Edward Lucas, for Wprost
What do the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, rendition of terror suspects, and Libya's international rehabilitation have in common? All involve secret deals that seemed convenient at the time and now have come badly unstuck.
Without the secret protocols, it would be much easier for Russia now to defend the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The real outrage is not the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. By the grim standards of the 1930s, that was bad, but not exceptionally so. The real outrage was the secret deal to divide up eastern Europe. Denying the existence of the secret protocols made things worse: after the war, the Soviet Union had to maintain that captured Nazi documents were forgeries. It all helped make the Soviet propaganda line seem even less convincing than it would have been otherwise.
The willingness of Poland, Lithuania and Romania to help the Bush administration in the War on Terror would look much less bad if the help had been legal and above board. Sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan may be a military disaster, but it does not throw the government's integrity into doubt. A politician who does agree to help an ally with something secret and shameful, such as helping in the rendition (and perhaps torture) of terror suspects, had better be sure that everyone involved will keep the secret for ever.
When dealing with America, one of the most open societies in the world, that is a highly questionable assumption. It is even riskier given the level of partisanship. Unless you assume that the Republicans will hold power for ever, you should beware the possibility of a Democratic administration that wants to expose, or at least leak, the embarrassing or scandalous behaviour of its predecessor.
A similar bonfire of credibility is under way in Britain, amid allegations that the British government agreed to free a convicted terrorist murderer as part of an effort to restore relations with Libya. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer convicted of planting the bomb that brought down Pan-Am flight 103 in 1998, has been allowed to return home, ostensibly on compassionate grounds: doctors said his advanced prostate cancer gave him only weeks to live.
But the official story is coming unstuck. It turns out that Libya was allowed to pay for the medical diagnosis of the prisoner's condition. Britain and Libya had been in extensive talks, mostly secret, about trade and oil deals. Libya had warned Britain that if Mr Megrahi died in jail, those agreements would be cancelled. His return to a hero's welcome in Tripoli stoked outrage in America.
This looks like the same story again: a secret deal about something dodgy, followed by a failed cover-up. The casualty is credibility. Next time a British official insists that the legal system is independent, and that the government cannot order someone's release from jail for political reasons, people will be sceptical. If you could release Megrahi on medical grounds, perhaps rather elastic ones, then why not intervene some other politically sensitive case. If it turns out that Mr Megrahi's cancer is less bad than reported, the damage will be even greater.
Deceit shreds credibility and stokes conspiracy theories. If a government appears to have lied about one thing, then why should it be believed about anything else? Perhaps Mr Megrahi was not the bomber at all, but a fall guy, jailed to cover up a failed CIA drug smuggling ring (that's just one of the wild theories about Lockerbie on the internet). If east European governments were indeed willing accomplices in the torture and kidnap of foreigners, what else might they get up to, perhaps with their own people? And for what sinister reason is Russia dissembling about the past? Is it just the nostalgic and wrong-headed defence of wounded Soviet-era pride? Or something more sinister? Reality melts away, and we are left feeling powerless against the machinations of spooks, freemasons and other shadowy actors. Maybe that's just what they want.
(First published in Polish, available here: http://j.mp/wprost The above is courtesy of Mr Lucas))
Bad deals and bad ideas (1)