PARIS -- Politics tends to wring all seriousness out of speech. Sometimes this is a demonstration of unforgivable ignorance. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan thinks that "Now is the time to lock in the success that is within reach" in Afghanistan. Ryan's comment seems like it's grasping to be completed by a call to get out of Afghanistan now. That would shake up the presidential campaign.
Washington undoubtedly includes thousands or tens of thousands, connected or not with the U.S. government, who believe "success" in Afghanistan is "within reach" because that is what the Obama administration, and before it, the G.W. Bush administration, has consistently told them. But we are now told that NATO instructors assigned to Afghan training units will be given "guardian angels," their weapons always charged, to protect the teachers from their students. During the first eight months of 2012, more NATO soldiers have been killed by the Afghans they were instructing than during the entire period from 2007 to 2010. That doesn't sound like success. The Taliban are even shooting up the airplanes at Kabul airport used by commanders from Washington
Iraq (Obama's "wrong war" to fight), while ended, is now an awkward subject for both political parties. President Bush's invasion ultimately produced a total of civilian and military deaths variously estimated as between 150,000 and 400,000 humans (if not more). It looked bad long before it was over. In December 2011, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said "we've paid a great price here, and it was a price worth paying." Really? Nobody would dream of saying that today, with Iraq slipping back into chaos and already in the orbit of Iran.
What's worse, nobody in the U.S. and the allied countries, except for the relatives of the victims, gives a damn. That will be true of Afghanistan, too, when it's over. Or when it is replaced by war with Iran.
Candidates Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Barack Obama and Joseph Biden all proclaim that, given the right circumstances (unless Israeli President Shimon Peres's opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu, or obstruction by opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, saves them), all are willing to be blackmailed by Netanyahu into doing it all over again against Iran. For exactly the same reason the U.S invaded Iraq -- credulous, or expedient, acceptance of lies about non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Nationalistically, individually, politically or commercially self-interested lies are the second reason truth is scarce in politicians' discourse.
An obvious instance of the political and organizationally self-interested Washington's propensity to lie exists in bureaucratic promotion of threats from which an official organization profits. Powerful and potentially hostile foreign military forces are indispensible to the Pentagon. The columnist Jonathan Power has drawn attention to two recent quotations, the first from that monstrous and citizen-hostile creation of George W. Bush, the U.S. Homeland Security Department: terrorists "have proven to be relentless, patient, opportunistic and flexible." The second is from Harvard's monthly journal International Security (in an article by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, concerning worldwide terrorist actions since 9/11): Terrorists have proven "incompetent, ineffective, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, muddled and amateurish."
Lies are common in the press and in broadcasting, in some cases they're deliberate and calculated to sway public opinion for individual or corporate purposes, but in many instances they're lazy, obtuse or intended to pander to interested parties or government officials, or are the result of intimidation by such figures.
Let me shift from the discussion of new and old wars to the subject of journalism. Last weekend, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, attracted international press attention to the diplomatic refuge provided him in the Ecuadorian government's London embassy. He is in flight from extradition from Britain to Sweden, supposedly to answer allegations of his sexual abuse of two young women. He and his supporters say they are convinced that Sweden will not put him on trial but will expediently ship him to the United States where, despite the fact that no charges have been brought against him for any crime, he will be seized and prosecuted under espionage laws or for official secrets violations.
The U.S. makes no official comment. As the Swiss journalist and activist Jane Christ has pointed out, the mainstream American press seems uninterested in pursuing this part of the story, although The New York Times reported in June 2011 that an Alexandria, Va., grand jury "is believed" to have been convoked to explore whether such charges may be brought.
Since then, there has been silence, although Australian television (Assange is an Australian) has claimed that the Virginia grand jury exists and that the FBI is involved in the case. The New York Times's only report on whether American charges might be brought has consistently been, "American officials have not publicly disclosed any such plan."
Of course they have not. However, The Times, like other major newspapers, does not have as its principal duty the conveyance to its readers of government statements that it has nothing to say. The Times still vaunts its publication of the Pentagon Papers -- stolen classified documents -- during the Vietnam War (although the papers were simply handed to the paper by an official opposed to the war and were not the product of their newsgathering).
The existence of an Assange grand jury and government prosecution plan is not, of course, an earth-shaking matter. But it might be interesting if The Times (or The Washington Post) were to find out and let us know.
(Visit William Pfaff's Web site for more on his latest book, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy" (Walker & Co., $25), at http://www.williampfaff.com.)