Loving Ambiguity


I have two phrases that I bet you can’t define off the top of your head. They are "national security" and "national interests."

Politicians love these phrases precisely because they are both ambiguous and iconic almost in a religious sense. Who, after all, would wish to do anything to harm national security or fail to do what was necessary for our national interests?

It pays, however, to always define your terms. If politicians were honest, it shouldn’t be difficult to define both phrases, but try to get them to do it.

Some years ago, when our favored dictator ran the Sudan, there appeared to be a threat that Libya might invade. The U.S. dispatched warplanes and got the Egyptians to mobilize. In that case, by accident, I knew what our "national interest" was in the Sudan. A friend of mine had just returned from the Sudan and told me that an American oil company had found a sizable amount of oil.

I could not find one word about this discovery. The Wall Street Journal had even run one of those advertising sections about the Sudan urging investment, but there was no word about an oil strike in it.

At any rate, I got a State Department official on the telephone and asked him why we were mobilizing to defend the Sudan.

"It’s in our national interest," he said.

"Well," I replied, "I’m just an unsophisticated country boy, so would you explain to me just what our national interest in the Sudan is."

He started the hemming-and-hawing routine and finally said, "We are opposed to any sovereign country being invaded by an outsider."

"Then why," I asked, "are we doing nothing about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?"

"That’s different," he said.

Well, this conversation went nowhere. He was not about to admit that an American oil company was sitting on a nice pool of oil and had cut a deal with the dictator — who was, by the way, a human-rights horror.

Our true national interests are easy to state. Freedom of the seas is one. Maintaining our independence is another. Public health and education are two more. A productive agriculture and a sound manufacturing base are two more. Minding our own business is the last one.

As for national security, that’s fairly easy, too. Military technology we don’t wish to share should be kept secret. Our armed forces should be strong enough to repel any attack on our country. Securing our borders is an important but deliberately neglected task. A good counterintelligence service to weed out spies and terrorists is another.

We have to recognize, however, that national security and individual security are two different things. Despite our police and prison system, individuals are murdered, raped and robbed every day. Individual security rests primarily on the individual.

In the meantime, if you want to have some fun, every time you meet a federal politician, ask him to explain what our national interests are. What, for example, is our national interest in Iraq? Don’t let him get away with "stability," which is another ambiguous term politicians love to use. Iraq was stable under Saddam Hussein. That, obviously, is not our national interest there.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

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