Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics with John Mearsheimer

The world beyond the headlines lecture
series is a project of the University of Chicago Center for International Studies quite honored to introduce professor
John Mearsheimer tonight a man who really needs no introduction but for
those of you who don’t know professor Mearsheimer is the R Wendell Harrison
Distinguished Service professor of political science and the co-director of
the program and international security policy at the University of Chicago
where he has taught since 1982 professor Mearsheimer’s work has shaped
contemporary debates within the field of international relations. He’s confronted
issues related to national security strategy since the publication of his
first book Conventional Deterrence which examines the success and failure of
deterrence and the role that conventional forces play in deterrence.
He then published Liddell Hart and the Weight of History which addresses
military strategy in history of the interwar period. Among international
relations theorists professor Mearsheimer is most well known for the
tragedy of great power politics. The tragedy of great power politics is an
impressive and influential work that has had a major impact on the realist canon
and the evolution of international relations theory. In it he presents a
theory of offensive realism which is used to explain the key causes of war in
peace. According to this theory in order to seek security and to ensure their
survival it’s necessary for States to maximize their power resulting in a
world of constant security competition in which states behave offensively
towards one another in order to survive these ideas have widely influenced the
current discourse and debate within contemporary international relations
theory. Not one to shy from controversy professor Mearsheimer has become quite
famous for his book the Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy written with
Professor Stephen Walt, in which they discuss how the pro-israel lobby has
shaped u.s. foreign policy and the effect that this has had upon American
interests. Professor Mearsheimer latest book Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About
Lying in International Politics about which you will speak tonight seeks to
identify the types of lies that leaders tell the circumstances under which they
tell those lies and the costs of those lies. He presents a typology of lying and
a theoretical account to understand when and why states lie and whether there are
differences between the lies that leaders tell to their domestic publics
and other states. On that note I would like to welcome Professor John
Mearsheimer. thank you very much for that [Applause] Thank you very much for that nice introduction Jenna it’s a pleasure
to be here tonight and I greatly appreciate the CIS, the Seminary Co-Op
Bookstore and I-House all being willing to sponsor my talk and I’d especially
like to thank Jamie Bender who invited me to be here tonight and
most importantly I’d like to thank all of you for coming out to hear me speak.
As Jenna said I’m going to speak tonight about my new book Why Leaders Lie: The
Truth About Lying in International Politics. And let me start by telling you
how I became interested in the subject. In the spring of 2003 Serge Mayman who
then wrote for The New York Times was doing a piece for the Sunday weakened
review section on International lying and he called me up and he said that for
some reason when thinking about the subject my name popped into his head. I
had never met him before but he asked me what were my thoughts about
international lying and I said to him I’ve never thought about the subject
before and I said as best as I best as I can recall there’s
no literature on it. So I said why don’t you tell me what
you’re thinking about it and then I’ll bounce off your ideas so we talked for
about an hour and had a very fruitful discussion about international lying and
after I hung up the telephone I made some notes and I stuck them stuck them
in a folder. A few months later MIT asked me if I’d come and give a talk and they
said I could talk on any subject I wanted so I said what the heck I’ll talk
about international lying so I pulled out my notes and over the next week or two I
crafted a talk went to MIT and gave it and what I found was that people were
fascinated by the subject and then I gave more talks and everywhere I went I
found that people were fascinated by the subject so I eventually wrote a paper
and then I decided to turn the paper into a short book and that’s how I ended
up writing the book I’m going to talk about tonight. Now the key premise in the
book is that lying sometimes makes strategic sense it sometimes makes good
sense for the leaders of a particular country to lie. Lying is a useful tool of
statecraft in my argument. Now in the beginning of the book I distinguish
between selfish lies and strategic lies. Selfish lies are leaders that why are
lies that leaders tell that are designed to benefit them. Strategic lies are lies
that leaders tell to benefit the country. And let me give you an example that’s
actually quite controversial that illustrates this division in the book I
talk about four lies that the Bush administration told in the run-up to the
Iraq war and I make the argument that the Bush administration did not tell
