- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

Brace yourself.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, drooping with volumes of erudition and lecturing with slabs of wisdom, unveiled a new national security threat last Friday before the Senate Budget Committee.

The danger will not require the building of bomb shelters. Neither will it demand anti-missile defenses, anti-terrorism intrusiveness, or anti-trade sanctions. But complacency would be unjustified.

Speaking with the equanimity of Winston Churchill during Britain's darkest hours, Mrs. Albright informed Committee members and the nation that the African AIDS epidemic should cause our knees to quiver and our adrenaline to flow.

Only the unschooled could not see the obvious. According to Mrs. Albright, African AIDS is a national security threat ranking on two counts. First, United Nations peacekeeping forces on the continent could be infected and die, a risk that has never sabotaged a peacekeeping mission. Second, internal upheavals and strife in African nations were fueled by the AIDS carnage. She neglected to note, however, that chronic convulsions, tyranny, corruption, civil insurrections, tribal, ethnic, and religious enmities, war and human-rights violations have been the soundtracks of Africa since decolonization commenced in 1957 decades before AIDS appeared on the dismal scene.

At present, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, Uganda, and Angola are all plagued by acute internal or external conflicts, none of which features AIDS as even a supporting actor.

But these facts left the secretary undaunted. To prove her extraordinary discernment, Mrs. Albright marshaled Vice President Al Gore's recent solemn presentation of the issue before the United Nations Security Council. And only a person brimming with audacity, like Democrat presidential aspirant Bill Bradley, would question Mr. Gore's fastidious attachment to truth and candor.

It is a dismaying earmark of the debauched level of contemporary political discourse that the chief custodian of the nation's foreign policy escaped ridicule from the committee and media. The acerbic wit of Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope would be needed to do justice to the Mrs. Albright's grand puerilities. But that is no excuse for their epigoni not to make an attempt.

The reason is not to denigrate AIDS in Africa as an authentic humanitarian crisis on the scale of the post-World War I influenza pandemic or worse. The tens of millions that seem destined to die over the next decade deserve our deepest sympathies and unstinting medical assistance to minimize the impending catastrophe. But it insults the intelligence and generosity of the American people to suggest that ridiculously inflating African AIDS into a national security threat and debasing language as in George Orwell's "1984" is either necessary or productive for generating political support.

What is wrong with a candid statement that the AIDS epidemic, that has escalated in some African countries to 30 percent of the population, should command an American humanitarian response simply because they are fellow members of the human race, even though their deaths will not bring already dilapidated economies to a halt or menace our national security? The March of Dimes succeeded without any hyperbole that polio raised an economic or national security threat to the United States. We are not a country of flint-hearted Scrooges.

Plain and candid speaking to the American people is more than semantic quibbling. Honesty is the coin of any healthy democratic realm. And the patently counter factual characterization by Mrs. Albright of African AIDS as a national security danger cheapens the coin. And she is not the sole culprit. Former Central Intelligence Director James Woolsey once cited the instability of the Venezuelan bolivar or the burning of Brazilian rain forests as legitimate national security worries.

President Clinton, in the midst of his impeachment ordeal, insisted that destroying a single pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, which killed one civilian worker, was critical to our counterterrorism campaign. And Mr. Clinton's reputation for veracity, even under oath, is not flattering.

It is one thing to indulge poetic license and hyperbole by candidates in political campaigns in characterizing their rivals. Voters are accustomed to discounting such polemics, and, more important, enjoy ready access to a wealth of information to check on candidate truthfulness, especially ripostes from candidate challengers. But national security claims by our highest government servants are different. They routinely rest on secret evidence. Their appraisals by a layman often require highly specialized knowledge. And the speed of a positive national response is frequently pivotal. National security arguments thus require the highest degree of public trust; and, the corresponding duty by public officials to enlist the assertion only in cases of grave and compelling moment is equally high.

If everything is a national security problem, then nothing is. A sensible political discourse about national security priorities and funding is arrested. When genuine dangers appear, the public may yawn, as if hearing the boy who shouted "wolf" too often.

National security is too important to be relegated to casuistry. Mrs. Albright should have known better.

Bruce Fein is a lawyer and free-lance writer specializing in legal issues.

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