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Demeaning key institutions undermines our democracy

Law enforcement, the FBI, the judiciary and the career civil service are all under siege by this administration.

If we think the North Korean regime is breaking an agreement on nuclear activities, for example, we will be unable to prove it to anyone – friend or foe – without credible intelligence.
REUTERS/Pool

If, as we all hope, a deal can be reached to eliminate the nuclear threat and reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, one key element will be the need to verify that North Korea lives up to its terms. Or, as Ronald Reagan’s favorite Russian proverb had it: trust but verify.

But how to do that? Aye, there’s the rub. To ensure compliance, we need to rely on our intelligence professionals – the very people whose competence Donald Trump frequently belittled, as candidate and as president, because he didn’t like their finding that Russia had meddled in our 2016 election on his behalf.

To discredit that conclusion, Trump repeatedly suggested that our intelligence community could not be trusted because it was wrong about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The errors that analysts allegedly commit live after them; the good is oft interred in secret archives.

An institution he will need

Ironically, by dismissing unwelcome intelligence reports to save his agenda – and maybe his own skin — the president undercuts trust in an institution he will need to build support for enforcing any deal with Pyongyang. If we think the North Korean regime is breaking an agreement on nuclear activities, for example, we will be unable to prove it to anyone – friend or foe – without credible intelligence.

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The same goes for Iran. Trump will need to offer solid evidence of Iran’s cheating to justify junking a nuclear pact that is strongly supported by other major powers, our allies as well as China and Russia. Such proof can only come from the very intelligence agencies whose reliability our own leader has impugned, as the world has clearly noted.

Just recently in Syria, for example, we charged that a war crime involving the use of chemical weapons was the responsibility of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Russia, however, stood by its man, blaming U.S.-backed groups instead and asking why anyone should believe American intelligence after what happened in Iraq. That sound you heard was chickens coming home to roost.

As with our intelligence community, so it is with other institutions that are vital to our democracy and our engagement with the world. If you malign them or starve them of resources, you cannot count on their being available when you need them.

Contempt toward State Department

At the Department of State, our diplomacy is being marginalized by budget cuts, unfilled positions and open contempt from the White House. In the future, when we realize we need first-rate professionals who really understand what’s happening in Country X, we may find we no longer have such experts. The lack of such in-depth understanding was one of the reasons for our failure in Vietnam.

Domestically also, our democratic institutions and traditions are being weakened. Individual journalists and the “mainstream media” are under constant barrage from the president and others. One result is diminished respect for a free press, a core part of our democracy. A recent Pew poll, for example, found that only 42 percent of Republicans agreed that media had a legitimate watchdog function to perform. This even though our Founding Fathers thought a free press was so essential that they made freedom of speech the very first amendment to our Constitution. That’s even before the right to bear arms.

Law enforcement, the FBI, the judiciary and the career civil service are all under siege by this administration. The president has denigrated judges whose rulings he disliked and humiliated his own attorney general, as well as other officials he himself appointed. He treats dedicated career civil servants as disloyal members of a so-called “deep state;” and he fired the FBI director for upholding his oath to the rule of law and the Constitution, instead of pledging personal allegiance to him.

Shortsighted focus

When key votes did not go the president’s way in the Senate, he urged that body to throw out centuries of traditional safeguards and go to strict majority rule on all measures, forgetting or not caring that one day — and maybe soon — the shoe will be on the other foot with a different party in power.

What all these actions have in common is a shortsighted focus on immediate gain without regard to long-term consequences. They also betray an autocratic impatience with the system of checks and balances and democratic practice we’ve built over 2½ centuries. We chose to share power and to be ruled by law, rather than by a strongman. It’s a system that has served us well. Our record of democratic governance is the envy of the world. We should all fight to protect it.

Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He lives in Plymouth.

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Correction: An earlier version of this commentary included an incorrect figure from recent Pew Research results.