those lies for selfish reasons. None of the individuals
in the administration who lied we’re going to benefit from those lies
personally they told those lies because they thought it was in the American
national interest to go to war against Iraq as you all know or is hopefully all
of you know that was a boneheaded decision but nevertheless they thought
they were doing the right thing and they waged this deception campaign for what
they thought were positive ends. It’s also important to emphasize that I
talked about noble lies in the book I make the argument that there’s some lies
that our leaders have told over time which I think can be categorized as
noble lives and the best example is the lying that President Kennedy did during
the Cuban Missile Crisis in that crisis Nikita Khrushchev who is his counterpart
on the Soviet side told Kennedy that he would take the Soviet missiles out of
Cuba provided that Kennedy take the Jupiter missiles the American Jupiter
missiles out of Turkey as almost all of you know turkey is right next door to
the Soviet Union and those Jupiter missiles looked to the Soviets a lot
like the Soviet missiles in Cuba looked like us and Khrushchev wanted them out
actually Kennedy had no problem taking them out because when he had assumed the
office of the presidency in January 1961 he had ordered the Pentagon to take the
Jupiter missiles out of Turkey he didn’t want the Jupiter missiles in Turkey but
the Pentagon had failed to take the Jupiter missiles out so he was you know
not worried for strategic reasons about those missiles being removed from Turkey
but he felt that if the American public found out about the deal
he would have to renege on the deal and he also felt that if the Europeans
especially the Turks found out about the deal they would
think that the United States commitment to defend Europe was not very firm and
that America was willing to compromise Europe’s security to maximize America’s
security. So Kennedy told Khrushchev you we have a deal we have a deal but you
cannot announce that we have that deal and if you do announce that we have that
deal I will deny it and furthermore if someone here in the United States
smells that a deal has been made and starts asking questions you want to
understand that I’m going to lie about it. Needless to say a number of
journalists and others smelled the deal and started asking questions about
whether or not Kennedy had agreed to trade the Jupiter’s for the Soviet
missiles in Cuba and Kennedy lied and said there was no such deal and when I
was young I believed as did almost everybody else who studied the Cuban
Missile Crisis that there had been no deal and that Kennedy had stood his
ground it insisted that Khrushchev take the missiles out without a quid pro quo.
But we were wrong because he had lied to us I’m glad he lied to us
and I’m glad they cut the deal because it ended the Cuban Missile Crisis and I
think that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the United States came to
war during the Cold War and given that both sides had thermonuclear weapons and
there was a chance that a war would have escalated to the nuclear level I think
it was imperative that President Kennedy shut down that crisis and if he had to
tell a lie to the American people and to the Europeans to do it so be it.
So my argument is that there’s a distinction between strategic lies and
selfish lies and what I’m talking about tonight is strategic lies and I’m also
making the argument that sometimes those lies turn out to be noble lies this is
not to say that sometimes those lies don’t turn out to be blunders
and again I did reference the Bush administration and it’s deception
campaign in the run-up to the Iraq war. Now what exactly do I mean what I’m
talking about why it’s important to get the definitions down by basic schema
looks like this there’s truth-telling on one side and
there’s deception on the other side and underneath deception there’s lying,
spinning and concealment and I’ll walk you through the definitions of all of
those but you want to understand that at the highest level there’s a distinction
between truth-telling and deception. Truth-telling is where it
individuals goes to great lengths to tell a story in a straightforward manner
and in is truthful away as possible. Deception of course is the opposite and
among the three kinds of deception, lying usually means saying something that is
not true. If Jenna asked me did I go to Kansas City yesterday and I said no when
in fact I did go to Kansas City yesterday that would be a lie but
there’s actually another form of lying and that comes when a person does not
make one statement or a series of statements that are untrue but
nevertheless makes a series of statements that are designed to lead the
listener to a false conclusion so you’re purposely deploying your statements and
none of those statements by themselves or faults you’re purposely deploying
those statements to lead the listener to a false conclusion that’s different than
actually saying something that you know to be untrue. And let me give you an
example for each one of those kinds of lying again going to the Bush
administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. Secretary
of Defense Rumsfeld said on September 27th 2002 he said that we have quote
unquote bullet proof evidence of a link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam
