First things first

Until the commander's honesty is established, we've got no business at war

Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

Why doesn't someone with a little clout stand up and say that the United States has no business going to war against Saddam Hussein?

I mean someone like Robert Dole or Trent Lott or Newt Gingrich or Billy Graham or Pope John Paul, or anybody at all who could make a headline by saying so.

The reasoning has nothing at all to do with the righteousness of the cause against Saddam Hussein. It is manifestly a righteous cause. The reasoning has instead to do with the believability of the U.S. commander in chief. No country has a right to go to war, risking the lives of even a few of its young men and women, when that country can't believe the day-by-day pronouncements of the man calling the shots in that war.

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By the time you read this, the issue may be moot. Three weeks ago, most folks in Washington were jumping on the bomb-Saddam juggernaut. But two weeks ago, skepticism about the issue among congressional leaders had taken root. Would actual bombing start soon, as was rumored for several weeks? Once a final decision is made to proceed, of course, not much room is left for doubters. Everybody, at that point, is expected to fall in line and back the president, or risk being called something less than patriotic.

Yet that's precisely the problem. It's not just that congressional leaders and the public too seemed to be having bigger and bigger doubts about the Clinton administration's strategic plans and ultimate goals in Iraq. More profoundly, people were quietly asking whether this was a man to be trusted with any of the biggest questions any president is ever required to deal with-issues of life and death for both our own people and perhaps thousands of civilians and soldiers in another country. You had better be right.

Much has been made in recent days of Mr. Clinton's astronomical approval ratings-ranging so high that many people I know say the rating systems themselves are not to be trusted. I happen to believe the rating systems are accurate, but still not worth much, since the people whose opinions they may accurately reflect at 9 a.m. in the morning may well change their minds by 4:30 this afternoon.

But while everybody's been pondering those improbable ratings about Mr. Clinton's "performance in office," they've perhaps not watched carefully enough a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll in mid-February that said bluntly that only 44 percent of the American public view their president as "honest and trustworthy."

To the extent that it's ever right for a country to get scared, the nature of these two opinion polls-and especially the disjunct between them-is something to be scared about. For what we're left with is a citizenry of fair-weather friends. We Americans are now so morally cheap we'll applaud the president with one hand, while times are good, and hold the other hand in reserve to slap him when it may be finally proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that he's as bad as we all suspected.

Even more than we are ashamed of our president, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Some argue, of course, that this is the time for closing ranks and supporting our leaders. An impending crisis means you forget petty political differences and pledge yourself to help the common good.

I'm arguing that exactly the opposite holds here. If these were really petty differences, the advice would make sense. But they are not. Nor is it necessary to believe-or keep charging-things that have not yet been proven in order to claim that our society is in dire straits. All we need to believe and charge is that we have a leader who refuses to tell the truth. Fact is, for the last month he's refused to tell us anything at all.

That's why we dare not go to war just now. War is dreadful business, and a country never has leave to take it on without first cleansing its own soul, probing its own conscience, and ensuring there's a semblance of trust between its leaders and its people. We've done nothing of the sort.

When I was not yet 12, my dad caught one of my brothers and me in a messy little lie about something fairly trivial he thought we had done, but which we denied. The problem was that we were all supposed to leave the next morning on a vacation trip, but Dad said there'd be no trip until we could get our stories together.

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