Commentary

Washington’s Skirting Responsibility

This article appeared in the Korea Herald on May 25, 1999.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky says Beijing should expect no concessions as a result of Washington’s strike on China’s embassy in Belgrade. America’s negotiators “feel badly” but not guilty, she told the Washington Post. “The president has apologized quite sincerely and profusely to the Chinese,” she explained.

Ah, a sincere and even profuse apology. Why shouldn’t that satisfy Beijing? Some Chinese undoubtedly suspect that Washington launched the strike intentionally. After all, it seems incredible that spending $30 billion a year on intelligence services isn’t enough to yield the Clinton administration an up-to-date map of Belgrade.

But more astute Chinese probably understand how government bureaucracies work. After all, imperial China was infamous for its impenetrable administrative system.

Still, it remains striking how little concerned Washington seems to be about targeting another country’s embassy. During the Vietnam war the United States was careful not to hit Chinese and Russian ships in Haiphong harbor, for instance.

That’s not all. No one has taken responsibility for the mistake. Not one person.

Oh, President Clinton undoubtedly did apologize “quite sincerely and profusely,” but the Chinese know what that’s worth. He also signed their condolences book.

However, there has been no resignation. No public chastisement. No fevered attempt to ensure that a similar mistake doesn’t happen again.

This lack of accountability permeates American government. In contrast, in February the Greek foreign minister resigned after revelations that Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan had received temporary sanctuary at a Greek embassy before being captured by Turkey.

British cabinet members routinely resign. The point is not that they were directly responsible for a particular mistake. But top officials are expected to be accountable for what happens on their watch.

That’s not the case in Washington.

Last August, the United States struck what it said were terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. Alas, it appears the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory the administration reduced to rubble with a cruise missile because it supposedly produced nerve gas was only a pharmaceutical factory.

Washington made several claims regarding the plant’s operation and ownership that turned out to be false. Independent experts could not replicate the supposed chemical soil sample. Although the Clinton administration has unfrozen the plant owner’s assets, it has yet to offer compensation - or hold anyone publicly accountable.

But then, this is the administration which killed women and children at both Waco (the Branch Davidians religious compound) and Ruby Ridge (the Randy Weaver family) and never looked back. Instead, it lauded the efforts of law enforcement officials and blocked state efforts to prosecute lawless federal agents. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno was applauded for her courage in saying she took responsibility for Waco when all she did was talk.

Of course, what else would one expect when her boss never takes responsibility for anything -whether Monica Lewinsky, Chinese spying, campaign abuses, or the endless sleaze oozing from his administration? Accountability is not in his vocabulary.

However, it isn’t only Bill Clinton’s fault. Ronald Reagan’s Lebanon adventure was less disastrous than Clinton’s aggressive fling in Kosovo. It was no better planned, however.

Putting U.S. Marines on the ground while bombarding Muslim villages was a prescription for disaster. After 241 young men died in the barracks bombing, the president “took responsibility” and quietly removed American forces. No one was held accountable for his administration’s gross policy mistake.

The Vietnam war may offer the most obvious example of the failure to punish public officials for their failures. President Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for reelection, but there were no mass resignations or electoral defeats. His secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, went on to head the World Bank and travel the world as an elder statesmen. Thousands of young men died in what he now says he knew to be a hopeless conflict.

China has every right to be angry at the United States over both the embassy bombing and the fact that no one has been held responsible for the attack. Americans have even more cause to be angry, however.

The failure to hold government officials accountable risks people’s lives and freedom. It undermines the restraints on government that undergird a free society. Individual liberty cannot survive political irresponsibility.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Reagan.