Hussein approximately two years later on October 4th 2004 he told the Council on
Foreign Relations in New York quote to my knowledge I have not seen any strong
hard evidence that links the two that’s a lie
it’s a bold-faced lie an example of the second kind of lying has to do with the
argument that the Bush administration made that Saddam was in part responsible
for September 11th when we went to war in March of 2003 well over half of the
American people believed that Saddam was in part responsible for September 11th
this was because the Bush administration went to enormous lengths to convince you
that that was the case they never said however that Saddam was directly
responsible for what happened on September 11th but they made a series of
statements over time that were designed to make you believe that Saddam helped
perpetrate September 11th. So those are the two kinds of lying. Then there’s
concealment and spinning. Concealment is where you simply don’t tell the other
party about certain facts and again to go to the run-up to the Iraq war and
again to focus on the link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein we
interrogated both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the principal architect
the attacks and Abu Zubaydah and both of them told us in separate engagements
that Saddam and Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with each other and in
fact they intensely disliked each other the Bush administration not surprisingly
concealed that information from us because the Bush administration wanted
to give us the impression that the two of them were joined at the hip but
that’s concealment it’s not lying. The third form of deception which we all
engage in in our daily lives is spinning. Spinning is where you don’t tell an
outright lie you just arrange the facts in a story to
present your self in the most positive light or to present an issue that you
care about in the most positive light you leave out the negative parts where
you downplay the negative parts. When a boy and a girl flirt with each other
they engage in spinning. If President Obama were up here and we asked him
what’s the state of the American economy he would engage in spinning he would
tell us all the positive aspects of the economy he would downplay the negative
or conceal the negative aspects. If John Boehner on the other hand were up here
and we asked him he’d paint a very different picture but he too would spin
neither President Obama nor Mr. Boehner would lie they would spin. So you have
these three forms of deception and I would argue that we all engage in
spinning and concealment frequently and in fact there’s no way that a society
could work without a great deal of spinning and concealment
but lying on the other hand is a different matter if somebody said that
one of the real problems with John Mearsheimer is that he’s a liar that
would bother me greatly if all of you thought that I was a liar
would not sit well with me if you think that I’m misguided well I can live with
that but being called the liar is not something that most people cotton to so
given that lying is such a special category of deception I figured it made
a lot of sense to think about how it applied to international politics now
what I discovered is that there are five kinds of international – excuse me,
five kind of international lies and let me tell you what the five kinds of lies
are. The first kinds of lies are interstate lies, interstate lies are
where the leader of one country lies either to the leader of another country
or to a foreign audience and let me give you a good example of that during the
Cold War the United States was very interested in convincing the Soviet
Union that we would use nuclear weapons to defend Europe were the Soviets to
attack into Western Europe and this is in large part because the threat of
nuclear use by the United States was a wonderful way of deterring the Soviets
from attacking in the first place if the Soviets thought that we were going to
use nuclear weapons and a conventional war in Europe would therefore likely
escalate to the nuclear level they would never start such a war so we had a
vested interest in convincing the Soviets that we would use those nuclear
weapons of course it was not clear that we would use nuclear weapons to defend
Europe because if the Soviets were over running Western Europe as bad as that
would be it’s nowhere near as bad as a general thermonuclear war that ends up
in the United States getting incinerated. So there were all sorts of reasons to
think we wouldn’t use the nuclear opens which of course is why our leaders
went to great lengths to say we would use nuclear weapons. Henry Kissinger and
Robert McNamara both said when they were in positions of power that they would
use nuclear weapons to defend Europe both of them later said that they would
have never used nuclear weapons to defend Europe and when they made those
statements they were bluffing, bluffing by the way is a euphemism for lying.
They were bluffing I think it made eminently good sense for them to bluff
because it helped make deterrence work in Europe during the Cold War but the
key point is they are admitting that they were lying.
So interstate lying is the first kind of lying second kind of lying is
fear-mongering a euphemism for fear-mongering might be threat inflation.
