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 strikeintentionally. After all, it seems incredible that spending $30 billion ayear on intelligence services isn’t enough to yield the Clintonadministration an up‐​to‐​date map of Belgrade.

But more astute Chinese probably understand how government bureaucracieswork. After all, imperial China was infamous for its impenetrableadministrative system.

Still, it remains striking how little concerned Washington seems to be abouttargeting another country’s embassy. During the Vietnam war the UnitedStates 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 oneperson.

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

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

This lack of accountability permeates American government. In contrast, inFebruary the Greek foreign minister resigned after revelations that Kurdishleader Abdullah Ocalan had received temporary sanctuary at a Greek embassybefore being captured by Turkey.

British cabinet members routinely resign. The point is not that they weredirectly responsible for a particular mistake. But top officials areexpected 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 inAfghanistan and Sudan. Alas, it appears the Sudanese pharmaceutical factorythe administration reduced to rubble with a cruise missile because itsupposedly produced nerve gas was only a pharmaceutical factory.

Washington made several claims regarding the plant’s operation and ownershipthat turned out to be false. Independent experts could not replicate thesupposed chemical soil sample. Although the Clinton administration hasunfrozen the plant owner’s assets, it has yet to offer compensation — orhold anyone publicly accountable.

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

Of course, what else would one expect when her boss never takesresponsibility 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 Lebanonadventure was less disastrous than Clinton’s aggressive fling in Kosovo. Itwas no better planned, however.

Putting U.S. Marines on the ground while bombarding Muslim villages was aprescription for disaster. After 241 young men died in the barracks bombing,the president “took responsibility” and quietly removed American forces. Noone was held accountable for his administration’s gross policy mistake.

The Vietnam war may offer the most obvious example of the failure to punishpublic officials for their failures. President Lyndon Johnson chose not torun for reelection, but there were no mass resignations or electoraldefeats. His secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, went on to head theWorld Bank and travel the world as an elder statesmen. Thousands of youngmen 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 embassybombing 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 livesand freedom. It undermines the restraints on government that undergird afree society. Individual liberty cannot survive political irresponsibility.

Doug Bandow

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