The spy wars

March 03, 1994|By Jonathan Schell

NATIONALISM, observers have long noted, has two faces, one beneficent, the other malign.

On the one hand, it can lift the individual out of the sphere of his own private concerns and inspire devotion to the community -- to the nation -- and, on the other, it can inspire unreasoning hatred for foreign nations.

It may even be that, psychologically speaking, the devotion and the hatred are part of a single operation, in which the repellent features of one's country are in effect projected onto the foreigner.

When two countries begin to do this to each other, the organized self-love of each community is antagonized and heightened by the unjust criticism by the other, and the stage is set for hostilities, even for war.

In recent weeks, the United States and Russia, which at this historical moment have every reason to be allies and even real friends, seem to be caught up in the outermost eddies of such a reciprocally produced downward spiral.

The process began two weeks ago with the Russian diplomatic intervention in the Balkan crisis, in which NATO threatened to bomb the Bosnian Serbs if they did not remove their heavy weapons around Sarajevo. The Russians struck a deal with the Serbs whereby that very withdrawal would take place in exchange for participation by Russian troops in the NATO force in Sarajevo.

The intervention was fortunate and useful. It gave the Serbs a way to back down from the confrontation without seeming to give in to the threat by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It also paved the way for further diplomatic activity.

However, the Russians placed an annoying interpretation on their action. They made known their "opposition" to the NATO air strikes and publicly interpreted their intervention as a masterstroke that had prevented this disaster.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's press secretary, Vyacheslav Kostikov, went as far as to say that some NATO leaders felt "barely veiled disappointment" that Russia's intervention had snatched away the opportunity to bomb.

Anyone who has followed the debate on Bosnia knows that this is a wild misreading of Western sentiment, which has shown, and still shows, the most extreme reluctance to use force in the crisis.

It is obvious, for instance, that President Clinton dreaded having to make good on the bombing threat. Thus was fundamental agreement between NATO and Russia needlessly turned into a dispute.

Last week, however, it was the United States' turn to offend Russia needlessly. The occasion was the arrest as a Soviet spy of the CIA's Aldrich Ames, who had directed the agency's counterintelligence against the former Soviet Union.

Every intelligence officer knows that the United States is ceaselessly trying to do to Moscow what Moscow did to Washington. They would agree with former CIA Director Stansfield Turner, who told the Washington Post, "I'm not outraged and shocked." But sentiments are otherwise in some political circles, where an amazing double standard rules.

For example, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, proposes to suspend aid to Russia for 60 days in retaliation.

The reason for this step, he said recently on the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," is that it was "very important that the Russians get a clear message that if they want to continue the substantial foreign assistance that our country is giving . . . this has got to cease."

When Jim Lehrer asked whether the United States should agree if the Russians say, "We'll stop if you stop," Senator DeConcini answered that if Russia stopped spying, "That doesn't mean we have to make a commitment to cease doing it."

And why not? Because "We're not receiving billions of dollars from them." In other words, the reason we can spy on Russia to our hearts' content (after all, it was Mr. Ames' official mission to recruit Russians for the American side) is that we have paid to do it.

Our aid payments, in this lawmaker's view, are our ticket to spying on their country. Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., agreed: "We need to make it very clear this is something we're not going to tolerate, particularly when we're paying the bill for a portion of their recovery."

Such is the logic of wounded national feeling, which claims an unquestioning right to do to others what we would never tolerate their doing to us.

At the moment, the national feelings of Russians, who have just lost an empire and are enduring economic and social conditions unimaginable to most Americans, are much more deeply wounded than ours.

Their reaction to an act whose message is that they have been paid to endure our spying while theirs on us must stop can only be one of fury. Its likely outcome is that they will reject our aid, and with it the cooperation between our countries that both so badly need.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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