Fear-mongering is where a leader lies to his or her own public it’s very
different than lying to another country. What the Bush administration did in the
run-up to the Iraq war is an example of fear-mongering the Bush administration
understood full well that the American public was not enthusiastic about
fighting a war against Iraq so they felt that what they had to do was make it
clearer than the truth to borrow Dean Acheson’s words that Saddam Hussein was
so dangerous that he had to be removed from power and in the process they told
four separate lies and more generally they waged a deception campaign and I of
course have pointed out a number of those lies already
that’s fear-mongering and there are other examples as well Lyndon Johnson
some of us in the audience are old enough to remember the Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution where Johnson lied about what the North Vietnamese were doing in the
Gulf of Tonkin and early in August 1964 because he
wanted to get a resolution through Congress that basically gave him carte
blanche to wage the Vietnam War that’s fear mongering. A third kind of
lying is what I call strategic cover-ups a good example of a strategic cover-up
is President Kennedy lying about the deal that he cut with Nikita Khrushchev
to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. What Kennedy was doing was employing a very
controversial policy he made a very important and controversial policy
decision that he could not afford to tell the American people and the
Europeans about so he covered it up he lied. That’s what I call a strategic
cover-up it’s a third kind of lying. Fourth kind of lying is nationalist myth
making all states are infected with nationalism and nationalism invariably
involves telling lies about your past what all countries do is engage in myth
making they tell stories that portray themselves as the good guys and portray
the other as the bad guys we’re all familiar with this process the example I
like to use because it affected me at one point in time has to do with the
creation of the State of Israel in 1948. When I was young I believed in virtually
everyone I knew believed that the reason the Palestinians left what became Israel
in 1948 was because the Arab leaders told them to leave because they were
then going to come in and murder all the Jews and then the Palestinians could
move back to their homes and there would be no
Jews left because the Arab armies would have finished all of them off so in
effect it was the Palestinians own fault for listening to the Arabs and leaving
their homes and going outside of mandatory Palestine and creating the
problem of all these refugees. We now know mainly through the work of Israeli
historians that this is not what happened in fact is not a shred of
evidence that that’s what happened what happened is that the Israelis ethnically
cleansed Palestine they pushed about 700,000 Palestinians out and then they
would not allow them to return to their homes. This is a nationalist myth and the
United States and all sorts of other countries have similar myths I’m not
picking on Israel here Israel is not an exception in this regard but this is
nationalist myth-making. Then the final kind of lying international lying is
liberal lies. We have today around the world a well-established body of norms
regarding how to think about war how to think about when it’s permissible to go
to war how to think about what is permissible in the conduct of war and so
forth and so on and these norms are very closely aligned with basic Just War
theory. So when states go out and misbehave or act in ways that violate
the laws of war they invariably go to great lengths to try and cover up what
they did and portray it in a very different manner. My favorite two liberal
lies involved first of all the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in World War two
and British bombing policy in that same conflict just with regard to the Wehrmacht.
When World War II ended the United States found itself in a very
interesting position during the war we were allied with the Soviet Union
fighting against Germany during the Cold War which followed World War two we were
aligned with Germany fighting against the Soviet Union we switched partners
and we switched adversaries all of this is to say we effectively jumped into bed
with a lot of people who had been key players in what is probably the most
murderous regime in modern history and because the Germans were so important
for creating military power in the center of Europe during the Cold War we
had to clean them up. So we working in conjunction with the Germans cooked up
the myth that the Wehrmacht, the German military in particular the German army
had virtually nothing to do with all the murder and mayhem on the Eastern Front
in World War two. The Wehrmacht we argued at the time and I of course believe this
had clean hands and it was only the Einsatzgruppen the special police forces
and so forth and so on that were involved in the killing that took place
on the Eastern Front indeed that was not true at all it was a lie the Wehrmacht was
inextricably bound up in the German killing machine on the Eastern
Front and the Wehrmacht did not have clean hands, it had
filthy hands but given that we needed the Wehrmacht or the remnants of
the Wehrmacht to create the Bundeswehr we had to tell ourselves and tell others
story that was comprised of lies Then the other case involves Bomber Harris in
the spring of 1942 the British were desperate and they
thought the only card they had to play against Germany was to use their
military their Air Force to bomb civilian areas in Germany and kill as
many Germans civilians as possible but of course the British did not want
to advertise to the world that they were purposely murdering civilians which of
course is what they were doing they were murdering civilians it’s clearly against
the laws of war and international norms to purposely kill civilians but that’s
what the British were doing under bomber Harris so what did the British do they
lied they said that they were bombing military targets and they were bombing
economic targets and they were not targeting civilians when in fact they
weren’t targeting civilians that’s a liberal lie. So the five kinds of lies I
see are interstate lies, where leaders a lot of foreign audience, fear-mongering,
were leaders lied to their own public to inflate a threat, strategic cover-ups,
again President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, nationalist myth making,
this is countries inventing stories about their founding, for example to make
them look like the good guys and others look like the bad guys, and then liberal
lies which I just talked about. So those are the five kinds of lying. Now what are
the two main findings in the book first main finding is that there is not much
interstate lying. I was actually shocked to discover this I thought as a
card-carrying realist and a cynic about international politics that I would find
an abundance of cases of leaders lying to foreign audiences. I figured the
diplomats lied all the time to each other and they’re actually famous quotes
that make those kinds of arguments that’s not true
I found it very difficult to find examples of interstate lying
and all of those examples that I have in the book I worked very hard to
accumulate it’s very interesting is I’d go around and talk about this subject to
audiences like this and I would tell people that there’s very little
interstate lying and I was always surprised at how cynical the audience’s
were because people would invariably say to me this can’t be true
there has to be a ton of lying out there and then I would say to my interlocutors
look go home think about the list of cases for the next couple days then send
me an email I’d give him a card send me an email with all the lies okay and
invariably I’d get a response a week or so later
and the person would say all I could think of was worth three lies and here
they are and usually two of them would not be lies and the third one would be a
case I already had another cut at this I would go talk to audiences and someone
would say are you going to tell me that Saddam Hussein didn’t lie are you going
to tell me that Ahmadinejad the President of Iran has not lied to us are
you going to tell me that the North Koreans didn’t lie to us and I always
say to people well if they did lie please show me where they lied and
nobody can come up with an example I cannot find an example of where Saddam
Hussein lied and I’ll say more about this in a minute this is not to say
Saddam Hussein was a good guy or Ahmadinejad is a good guy the question is
did they lie to us and I can’t find any evidence and again people just don’t
believe this they’re remarkably cynical it’s not just
old John the realist who’s cynical. Then my second finding is that leaders seem
to lie much more often to their own publics than to other countries and fear
mongering in the American case is especially prevalent for those of you
who have any doubts about this there’s a book by Eric Alterman who writes for the
Nation it’s a very fine historian who’s written a book on presidential lying
it’s a remarkable book in that it’s so depressing because it’s so filled with
cases of our leaders lying to us just to tell you a story about the the book in
the beginning of the book I tell the story about Saddam when we didn’t
discover weapons of mass destruction many people argued that the reason that
happened was that Saddam bluffed us he bamboozled us Saddam pretended that he
had weapons of mass destruction when in fact he didn’t and that’s why we were
fooled into thinking that he had WMD and supposedly the evidence to support this
claim is in the Duelfer report I looked at the Duelfer report the dolphin report
does make that claim but there’s no evidence in the Duelfer report to back
up that claim and in fact all the evidence shows that Saddam claimed that
he had no WMD and he was not lying there’s no evidence that he was bluffing
and if anybody can find any evidence I would appreciate it if they would give
it to me I’ve talked to all sorts of people.
So Saddam didn’t lie to us in the run-up to the Iraq war or throughout the 1990s
but President Bush did lie to us in the run-up to the Iraq war and this is
consistent with my two main findings that leaders don’t lie to other leaders
very often but leaders lie to their own public. Now the question you want to ask
yourself and really this is the $64,000 question is why is this the case why did
I find that there’s not much interstate lying and there’s actually quite a bit of
lying by leaders to their domestic publics.
