Candor in the Age of Spin

Should presidents, or for that matter presidential candidates, be open, honest, and straightforward about how they would conduct foreign and defense policy or should they reserve space for what in the Cold and post-Cold War worlds have come to be known as covert operations?

This is not an academic question. It arose most recently in a Democratic candidates debate when Senator Barack Obama was challenged by Senator Hillary Clinton for saying that he would, as president, reserve the option of attacking al Qaeda and Dead-or-Alive bin Laden (remember him?) on Pakistani territory with or without approval from the Pakistani government.

Senator Clinton did not challenge this proposition. She challenged the announcement of it, saying that experienced foreign policy people traditionally conduct some foreign military operations covertly and that his failure to observe this convention was yet another demonstration of Senator Obama's inexperience in worldly affairs.

As something of a veteran, seasoned or unseasoned, of the covert world of the 20th century and as one who peeked far enough into the 21st to see terrorists coming, this is a question Americans and their candidates should seriously address. Those who have the advantage of living in the world of black and white find this question, as with many others, easy to answer. The whites say that all our actions should be transparent. The blacks say do whatever is expedient at the moment and presume no one will notice. The rest of us, as usual, see the global village in patters of plaid and shades of gray.

Though there are a few, very rare occasions where the immediacy of a threat requires both swift and secret action, the Constitutional principles upon which our nation was founded require us to be as honest, as straightforward, and as candid as we can be with ourselves and with the world about what we are up to. By the hollow "dead or alive" rhetoric now conveniently forgotten, we have already announced our intentions to do what it takes. So, Senator Obama does not seem to have gone any further than the ineffective incumbent on this issue. It would be amazing if there is a Pakistani alive, including President Pervez Musharraf, who doubts that we would land the 82nd Airborne, Delta Force, Rangers, and the entire Marine Corps right on top of the bearded villain...if we could just find him...without asking permission from anyone.

It seems to me that is all Senator Obama was saying. But the broader issue, like too many others, should be the subject of serious discussion--presuming the geniuses who preside over these "debates" could find the methods for doing so: In this age of information revolution, where there are few secrets and nothing is secret very long, when should and when should not the United States announce its intentions to take unilateral action.

The rule, it seems to me, should be this: State clear principles upon which and conditions under which we will take action to the world; notify friendly or semi-friendly nations of specific intentions where they are concerned; and otherwise behave with the candor and honesty that our founders hoped would characterize America's behavior in the world.