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Sunday, Oct. 5, 2003

Sea of lies driveling through the dikes

The Hutton inquiry in Britain into the recent death of the government's expert on Iraqi weapons, James Kelly, has shown up only too clearly the extent to which our much-vaunted Westminster system of democratic government has decayed. At the inquiry, a BBC reporter was dragged over the coals for a single mistake in his efforts to breach the wall of secrecy around government claims over Iraq. But no one seemed very upset about the much more serious "mistakes" committed by the well-paid, well-informed bureaucrats as they set out to justify a planned act of aggression against a foreign nation.

We take it for granted that politicians lie. As the rather rude saying puts it, the very fact that their lips are moving is often a good indication. But since when were we supposed to assume that the bureaucrats under them are also supposed to lie?

Under the Westminster system, the bureaucrats were supposed to be impartial. It was their job to analyze situations objectively and advise their political masters, without fear or favor.

Certainly that was the case when I joined the Australian foreign service back in the 1950s. Often the advice from the top bureaucrats differed from what the politicians wanted to hear, especially on policy toward Indonesia. The politicians could ignore that advice, but only at their own peril.

In the 1960s it was still possible to resign in protest against mistaken government policies, as I did over the Vietnam and China policies, and receive reasonably civilized treatment.

Today is very different. The vitriol being poured out by Canberra and the rightwing media on a senior Australian intelligence official with the courage to resign in protest against Canberra's distortions over Iraq concerning weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, is symptomatic. True, Canberra has gone further than most down the slippery slope of politicizing the public service. But Britain is not too far behind.

Now it is taken for granted that the role of the bureaucrats is to back up the policies of their political masters, even when those policies are criminally mistaken. If they don't, they risk losing their influence, their promotions and maybe even their jobs.

I call it the North Korean syndrome. The world is amazed by the sight of an entire nation united in shouting out its never-ending devotion to the Dear Leader. But in a society where not just promotion but one's very existence depends on displaying unswerving devotion to the leadership, people tend to be very devoted.

Communist China during its Great Leap Forward madness of the early '60s was similar. Officials soon realized that they would gain favor if they could produce rosy reports of over-fulfilled production goals. So their reports became very rosy indeed, to the extent that the leadership really believed it could produce all the grain it needed with only one-third of its farmland. It would turn another third into parks and gardens and the rest would be left fallow. Meanwhile, people in the countryside were dying of starvation in the tens of millions.

True, in today's world it is hard to exaggerate economic facts, even if Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's supporters still manage to produce glowing reports of economic progress as deflation stalks the land, firms in the provinces go bankrupt in the thousands, and the national debt increases by almost 10 trillion yen annually under an alleged program of fiscal stringency and debt reduction.

But in foreign affairs any kind of exaggeration seems possible. So we have North Korea being accused of trying to hold the world to nuclear blackmail when all it wants is a piece of paper promising it will not be threatened yet again by attack from the United States. So far only one U.S. bureaucrat has had the courage to stand up against this blatant, and highly dangerous, distortion.

In Japan even knowledgeable Foreign Ministry bureaucrats are being forced to depict Pyongyang as some kind of international pariah simply because, in a bid for normalized relations, North Korea finally had the honesty to admit and apologize for past sins, and to account for them in rough detail -- something that Japan has been reluctant to do about its own past sins.

In Kosovo, Serbian resistance to ethnic Albanian attacks to cleanse the province of Serbians and all other ethnic groups was turned into Serbian ethnic cleansing of the ethnic Albanians. In the process a dangerous precedent was established, allowing future "preemptive" attacks on any other nation that did not meet U.S. or NATO demands. But I have yet to hear of a single bureaucrat with the courage to oppose those distortions, or the precedent.

The U.S., Britain and Australian pretexts over Iraq represent the ultimate stage in this degradation. Now that the claims of WMD, nuclear ambitions and links to al-Qaeda have all been disproved, we have a new set of justifications. The war in Iraq was needed to remove a brutal, despotic aggressive regime, we are told, despite the fact that all three governments were busily seeking good relations with that regime when it was the most brutal, despotic and aggressive two decades ago. Or that it will put an end to so-called terror, even as the U.S. military presence there provides Islamic militants with target practice far more ideal than the World Trade Center or anything else in the U.S. Or that, in any case, Iraq will be turned into a Middle Eastern model of Western style secular democracy, even as this once reasonably well-organized and secular Middle Eastern society slides into anarchy and religious fanaticism.

None of this stops the continuing happy talk from all three governments about Iraq's future. Their lips are still moving.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and honorary president of Tama University. A Japanese translation of this article will be found at: www.gregoryclark.net

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