Tinpots, saviors, lawyers, spies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IN the secret world, when I duly entered it, the law was the ghost at every clandestine feast.

For how can you flout the law without first knowing what it is? You might as well try to commit adultery without the benefit of marriage.

The very life blood of America's intelligence community has been drawn from the legal profession. Its heartland is in Boston, at Yale, in the pretty white mansions scattered up and down the coast.

Historically, it was the American lawyers turned spies -- the good old boys of the East Coast legal Establishment -- who pushed and pulled the borders of American constitutional legality and sometimes just damn well kicked them down, for the purpose of defending it against the forces of darkness.

"He's a man," remarked a former director of the CIA about a colleague, "who, when he smells flowers, looks around for the coffin." I guess there are a few lawyers like that.

But I often wonder, nonetheless, quite what so many of your profession thought that they were bringing to the secret world. And what the secret world thought it was getting for its money.

Lawyers, I notice, are pleased to look respectable. Well, so are spooks. The grubbier a spook's work, I quickly discovered when I became one myself, the more immaculate his appearance.

Lawyers bring a certain tone to the committee room. Spooks, too, like a lofty tone.

Lawyers are natural clearing houses for questionable testimony. Who better than a lawyer to separate fabrication from hard fact and the bearers of false witness from the bearers of truth?

Lawyers know how to walk the dark side of the street. They understand harsh expediency and human cost and the frailty of systems, whether judicial or political or bureaucratic.

Lawyers know that the innocent sometimes go to the wall in order to further or protect a grand design. Lawyers know that truth is a kind of seeming, a subtle blend of what is demonstrable and what cannot be disproved.

All of these attributes, it is true, commend themselves warmly to the spies.

But the patchy history of the secret world on both sides of the Atlantic also suggests to us another kind of player, and he may be a lawyer or he may not.

Either way, he is the poor fool of the secret world -- but also a dangerous one. He is the hard-bitten realist who has only to pass through the secret door to become a raging zealot overnight: "I am Superman! All alone I can achieve more than all the committees in the world! I am the great protector. I order governments and kings!"

Alas for him. He has fallen into the oldest trap in the trade. His awareness of the real world's imperfections has deluded him into believing that the secret world can redress them.

He sees himself no longer as a mere collector of knowledge but as someone who can make the rivers flow uphill. And it is a peculiarity of these converted cynics that they are the most persuasive and far-seeing of their kind -- or apparently so.

They are the global architects, the world-order men, the political charm-sellers and geopolitical alchemists who in the Cold War ,, years managed, collectively and individually, to persuade themselves -- and us, too, now and then -- that with a secret tuck here, and a secret pull there, and an assassination somewhere else, and a destabilized economy or two, or three, they could not only save democracy from its defects but create a secret stability amid the chaos.

And they themselves would be its custodians. Its rationalists. Its lawyers. The whole world would be their client: "Let overt democracy rant and fail. Our secret inner caucus of saviors will act!"

Some of them, the saddest, ended up pleading faulty memories on their way to jail. The Cold War for them was a ticket to the world's game. No wonder if they are suffering from post-Cold War tristesse.

It wasn't the spies who won the Cold War. I don't believe that in the end the spies mattered very much at all. Their capsuled isolation and their remote theorizing actually prevented them from seeing, as late as 1987 or 1988, what anybody in the street could have told them: "It's over. We've won. The Iron Curtain is crashing down! The monolith we fought is a bag of bones! Come out of your trenches and smile!"

Even the victory, for them, was a cunning Bolshevik trick. And, anyway, what had they got to smile about? It was a victory achieved by openness, not secrecy. By frankness, not intrigue.

The Soviet empire did not fall apart because spooks had bugged the men's room in the Kremlin or put broken glass in Mrs. Brezhnev's bath but because running a huge, repressive society in the 1980s had become -- economically, socially, militarily and technologically -- impossible.

And the joke is that if the outcome of the Cold War had been left to the spies, then on all the evidence so far our spies would have come a poor second. And thank God for it.

The strength of a true democracy is that it cannot command the fear, the discipline, the absolutism or the secret prisons that are the prerequisite of a police state. The strength of America is in her frankness, her mobility of mind, her willingness to declare herself, take risks and change. Not in her secrecy.

And today, Americans and Russians are working, if not hand in hand, at least side by side to dismantle the arsenals for which they stretched their economies to breaking point.

The impossible happened immediately. The difficult, it seems, is going to take a great deal longer.

The difficult is realizing that we are shorn of all our old excuses for not addressing the real problems of the earth, that we can no longer put our humanity on hold in order to defend humanity.

The difficult is finding a better name for the compassionate aspects of communism: because we need them as much today as we ever did. They just got into the wrong hands.

It must be hell being the only superpower. But hell was a lot worse when you weren't.