I think the key variable is try there is not a lot of trust in
international politics and if there’s not a lot of trust it’s difficult to lie
states tend not to trust each other remember Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum
when he was dealing with the Soviet Union trust but verify. Just think about
those words trust but verify what Reagan was saying you can’t trust the Soviets
we have to verify that they will stick to the various arms control agreements
that we are signing or negotiating of course the Soviets felt the same way
they wouldn’t trust us. The Chinese and the Americans today and down the road
don’t trust each other especially when important security issues are on the
table I don’t trust each other they prefer to
verify they want some good reason to believe that the Americans will stick to
an agreement and we want some good reason to think that the Chinese will
stick to an agreement states don’t trust each other very much when it comes to
domestic politics the opposites the cased publics tend to trust their
leaders after all our leaders are tasked with the mission of protecting us
they’re part of the same tribe that we’re in we expect them to look out for
our welfare there’s trust there that doesn’t exist among States. Just to give
you a good example to highlight this J William Fulbright who was the chairman
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a very powerful senator
and who was very skeptical about Vietnam but nevertheless helped President
Johnson pushed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution despite his skepticism
about Vietnam. He said afterwards the biggest lesson the biggest lesson I
learned from Vietnam is not the trust government statements I had no idea
until then get that the biggest lesson I learned from Vietnam is not to trust,
there’s the key word, trust. I like to tell the story that in the run-up to the
Iraq war I heard Scott Ritter who was a weapons
inspector talked about the presence of WMD in Iraq and after listening to
Ritter talk I was convinced that Iraq did not have WMD he was so knowledgeable
and so convincing I said he’s got to be right a few weeks later I heard
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld say that we know that Iraq has WMD because we
know where they are and I said to myself the Secretary of Defense wouldn’t say
that if he didn’t know where they are right so maybe Scott Ritter was making a
good-faith effort and giving us his giving us his assessment of the
situation but I think he’s probably just wrong and Rumsfeld obviously has access
to information that Ritter does not have access to and he wouldn’t lie to us in
such a bald-faced way so I changed my mind and I then went about telling
people that there was good reason to think that he did have WMD when in fact
of course he didn’t and Rumsfeld was lying to us but you see in my case as in
Fulbright’s case and this may have been true of many of you we trusted our
leaders and it’s really hard for a country to function well if nobody
trusts their leaders right so it’s that presence of trust that makes lying to
one’s public much easier to pull off than lying to another country where
there tends not to be a whole heck of a lot of trust. Now I want to make two sets
of comments in conclusion first of all I have basically argued up
to now that there are real virtues to telling lies selective lies in
international politics I’ve even made the case that it sometimes makes sense
for leaders to lie to their own people. However it is important to understand
that there is a real downside to lying and I think that’s especially true when
you talk about fear-mongering not so much interstate lies but fear mongering
and let me tell you what the two real dangers associated with lying are and
then let me talk about how each of those dangers relates to fear-mongering. The
two dangers are what I call blowback and backfiring. Now what exactly
is blowback? Blowback is where a leader who lies to his or her
public about foreign policy soon finds him or herself lying about domestic
politics and fostering what I would call a culture of dishonesty. If a leader
feels compelled to lie to the public about a foreign policy threat what that
leader is in effect saying is that the public can’t deal with the issue by
being told the truth there’s just something wrong with the public it’s
either not sophisticated enough it’s too ignorant or it doesn’t care it could be
any one of these reasons but the public right has to be manipulated to do the
right thing. That’s what fear-mongering is really all about. As you surely
understand it’s not a giant leap to go from making that kind of calculation
about foreign policy to making the same calculation about domestic policy and lying to your public on both fronts and that
fosters a culture of dishonesty in my opinion and it is very dangerous because
there’s no way the society can function well if dishonesty is rampant,
so that’s blowback. The other downside to international lying is backfiring
and fear mongering is another fear mongering is a case where backfiring is
likely to happen backfiring is where the lie doesn’t work the way you intended it
to work or the policy that the Y helps create doesn’t work and look at what
