When millenarians meet spies

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The Independent Online
HENRY JAMES would have enjoyed this week's coverage in the American media of the case of Aldrich Hazen Ames, the middle-ranking CIA agent accused of spying for the KGB and later, what is worse, the KGB's successor, the Russian Federation's foreign intelligence service.

The leitmotif has been one dear to James's heart and mind: American innocence ensnared by European treachery. The word 'outrage' has been much in the air. After the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, had scolded the Russian ambassador in Washington, the US ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Pickering, is reported as having 'confronted' a bunch of Russian officials at a dinner in Moscow, 'to reiterate the sense of American outrage'.

CNN's handling of this sizzling subject, in prime time on Wednesday night, was particularly revealing. CNN's use of English prose owes little to Henry James, but in the matter of treachery as a European speciality, foreign to America, it has got the message of the Master.

Right after the basic news, CNN ran a retrospective on 'Famous British Spies': clips of Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt: soundtrack filled with the plummy, arrogant, unAmerican accents of upper-class Britons: accents faintly sinister on the lips of the guilty four. The anchorwoman smilingly commented that in Britain treachery is 'practically a cottage industry'. The message to the huge American public that watches CNN was comfortingly clear: America may, possibly, have one traitor-spy, but the British have them like other people have mice.

Such comfort is needed, for Americans are genuinely outraged and deeply shaken by the Ames episode. It is of course normal for the spied-on party to upbraid the owner of the detected spy, in the smug awareness that its own spies are still undetected. That is a routine ritual everywhere, and is conducted with a scarcely concealed blend of hypocrisy and cynicism. But America, as in so much, is a bit different.

There is less hypocrisy and less cynicism in America than in other countries. It seemed to me this week that the outrage expressed - for example, in statements by former officials - had the vibrance of the genuine article. They couldn't all be just acting: there can't be that many Ronald Reagans around. They were outraged, all right, although all of them knew that Americans are still spying on Russians just as Russians are still spying on Americans.

But they clearly feel that there is a huge moral difference between the comparable transactions. It is outrageous that people should spy on America; it is proper and prudent for Americans to spy on others. People of other nations feel more or less like that, but the weight of moral certitude behind such expressions of outrage in America is impressive. Behind that certitude are generations of American millenarianism, going back to the New England beginnings, spreading out with the expanding frontier, through Manifest Destiny into the American Century. America is doing God's will for the world, and it is blasphemous to oppose it.

As America grew more secular - though it is still much less secular than any major European country - that conviction assumed secular as well as supernatural forms, but the roots of the whole system are still in a millenarian culture. To such a culture, the notion of an intruding spy is peculiarly odious, even literally diabolical. A foreign spy in America is a serpent in Eden, and that perception may have serious international consequences.

Other countries and peoples have, of course, had millenarian experiences: Cromwellian England, the French revolutionaries in the heyday of Girondist ideological expansionism, the Russian revolutionaries in the days of Lenin and Trotsky, Mao's China in the middle of this century. But those were all fairly brief epiphanies. This ferment has been working in the culture of the American people now for three and a half centuries.

All this has a bearing on how the Ames case is likely to affect relations between America and Russia. Millenarians - the late John Foster Dulles was a good example - are inclined to perceive international relations in terms of angels and fiends. If Rick Ames (as he was known to his former colleagues) is guilty as charged, he definitely is of the number of the fiends: an American traitor, bribed with Russian gold to spy on his own country and betray his own American colleagues. But if Ames is found guilty, what are we to think of the power that planted this serpent? Must not the new Russia, then, be of a diabolical order, like the old Soviet Union, although it is supposed to be different? Can Boris Yeltsin possibly be an angel, if he sent this serpent?

The Clinton administration has done its best to build up Mr Yeltsin as some kind of angel, although Central Casting would have been unlikely to pick Boris for that particular role. The Ames case is correspondingly awkward for Mr Clinton, who cannot afford to have his candidate angel turn into a devil in the eyes of the American people. It is particularly awkward, since it is now clear that Mr Clinton has known about the Ames case for 10 months, during which he was constantly urging the American people to put their trust in Mr Yeltsin.

The administration, therefore, has been trying to play down the significance of the Ames case for the future of American-Russian relations. At the same time, however, they are so angry that they cannot help reacting with cries of outrage, which assumes that Ames must be guilty as charged. And if that assumption is correct, or even generally shared, American-Russian relations are bound to suffer. The Senate minority leader, Bob Dole, says these relations are 'shaken to their foundations'.

The Ames case, reflecting badly on the Russians, comes at a bad time for the administration over Bosnia. It has been trying to pretend that its fudged ultimatum over Sarajevo has been a brilliant success. To accept that, you must believe that the Russian troops who have suddenly popped up in Bosnia as a consequence of the ultimatum are there as America's loyal allies, exercising restraint over the Serbs and inducing them to comply with the Nato ultimatum. That is not how it looks in Belgrade, or in Moscow, or in Bosnia itself, where Serbian and Russian soldiers have been joyously fraternising, using handgrips of Orthodox fellowship, and knocking back Serbian brandy. But that is how Mr Clinton is trying to make it look to the American grassroots. The trial of Aldrich Ames will not make his task any easier.

I suspect we may be on the verge of something very like a new Cold War that might for two reasons be even more dangerous than the old one. The first is the presence of Russian soldiers in Bosnia; the second is the likelihood that Americans may come to believe that they have been deceived about the character and intentions of Boris Yeltsin. Either angel or devil; for millenarians there is no middle ground.

(Photograph omitted)