The Price of Credibility
In February of 1968, American foreign policy had what was later to be called a "Walter Cronkite moment." The CBS news anchor went on television during prime time and announced that he thought the Vietnam War was not winnable. That editorial was regarded as a watershed in public opinion of the war. President Johnson was said to have responded to that report with "if I have lost Walter, I have lost middle America." Not long after that, he also lost his job.
Cronkite's comments were not only aimed at the war; they were also aimed at its leaders. "We have been too disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and in Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest cloud." President Nixon refused to recognize Cronkite's criticism and as a result it took another seven years before the American departure from Saigon was seen in the helicopters hovering over the U.S. Embassy. By that time, President Nixon had been threatened with impeachment and resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, leaving the country agonizing over the lost war in southeast Asia and a loss of a legal and moral compass in the White House.
In both cases, the two presidents had concealed their intentions from the public and wound up shirking their responsibilities at home and abroad. Johnson tried to conceal the cost of the war and the voices that were warning him of the stalemate he was facing. Nixon engaged in a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia and went aggressively after his critics at home. The result was a constitutional crisis in the Nixon administration and a credibility gap over the uses of our forces abroad. The misuse of government agencies at home only added to the distrust that emerged between the executive and legislative branches and a more general distrust toward government institutions throughout the country. Watergate and Vietnam occurred to remind us that the rule of law was more important than the use of presidential power, even in times of war. And above all, that the ends do not always justify the means, even when it comes to protecting national security interests. That governments have to engage in secrecy is nothing new. Yet, the ability to defend the reasons for those methods is contingent on maintaining the trust of the public in the purposes served. When that trust is broken, it is difficult to restore it. That is true at home as well as across national boundaries.
The Issue Remains
Fast forward to today and one finds that many issues have not changed. The current debate over the prerogatives of presidential power is at least as pronounced as it was two decades ago. The unfolding debate over the NSA eavesdropping, the explanations of the reasons for going to war against Iraq, but also the domestic clash over the responsibilities for the disaster in New Orleans have generated credibility gaps and a widespread lack of confidence in government overall. Abroad, the United States has suffered an enormous loss in trust and confidence across many regions of the world in the wake of the Iraq war, the revelations at Abu Ghraib, the public debate over the use of torture and the controversy over the Guantanamo prison camp.
Central to these debates are the lingering accusations over a lack of credibility. The absence of good intelligence in Iraq before the war led to erroneous conclusions about the immediacy of the threat of weapons of mass destruction. What can we trust now when it comes to gathering such intelligence? Maintaining the Guantanamo prisons or hiding the pictures from Abu Ghraib does not seem credible within the mission of securing human rights and freedom in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else. And the stories of preparedness in advance of Katrina are now seen to be stories of bureaucratic ineptitude. All of this leads to a breakdown in trust in leaders and institutions and to a general disgust with regard to politics.
It is no wonder that two-thirds of the country disapproves of the way Congress is handling its job and less than half the country has a lot of confidence in the presidency, apart from the current president's poll ratings, which are at an all time low. (Gallup Polls from February 2006 and May 2005)
Is Germany Doomed to Follow the Same Path?
Are there lessons for Germany here? On the verge of a very public debate over the role of some intelligence officers in Iraq during the run up to the March 2003 invasion, Germany may be facing a moment in which getting the facts out on the table will be of central importance to the government in maintaining its credibility and trust with the public. On one level, the issue is whether the German intelligence officers were engaged in contact and exchange with the American forces beyond the public red lines that the Schröder government laid down in refusing to participate in the war. That Germany did provide flank support to the United States in numerous ways, such as guarding its bases in Germany while the troops were sent to Iraq or allowing over-flights on the way to Iraq through Landstuhl, just to name two, is nothing new and was not grounds for concern. The flare up over the presence of the intelligence officers has to do with both the facts of their actual engagement but also with the initial rejection of any claims that the there was contact between the German officers and the American forces, which could be construed as important for the war effort.
The parliamentary hearings, should they take place, could become an important moment for Germans still trying to sort out what their roles and responsibilities are in the larger strategic environment involving threats and dangers shared by all. Cooperation among intelligence services is not a contentious issue. Nor is cooperation across the full range of strategic agendas shared among allies and friends. What is at issue is how the government leaders present the public with the challenges Germany is facing and what is at stake in responding to them.
Germany has come a very long way since its decision in 1994 to permit the use of its troops within NATO in so-called "out of area" conflicts. The presence of German forces outside of Germany is more accepted today, including the losses that accompany this presence. But the purposes and missions need to be explained and justified by the leaders without attempting to mislead the public or provide a rationale that could backfire when the facts ultimately emerge.
Perhaps Germany can learn from American mistakes. Perhaps it will make its own. But in the end the price of maintaining trust and credibility begins with getting the facts out first and then deciding how to evaluate them. Eventually it will happen, one way or the other, with or without a "Cronkite moment."
This essay appeared in the March 3, 2006 AICGS Advisor.
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