Why leaders lie

In international politics, guess who lies the most?

By Joe Keohane
January 2, 2011

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Most people consider lying to be reprobate behavior. At the same time, we all secretly know that there can be a certain strategic usefulness to snookering others. When University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimer started looking into the prevalence of lying on a global scale — lying between nations, not just between people — he figured it was pretty routine. After all, everyone lies, usually over fairly petty things. So just imagine the torrent of falsehood that must be issued daily in the high-stakes realm of geopolitics.

But while researching his new book, “Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics,” Mearsheimer found something that surprised him: Lying between countries is actually relatively rare. It happens occasionally — the strategic cover-ups, the chest-puffing about weapons — but what’s far more common is leaders lying to their own people on foreign policy matters. And he’s not talking about totalitarian propaganda, either: Lying is particularly prevalent in democratic states, where leaders need the support of the citizenry in order to execute their policies. This is where the United States comes in for some lumps. FDR lied about the German attack on the USS Greer in 1941 in the hopes of rallying support for America’s entrance into the war; LBJ lied about the Gulf of Tonkin; and the Bush administration lied about its “bulletproof” evidence that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots.

Mearsheimer found that if a leader lies to sell a policy that works, people are unlikely to care all that much. If the policy turns out to be a dog, though, they’ll be furious, shocked at the deception. But in no time, they’ll implicitly trust the government anew. “There’s no question that once a president lies, people are then quite jaded in how they look at that president,” he says. “But that quickly wears off. Trust reasserts itself. And then people are vulnerable all over again.”

Mearsheimer spoke to Ideas from his office in Chicago.

IDEAS: Over the course of human history, governments have always lied to their people. Why are we such suckers?

MEARSHEIMER: In large part because most people don’t have much choice but to trust their own government, because their own government its tasked with protecting them.

IDEAS: Because the alternative leaves you with the sense that you’re floating in this void.

MEARSHEIMER: That’s right. It’s for the same reason, to be honest, that children love their parents. You really have no choice. To tell you a quick story, I had heard [UN weapons inspector] Scott Ritter make the case in the run-up to the Iraq war that he was quite confident Iraq did not have WMD, and then I subsequently heard Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld say that we knew they had WMD because we knew where they were. And I said to myself — in retrospect it seems foolish — but I said to myself at the time that Ritter must be wrong because Rumsfeld wouldn’t say that we know they have WMD because we know where they are if it wasn’t true. He wouldn’t lie in a bald-faced way like that. But of course he did, and Ritter proved correct. But I just trusted Rumsfeld because he was the secretary of defense.

IDEAS: It’s funny that you would be as susceptible to the lie as people who don’t spend their days analyzing foreign policy.

MEARSHEIMER: I agree. I don’t know what to say!

IDEAS: You address only what you call “strategic lies” in this book — lies told for a bigger reason — as opposed to the “selfish lies” designed just to help the person telling them. But in a democracy, can you draw that clear a line between a selfless lie and a selfish lie? If an elected official sells a policy, it can mean a win at the polls.

MEARSHEIMER: I think there are cases where selfish interests and national security interests are hard to distinguish from one another. I think that’s true in coverups. I think that leaders sometimes cover up mistakes for good strategic reasons, but there’s no question that that also benefits them politically. But I think in the case of the Bush administration and the run-up to the Iraq war, that they were not lying for selfish reasons. They were deeply committed to the belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and that it was imperative to remove him from office. They thought that was in the national interest, and they thought the war made eminently good sense. I think they were dead wrong, but I don’t think they pursued that course of action for malevolent reasons. To paraphrase Talleyrand: It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.

IDEAS: So the public will abide a lie so long as the policy works?

MEARSHEIMER: That’s correct. The public, by and large, trusts its leaders not only to tell the truth, but to get the job done. When they don’t get the job done, they get punished, and when they don’t get the job done and it comes out that they lied, they’re in really serious trouble. This is what happened to Johnson and it’s what happened to Bush. If you’re going to tell a lie, make sure the policy works out.

IDEAS: There’s an old saying, “Lying is an abomination unto the Lord, and a very present help in times of trouble.” But you have to strike the right balance.

MEARSHEIMER: Yes, sometimes it is a useful tool of statecraft. And there are going to be cases when it makes good sense to lie to your own people. We can point to examples. The case of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis is a perfect one. But one always wants to be aware that lies can backfire. It happened with Khrushchev and the missile gap. Or you can have this blowback effect, where when you lie to your own people about foreign policy you run the risk that you’ll soon be lying to them about other aspects of policy, and lying will become routine and undermine the trust that’s necessary to make the country function smoothly.

IDEAS: But we now live in an age of Muslim presidents and death panels. Hasn’t that already happened here?

MEARSHEIMER: I do have a sense, I can’t prove it with hard numbers, but I do have a sense that there’s more lying in domestic politics today.

IDEAS: Is it possible that all that strategic lying over the past decade has created a climate where elites feel emboldened to lie about domestic issues as well?

MEARSHEIMER: Yes. Lying in issues of foreign policy facilitates lying on a broader scale; it creates an atmosphere where people think it’s routine to try and deceive the American people, that it’s OK to deceive the American people. I had a discussion of the downside of lying in the book, and I tried to make the case that while there are good strategic reasons for lying, there is a real downside, and that is the blowback effect. Once it’s known that a particular leader has told a lie, especially an important lie with significant policy consequences, he is in a sense opening Pandora’s Box. It can take on a life of its own.

IDEAS: So ultimately, the lesson is: Lie selectively, lie well, and ultimately be good at what you do.

MEARSHEIMER: I’m sad to say that’s true. Yes. I’m sad to say that’s true.

Joe Keohane is a writer in New York.