CAN we learn anything useful from the arms-for-hostages fiasco? The Reagan White House has given still another reminder that clandestine operations - whatever their short-term gains - tend to boomerang. Not only do secret diplomacy, dirty tricks, and falsehood contradict our basic values; they also harm our power and influence throughout the world. Open diplomacy also has its pitfalls, but they are slight compared with the blunders that often result from clandestine operations. Woodrow Wilson championed ``open covenants openly arrived at,'' but was later scorned for naivet'e. Real men, his critics said, practice Realpolitik. Machiavelli and Bismarck became our models: The end justifies the means - ``blood and iron.'' Secret diplomacy and all manner of dirty tricks were justified on the grounds that we are engaged in a winner-take-all contest with communist, terrorist, and other foes across the globe. If we can overthrow or deceive a foe, that is all to the good, even if we must ape Goebbels or the KGB to do so.
Disinformation and other dirty tricks derive from a mind-set that seeks to extract gains for ourselves at the expense of the other side. But exploitation is not the only way to conduct politics or any other business. Instead, we can work at creating gains for both sides, as when management and workers cooperate to yield joint profits.
Who was right - Machiavelli or Wilson?
A survey that I conducted among leading historians and political analysts asked them to list the major achievements and failures of US foreign policy since 1917. Topping the achievements were the Marshall Plan and the Fulbright exchanges - both planned and conducted openly. The leading failure was America's Vietnam involvement, on which key facts were kept from the public. Another disaster was the Bay of Pigs, conceived and executed by a small band of ``intelligence'' operatives.
To be sure, secrecy and subversion have their place in time of war. The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) scored some important victories during World War II. Its mentality continued into the cold war as the Central Intelligence Agency helped to defeat or overthrow leftists in Italy, Greece, Iran, Guatemala, and elsewhere. But these Pyrrhic victories have returned to haunt us, most notably in Iran. Worse, short-term gains spurred the self-confidence that led us toward Vietnam.
The most successful practitioner of secret diplomacy in recent decades has been Henry Kissinger, who managed to meet secretly with Vietnamese in Paris, fly secretly to Peking and launch normalization with China, and negotiate the SALT I arms pact through a ``back channel'' to Moscow. He even managed to keep US air attacks on Vietnamese in Cambodia from the American public for some time.
But most of these operations soon backfired. Hanoi took over the south; Japan suffered a deep shock from being left in the dark about China; Moscow gained concessions through the back channel that have shaken public support for arms control; and Cambodia has been ruined.
The Reagan record has not even the consolation of short-term achievement, except perhaps in Grenada. Whatever the Reagan PR machine says, the facts are humiliating: The Marines have been driven from Lebanon; the International Court has found the US a lawbreaker in Nicaragua; the State Department's spokesman has resigned over the White House disinformation campaign against Libya; and the US public does not believe the President when he claims that he did not cave in to Moscow or Tehran to secure US hostages. Nor does most of the scientific community believe him on the feasibility of ``star wars.''
Why do truth and openness work best - at least in peacetime?
Because they minimize damage and maximize the prospects for creating values for all sides. The more voices and interests with access to the necessary information can make themselves heard, the more likely that governments are to act wisely. The longer and more deeply we communicate with other governments, the less chance of miscalculation. International conflicts are more than misunderstandings, but the more we know about the interests at stake, the greater the chance of finding solutions useful to all sides without resort to coercion.
Machiavelli got it wrong. Means are as important as ends. How we conduct our policies affects not only their outcomes but ourselves - the quality of our persons, our life, our civilization.
It is bad enough that the clandestine diplomacy of the Reagan administration has fulfilled few of its goals; but it has also blackened the character of those who conduct it, and defamed the good name and self-esteem of other Americans.
Our self-interest as well as our self-respect would gain from a consistent strategy seeking open covenants openly arrived at.
Walter C. Clemens Jr. is professor of political science at Boston University and adjunct research fellow at the Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs.