DIPLOMATS HAVE been referred to as "honest men sent to lie abroad" and hardly anyone is surprised when politicians take liberties with the truth. Former President Ronald Reagan, an icon among Republicans who well understood the power of a good story, was not above a little mythmaking. And former-President Bill Clinton could look Americans in their collective eyes on national television and lie without particular damage to his long-term standing among Democrats. But while we may be able to get away with lying to foreign governments, and even to one another, the price of continuing to lie to ourselves could be staggering.
A new conventional wisdom has emerged after the U.S. victory in the cold war in which history no longer matters and we no longer need to understand others' interests or perspectives so long as we remain on the side of righteousness-and, of course, so long as we can count on overwhelming military and economic power. And in this spirit of vain self-congratulation, we have increasingly lost the ability to look squarely in the mirror before judging others and taking them to task.
After all, despite being on the right side of history, American leaders have taken their own share of ruthless, and even brutal, decisions. Each had its own logic, and most seem strategically justified in retrospect, but few continue to play a role in our public debates. Remember that the United States was the first and only nation to use atomic weapons-and used them against cities. Washington used napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam. American leaders supported known-thug Saddam Hussein at a time when his regime used chemical weapons not only in its bloody war with Iran but against its own people.