The role of trust in politics

Treachery and perfidy are supposed to be war crimes. “Bosnian Serb soldiers wearing stolen UN uniforms and driving stolen UN vehicles announced over megaphones that that they were UN peacekeepers and that they were prepared to oversee the Bosnian Muslims’ surrender and guarantee they would not be harmed.” How dastardly.


Disoriented and exhausted, many Bosnian Muslims fell for the lie. It was only after they had surrendered that they discovered their fatal mistake. For in surrendering, they were going to their deaths. Those whom the Serbs got their hands on were killed by firing squad …

Article 37 of Protocol I states that “acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence, shall constitute perfidy.” And Article 38 explicitly prohibits the use of “the distinctive emblem of the United Nations, except as authorized by that organization.” It also prohibits the “improper use of the distinctive emblems of the red cross, red crescent or red lion,” which, if used perfidiously, is a grave breach.

They are crimes, that is, however, unless they are legitimate ruses of war. Then they’re alright. “The protocol states explicitly that ruses of war are not prohibited. A ruse is an act that is intended to mislead an adversary or to ‘induce him to act recklessly’ but which infringe no rule of armed conflict and do not attempt to gain his confidence by assuring protection under law.” The difference is something that lawyers can distinguish. Operationally the dead from the one are as dead as from the other.

Truth and war are hard to reconcile. Consider the Paris Peace accords, for which Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho received the Nobel Peace Prize. Less than four months after the signing treaty the North Vietnamese politburo made the decision to return to war.


Maybe they never meant to keep the treaty.’

But it was not as if Nixon hadn’t guessed the North Vietnamese would cheat. He had other priorities. His now forgotten “new American Revolution” was an ambitious program to end the Vietnam war, reform welfare, fix the healthcare system, protect the environment and return federal funds to the states so that they could spend the money more autonomously. In his 1971 State of the Union message Nixon said:

This can be the Congress that helped us end the longest war in the Nation’s history, and end it in a way that will give us at last a genuine chance to enjoy what we have not had in this century: a full generation of peace.

This can be the Congress that helped achieve an expanding economy, with full employment and without inflation–and without the deadly stimulus of war.

This can be the Congress that reformed a welfare system that has robbed recipients of their dignity and robbed States and cities of their resources.

This can be the Congress that pressed forward the rescue of our environment, and established for the next generation an enduring legacy of parks for the people.

This can be the Congress that launched a new era in American medicine, in which the quality of medical care was enhanced while the costs were made less burdensome.

But above all, what this Congress can be remembered for is opening the way to a new American revolution–a peaceful revolution in which power was turned back to the people–in which government at all levels was refreshed and renewed and made truly responsive. This can be a revolution as profound, as far-reaching, as exciting as that first revolution almost 200 years ago–and it can mean that just 5 years from now America will enter its third century as a young nation new in spirit, with all the vigor and the freshness with which it began its first century.


We know now that Nixon’s plans never materialized. But nobody opposed it openly. What finished the “New American Revolution” and made any effective attempt to defend South Vietnam moot was Watergate. In 1974 Le Duan assessed that “internal contradictions” in America would make it impossible for Washington to “aid the Saigon quisling administration” and this fact determined them to make a final push in 1975.

“Internal contradictions” make it possible for the public to decide one thing under the aegis of another. You get sold a box for one thing and when you open it, out pops another.  Like the Kosovars who were led to their deaths by the fake UN Peacekeeers, history usually reveals that things are not what they seem. When publics get to where they’re going the mask comes off. They’re are given one reason to embrace a policy but leaders may pursue it for another. In politics there is no rule about truth in packaging.

The Paris Peace accords were not about bringing tranquility to Vietnam, but something altogether different. After all it never stipulated the removal of North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam, nor recognized its boundaries so you would think that … but Nixon was determined to run the risk to get his “new American revolution”. Ironically what he may have gained by embracing on set of deceptions was taken from him by another.

Perhaps in the long view Watergate will be no different. Maybe it will transpire that the scandal was never about was the burglary of an apartment; that is was never about the ‘truth’; maybe it was about politics. The question is moot now. What matters is they — whoever they are — got away with it. They took Saigon, they got rid of Nixon.


Now if only we could figure out who “they” is.

Perfidy in politics is not a violation of the Geneva convention. Today the New York Times is all a-twitter with the story that President Obama has invited Mitt Romney for lunch to the White House. “In his victory speech on election night, Mr. Obama praised Mr. Romney’s legacy of public service and said that he looked ‘forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.’”

Perhaps it is an attempt to bury the hatchet. Or equally probable, an attempt to bury the hatchet in someone’s back. Maybe the real distinction between treachery as a crime and as legitimate ruse of war is whether it is committed by the victor. If the Bosnian Serbs had won, their deception might be celebrated by some Virgil.

After many years have slipped by, the leaders of the Greeks,
opposed by the Fates, and damaged by the war,
build a horse of mountainous size, through Pallas’s divine art,
and weave planks of fir over its ribs:
they pretend it’s a votive offering: this rumour spreads.
They secretly hide a picked body of men, chosen by lot,
there, in the dark body, filling the belly and the huge
cavernous insides with armed warriors …

Then Laocoön rushes down eagerly from the heights
of the citadel, to confront them all, a large crowd with him,
and shouts from far off: ‘O unhappy citizens, what madness?
Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think
any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation?’

And if the gods’ fate, if our minds, had not been ill-omened,
he’d have incited us to mar the Greeks hiding-place with steel:
Troy would still stand: and you, high tower of Priam would remain.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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