For the uninstructed public, the spies popped up like gray ghosts scurrying across the world stage: the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss (maybe), Abel, Fuchs, Pontecorvo, Nunn May, Kroger, Burgess, McLean, Blunt, Philby -- on and on, these lonely deciders held up a dark mirror to us, and the man in the street peered shyly in, and shuddered.

When people tell me I am a genre writer, I can only reply, "Yes, but the Cold War was a genre war."

And now, thank God, my element, my genre, is no longer at the center of our concerns.

Though the spies spy on, they cannot impress us as they used to. The same, it has been said, goes for me. You may have read about my premature demise. Well, even if it were true, which it isn't, you wouldn't see me crying in my beer.

Spying was the passion of my time. I was there, I felt some of it on my own body. I reported on it. And as I grew away from it, and recollected it in tranquility, I made it my bit of earth, my context, my way of looking at life.

So I ask myself: What did we become when we were who we were? And is it still around? And did we, in fighting for our freedom, give too much of it away?

The Cold War is over, but I don't remember any singing in the streets or church bells ringing.

Are we too tired to sing? Or too dazzled by our luck? Or too appalled by the scale of the mess that faces us? Has something crippled us on our way from there to here?

Is our doctrine of endless expansion in a shrinking world as played out as the doctrine of endless revolution that we have just sent packing?

A few years ago, when a far country was threatened by communism, we hurried to its aid. Its problem was our problem. We made heroes out of tinpot dictators we shouldn't have entertained in the woodshed.

And too often we confused anti-colonialism with communism. But then the communists did that, too.

We gave money. Mostly, your money. Some of it feathered some pretty disgusting nests. But some of it got to the right places. At least we acted. We said we cared.

Our response to communism was sometimes crude and sometimes misguided. But it was the only one we had. It was justified and it worked.

Today, when a not-so-far country is torn apart by civil war, and one of its ethnic minorities is being put to torture, rape and murder before our eyes, our politicians tell us not to become emotional. They mean: if you do, you'll have to pay for it.

"We didn't win the Cold War just to get involved in other people's fights. What's a little ethnic cleansing between ancient enemies? This is history, man."

Meanwhile, America stands where she never stood before: as the undisputed victor of a two-generation-long war of attrition, as the world's only superpower and -- increasingly, it seems its only arbiter.

But Europe and America still hesitate. Because we are afraid not just of this involvement -- in former Yugoslavia -- but of the precedent we would be creating:

"So we go in," say the doubters. "We bomb. We put in ground troops. We clean the place up and as soon as we get out they start again. Is that what we're into now?

"Quartering the globe, intervening wherever the news media decide they can raise a tear in the public eye? Next stop Sudan? And after that, how about we grapple with the former Soviet Union maybe? They're having atrocities daily over there, while our eyes are still fixed on former Yugoslavia."

And then that same old sneering cry: "We're being too emotional."

And, of course, they're right.

Except.

Except that, if there is one eternal truth of politics it is that there are always a dozen good reasons for doing nothing.

To do something, you've got to want to do it. Like, for instance, Desert Storm or the Falklands.

Then we're talking spheres of interest and geopolitics and honoring unbreakable promises. And we're allowed to be as emotional as we like. Just as long as we remember to keep our pity under control elsewhere.

Alas, whatever the outcome of the present argument about what to do with former Yugoslavia, I don't think there's any way on Earth that the U.S. can escape the responsibility for repeated and risky foreign intervention in the coming decades.

With the clamps of the Cold War removed, old feuds are going to flare up everywhere. A Pax Americana of some kind is inevitable.

Also -- whatever isolationist feelings are abroad -- I don't think that young America is going to put up with being a spectator to the rest of the world's misfortune.

America is not only the world's arbiter but, after the Cold War, its savior. What we see in the bleak, bad world at the moment may look more like chaos than peace. But it's the most peace we've had for a long time. And you gave it to us.

*

The fight against communism diminished us. That's why we were unable to rejoice at our victory. It left in us a state of false and corrosive orthodoxy.

It licensed our excesses, and we didn't like ourselves the better for them. It dulled our love of dissent and our sense of life's adventure.

In my country, and perhaps in yours, the service industries of criticism have almost drowned the magic of creation. Our intellectuals hate too much: our press revels in public executions. We are poisoning ourselves with malice. Yet we take no risks. We are not brave. Our orthodoxy still gives us no way out.

Yet we have never been so free. We no longer need to clip the wings of our humanity. It's time we flew again.

All governments lie.

Experts are invariably wrong.

Aerial bombing doesn't work.

Journalists never spell your name right.

Finally, I offer you one further piece of tendentious worldly wisdom: The rule of law is a far safer haven for our questing political morality than the abracadabra fantasies of secret government.

John le Carre's new novel is the forthcoming "The Night Manager." This is excerpted from a speech to the Boston Bar Association Monday.

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