denied access to the story, even access to the troops massing in the Persian Gulf. Yet the major media organizations barely uttered a peep. The thought police had gotten their message across: Complain and we shall label you unpatriotic and disloyal.

By cowing the press, the White House has shown its ultimate mistrust of the public. The president and his men are saying, in xTC effect, that average Americans aren't capable of coping with the truth and making up their own minds, that they would rather have their leaders control the information and tell them how to think and what to do.

Sad to say, George Bush and his advisers have succeeded up to now in getting the public by and large to applaud this script -- a public seemingly unaware of the disdain in which it is held by its ruling class. It is a troubling precedent, one that speaks poorly of the state of our democracy and of the average citizen's participation in its deliberative process.

It was this participation that George Washington was speaking of in 1783, in an address to officers of the army, when he said:

"If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

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