Challenge of a straight question


LONDON — Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, recently was asked twice by the Defense Committee of the House of Commons whether the army chief of staff had requested that reinforcements of 2,000 men be sent to Afghanistan, where British forces have recently suffered a string of casualties. Brown repeatedly evaded giving a straight answer. As a result, listeners may have concluded that the prime minister had either ignored or rejected the recommendation.

As a result, relatives of those who have been killed or maimed in Afghanistan may come to hold him responsible. The British government may have good reasons for rejecting recommendations from its chiefs of staff — including requests for more helicopters in Afghanistan — but they should give their reasons and not dodge the question.

The prime minister could have said he had considered all the options but had concluded for such and such reasons that the case for additional reinforcements was not proven and that the government instead was taking other measures that he would spell out in due course. His prevarication has increased popular doubts about his leadership.

While he may have been right in the steps taken last autumn to deal with the banking crisis, the kudos that these measures earned him has been undermined by his adamant refusal to acknowledge whether measures taken or not taken as chancellor of the exchequer had anything to do with the crisis.

Brown is not unique in refusing to answer straight questions. Politicians the world over are experts at waffling and issuing a plethora of cliches. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair could roll out endlessly, and with apparent conviction, speeches that amounted to very little.

If the Lisbon Treaty revamping the governance of the European Union is finally ratified by the Irish in a second referendum this autumn, as now seems likely, Europe will get a full-time “president.” Blair is likely to be a candidate for the post and is said to have a high level of support among European leaders including President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.

Yet, public opinion polls in Britain show that Blair’s selection would not be popular in Britain. His charisma has worn thin and his behavior and statements over the war in Iraq have permanently sullied his reputation.

Blair, Brown and many of their ministers have relied too much on spin doctors who attempt to present developments in a way that reflects well on their bosses. David Cameron, the leader of the opposition, has tried to show that he is straightforward and honest, but his director of communications is another spin doctor. It seems questionable whether the British public can necessarily expect more straight answers from their politicians if there is a change of government in Britain at the next election (to be held by June 2010).

There is much talk here about the need for greater transparency in decision- making and for increased freedom of information, but central and local governments continue to do their best to delay the publication of documents that show them in a poor light. The lack of a willingness to give straight answers undermines confidence in politicians and the future of democracy.

Honesty and a readiness to give straight answers are just as rare outside of Britain. Most Japanese political speeches are banal and devoid of real meaning. In the runup to the Aug. 30 general election, blasts of hot air will add to the sweltering damp summer. I hope the Japanese will manage to evade the noisy loud-speaker vans and be able to concentrate on the real issues.

Will Japanese politicians of either the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or the opposition Democratic Party of Japan be prepared to talk straight about the policies they would adopt if elected? I fear the answer is “no.”

For many decades the Japanese government has declared there was no secret agreement between Japan and the United States allowing U.S. vessels to bring nuclear weapons into Japanese waters under limited conditions. Now that the existence of such a secret agreement has been confirmed by a former vice minister of foreign affairs, the repeated denials suggest that successive Japanese ministers had been lying all along. If they weren’t lying and didn’t know of the existence of the agreement, the responsible authorities were clearly negligent for failing to inform their political masters.

Secrecy in the name of national security is often necessary, but not lying and blatant dishonesty. A politician and a civil servant should be able to refuse to answer a question if it could jeopardize security, but it should not be necessary to lie. There is a real danger that a lie will be exposed and that the revelation of the truth will jeopardize reputations.

The old saying that a diplomat was an official sent abroad to lie for his country implies that a diplomat cannot be relied on to speak the truth. In my experience, a diplomat who fails to tell the truth will be found out and harms his country’s interests.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.