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Rule for people in politics: the cameras are always rolling, the microphone is always on, the audio track will always record your voice. Ask our friend Mitt Romney. He can tell you about a Democratic operative who recorded his remarks on the forty-seven percent. Now Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland gets caught, in a particularly sweet unveiling. After we get caught listening in on Angela Merkel’s personal telephone conversations for years, a phone tap catches Nuland saying “Fuck the EU” to Jeff Pyatt, U. S. ambassador to the Ukraine. What an appropriate comeuppance for our government protectors of freedom.

The Russian subtitles complement the video below. The message conveyed through Moscow’s actions is clear enough: we don’t want you, Washington, to meddle in Ukraine’s affairs.

A gaffe used to refer to a verbal mistake: a sentence in a speech, for instance, where you mean one thing but say another. It might be a careless, offensive joke, or something that sounds bad taken by itself. Now we seem to have extended the meaning of gaffe to things people say in private, where the only mistake is getting caught saying it:

Germans not amused by Nuland gaffe

As we evaluate Victoria Nuland’s three-word gaffe, where she tells ambassador Jeff Pyatt what she thinks of the European Union as they talk about how to manage political conflict in Ukraine, we want to remember a few things:

  • She did not consider the words a mistake when she uttered them. She only considered them a mistake when people everywhere heard them on YouTube. Between the time she said them, and the time she became a superstar, she meant them emphatically and sincerely.
  • Note the humor and innocent irony when we sputter and complain about our suspicions that Russia recorded the call and posted the audio. We’re complaining that someone else listened in on us? Or is that just how the feds act when they’re embarrassed? “For God’s sake,” you can hear them say, “they posted it on YouTube and tweeted it to the world!”
  • When we evaluate our representatives – especially as they ruin their reputations while they represent us – remember the distinction between our country and our government. We don’t want our country to look bad, we don’t want people to dislike Americans as such, but we do want people the world over to know the truth about our government.

The truth about our government is that no one can trust it. It speaks with contempt about its allies in private, then acts all apologetic when its contempt becomes public. Since Bradley Manning’s revelations to Wikileaks, we watch in fascination as a powerful and once-respected government, full of itself, habitually schemes to bring its corrupt influence to bear. It dismisses friends and enemies alike with expressions like “Fuck the EU.” It generously reveals what it means to speak out of both sides of your mouth. Does this doublespeak reveal the true spirit of our leaders and representatives? Do they truly think other people can’t hear? Perhaps it’s a bad habit, and they can’t help themselves.

Whatever the explanation, our allies and our adversaries want to stay safe. They know you have to be careful with spinmeisters, liars, blowhards and snakes. We here in the United States, as well as people all over the world, have so many reasons not to trust the United States government. They all reduce to one primary component: secrecy. Any organization that wields great power – and that operates in secret – is untrustworthy. When Germany and other members of the European Union say they cannot trust the United States, they are correct.

Suppose we heard a person high in the European Union’s foreign policy apparatus say “Fuck the United States” in a YouTube video. How would we react to that? Would we take it as a personal insult? Perhaps we would smile and think, “These Europeans, you can’t trust them for a second.” We might not want to magnify the contempt, but for a time, we would certainly not care to minimize it. In either case, we would be on our guard. Our friends are few.

Whenever a powerful, illegal government gets some comeuppance, it’s good news. Keep those phone taps going.