The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue

Deception Points

John J. Mearsheimer
Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics
(Oxford University Press, 2011)

Lying, spinning, and concealment: three forms of international political deception. From Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, American political leaders have lied to their citizens and to their executive counterparts with a variety of strategic motivations and with varying degrees of moral justification. In assessment of this political reality, John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago has penned a theoretical tract, Why Leaders Lie, which he hopes will provide some foundational literature in this branch of international relations. While addressing examples of lying throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, Mearsheimer places a particular emphasis on the lies told by the recent Bush administration—notably, in the first years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The irrefutable, egregious, and widespread nature of the Bush administration’s lying in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq practically bookends Mearsheimer’s work. Despite his contextual predilection, the author’s stated mission in Why Leaders Lie is to construct a rubric for the investigation of international lying, not to issue political commentary or rhetorical diatribe. Ultimately, Why Leaders Lie is a significant work for our time, especially when compounded with Mearsheimer’s most striking conclusion in the book: that leaders of democracies are more likely to lie to their own people than leaders of autocracies.

Theoretically speaking, Mearsheimer is a political realist and a utilitarian. That means he believes such a thing exists as a “noble lie,” (i.e., lying for morally just objectives; e.g., President Kennedy lying to the American people about the deal he made with the Soviets to temper the Cuban Missile Crisis). It also means he subscribes to the view that states are rational actors who jockey for position on the world stage in a markedly anarchistic system—an international scene with an “absence of a common sovereign” to enforce moral principles. Mearsheimer’s specific branch of political realism is called “offensive realism,” and he is its firebrand, having expounded its nuances in his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Offensive realism blames security competition among states as the primary cause of anarchy, or a lack of central control, in the international system.

Outside the academic realm, Mearsheimer caused a stir in 2006, co-authoring the book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, with Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt. The book drew fire for treading on what many perceive as the sacred, unimpeachable relationship between Israel and the United States. As a realist, Mearsheimer argued that since the United States is an indelible shaper of events worldwide, all of its actions deserve close scrutiny, including its arms arrangements, funding, and general policy approach with regard to Israel, a Middle East democracy with close social ties and immense strategic importance for the United States.

In Why Leaders Lie, Mearsheimer presents a clear outline for the complex moral interchange involved in state lying, beginning with the premise that strategic lying is a last resort for world leaders. This somewhat unfamiliar assertion—that “too much lying is bad for business”—challenges the notion prevalent during the Bush administration that the West lives in a perpetual state of Orwellian untruth. Mearsheimer identifies particular subdivisions within strategic lying, including: inter-state lies, fearmongering, strategic cover-ups, nationalist mythmaking, liberal lies, social imperialism, and ignoble cover-upsdepicting typical examples, their employment, and their consequences. Many of Mearsheimer’s examples reference major events in global history. President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, used fearmongering when lying to Congress in an effort to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as part of the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Leaders engage in fearmongering when they think they recognize a serious threat to national security that the public does not see, and that the public cannot be made to appreciate with straightforward and honest discourse. They reason that the only way to mobilize their citizens to do the right thing is to deceive them for their own good. Fearmongering…is antidemocratic at its core, although leaders do it because they think it is in the national interest, not for personal gain.

Mearsheimer’s argument that leaders lie solely for reasons of national interest does not take into account the multi-faceted, often conflicted dimensions of human psychology. Rather, it displays a tension between his desire to construct a theoretical framework for lying and the murky realities involved with vested personal and business interests, maverick leadership, and Machiavellian power-grabbing. The author himself goes on to reiterate, “Leaders who engage in fearmongering betray a certain contempt for their people and for democracy more generally.” This is a crucial point—for what is the good of defending our national interests if, in defending them, we jeopardize our founding principles? Mearsheimer writes, “Leaders do not fearmonger because they are evil or because they are pursuing selfish gains, but because they believe that inflating a particular threat serves the national interest.” Perhaps at the expense of creating an objective framework for his subject, the author belies a degree of willful ignorance regarding human motivation. Though this aberrance does not upset the internal logic of Mearsheimer’s argument, its presence is felt by anyone who has lived through the recent Iraq War.

One of the most unsettling, yet well-reasoned claims that Mearsheimer presents in the book is that lying is altogether more common in democratic than in autocratic countries. The reason for this is relatively straightforward: in autocratic countries there is less freedom for public discussion and little pretense to leadership accountability as compared to democracies. Dictators do not have the same incentive to lie to their people because their authority does not derive from them. They can strong-arm their public, unlike leaders of democratic states, who oftentimes have resorted to deception. Though Mearsheimer makes it clear that lying “threatens the inner life of a state,” creating what he calls “a poisonous culture of dishonesty,” he refrains from issuing outright obloquy against deception in international relations; instead, he anatomizes and rationalizes its various aspects, administering a cost-benefit analysis according to international rule of law. Mearsheimer doesn’t condemn so much as expose that hallmark claim of Neoconservative thinking that democracies are at a disadvantage when pitted against autocratic governments, because democratic publics are incapable of coping with difficult truths—that they are too weak, too ignorant, or too disinterested. Unlike in autocracies, leaders of democracies have to reckon with public opinion and an electorate. Put succinctly:

Many people around the world identify with the well-established body of liberal norms and rules that are supposed to guide state behavior, and they want to believe that their government acts in accordance with them.

The core value of Mearsheimer’s work is that it expands and makes richer the field of what is possible to talk about clearly in political governance. Why Leaders Lie not only represents an academic advance for political science, it also implicitly challenges the American polity to explore, understand, and engage with the issues so central to its moral self. Moreover, there could not be a better moment to remind ourselves—in reasonable and clear language such as Mearsheimer’s—of the intricacies and employment of political lying, for ours is an age of the micro-blogosphere and the 24-hour newscycle, an age in which the constituents of democracy at home and abroad are perpetually run-down with prevarication and distortion from an unprecedented saturation-level of business and social media.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues