Next is the “strategic cover-up,” in which a leader misleads in order to cover up a policy that has gone badly wrong, or to hide a smart but potentially controversial strategy. Mearsheimer cites a French World War I commander so incompetent that French authorities hid his bungling, fearing it would undermine morale at home. He also recalls President Kennedy’s decision to deny that he had struck a deal with the Soviet Union to withdraw missiles from Turkey in exchange for Moscow pulling its missiles from Cuba. Whether or not the press believed it, Mearsheimer calls it “a noble lie, since it helped defuse an extremely dangerous confrontation between two states armed with nuclear weapons.”
The last two types of lies — “national mythmaking” and “liberal lies” — deal with a country’s self-perception. National myths fuel solidarity by putting a country’s history in the best possible light. This is why French schoolchildren read textbooks praising the country’s colonial past, or why America’s founders have achieved demigod status over the centuries. (Founding myths are particularly untrustworthy, Mearsheimer warns.) And liberal lies — a term the author uses apolitically — are used to justify odious behavior that conflicts with traditional ideals. For example, Winston Churchill and FDR served up a generous helping of deceit when depicting Stalin as a good guy (friendly ol’ “Uncle Joe”) to justify their cooperation with the Soviet leader during World War II.
To be clear, Mearsheimer doesn’t necessarily consider all this lying to be morally reprehensible. “There are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie,” he asserts. Depending on the situation, lies can be “clever, necessary, and maybe even virtuous.” But he does see some negative consequences to engaging in excessive deceit at the top.
Widespread lying makes it harder for citizens to make good choices in the voting booth, Mearsheimer writes, since they’ll often be working with false information. And in fragile democracies, pervasive lying can so alienate the public that they are willing to embrace more authoritarian leadership. Fearmongering and strategic cover-ups in particular are dangerous because they reflect leaders’ low opinion of (or even contempt for) the people they represent. Also, sometimes citizens refuse to support a war policy simply because they are intelligent and informed, and it is the leaders who have misread the threat. If so, lying to persuade the public leads to folly.
In the United States, of course, skepticism and mistrust of Washington already seem rampant, ranging from fringe conspiracies regarding Sept. 11 or President Obama’s birthplace to substantive debates on foreign and domestic policy. Rep. Joe Wilson’s infamous “You lie!” charge against Obama in 2009 was probably more shocking for its setting — a formal State of the Union address — than for its message.
And Mearsheimer worries that there will be more lying — and more mistrust — to come. Washington has proved adventurous in its foreign policy in recent years, willing to police the globe and use military force freely. And though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may dampen popular and elite enthusiasm for war, “it may not be long before the United States marches off on another crusade” — leaving leaders in Washington willing to fearmonger yet again in order to garner support.
Why do they do it? “They think that . . . what they are doing is for the good of the country,” Mearsheimer explains. “Thus their lies will matter little in the long run if they expose the threat for what it is and deal with it effectively.”
In other words, if you lie to start a war, make sure to win it.
is editor of Outlook.