happened with the Bush administration the Bush administration waged the
deception campaign in the run-up to the Iraq war they were successful at
bamboozling large chunks of the American people they got their war but the war
was a disaster. What that tells me is that the reason they couldn’t tell us
the truth the reason they had to wage a deception campaign was because their
ideas about Iraq were wrongheaded to begin with if they had told us the truth
we wouldn’t have had a war and we wouldn’t have had this disaster. The
reason they had to lie the reason that they had to wage a deception campaign in
the run-up to the Iraq war because was because they were pursuing a boneheaded
policy the fact that they couldn’t tell us the truth and get us to go along was
evidence that the policy was wrongheaded same thing is true with Lyndon Johnson
in the run-up to the Vietnam War regard to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in
particular the reason President Johnson had to distort the truth was because if
he didn’t do that he wouldn’t have gotten permission to wage the Vietnam
War of course the Vietnam War was an even
greater disaster than the Iraq war so in both cases although President Johnson
and company and President Bush and company told lies to the American people
for what they thought were good strategic reasons and they were
successful at getting us into those two wars it in the end backfired and we
ended up in disastrous wars so you see that fear-mongering is a very dangerous
way of doing business because it can blow back into the body politic and
poison the culture and furthermore it can lead to policies that ultimately
fail. Finally let me just say in conclusion that the countries that fear
monger the most are democracies that wage preventive wars against distant
threats. Again the countries in which leaders lie to their publics most often
about foreign threats are countries that are democracies that wage preventive
wars against distant threats that in a nutshell is the United States of America.
Given that the United States seems committed to trying to run the world,
given that the United States is a democracy given, that the United States
seems committed to using military force, liberally just think about Libya, it
seems that we should expect to have lots more evidence of fear-mongering in the
years ahead and therefore it will probably be the case that when I come
back here in 20 years to talk about the new edition of my book I will reference
Eric Alterman’s second volume on presidential lying thank you. [Applause] I will I will gladly take questions and
if folks could just come up to the microphone that’s right here and line up
and just fire away and if you would make your questions as succinct as possible
that would be appreciated and I will try to answer them as succinctly as possible Hi my name is Adam Shenko from a first
year undergrad at the University of Chicago I’m just curious to see what your
thoughts are on the relationship between investigative journalism and strategic
lying like even though you have you know John F Kennedy lying about the deal with
the Soviet Union you know you said journalists caught like
you know caught this the whiff of like the deal had been made like to what
extent like I guess you could say like what to what extent like is there like a
reasonable boundary between like reasonable between like a reasonable
secrecy or States right to secrecy versus like journalistic responsibility. Yeah. Did everybody hear the question? His question deals with the
tension between investigative journalists on one hand who are looking
to uncover the truth and leaders who are interested in waging deception campaigns
and in some cases telling lies and he was interested in how I think about that
relationship I think that there is no doubt that journalists are in principle
committed to finding out what’s really going on and reporting it to the
American people and that’s why in a number of cases that I looked at in the
book you see Presidents and their lieutenants lying to journalists. I tell
the story in there about how Jody Powell who was President Jimmy Carter’s
principal spokesman lied to a journalists about the aborted Iran
rescue mission and there are a number of other cases as well
but I would say that what’s happened in the United States and this was clear in
the run-up to the Iraq war is that the mainstream media has basically abandoned
its interest in ferreting out the truth and challenging the administration and
instead has become a useful tool for Presidents who want to tell lies to the
American people. I think one of the principal reasons that we collectively
were bamboozled by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq
war is because the American mainstream media failed to do its job. You said that
interstate lying is actually relatively infrequent and I wonder if that’s a
modern occurrence or a historical one in the run-up to the second world war
particularly in 1937 and 1938 there were many protestations from Germany that it
had fulfilled all of its interests with respect to acquiring additional
territory and right up until 1939 was the country was constantly claiming that
it was not it had no intentions to engage in an aggressive war you posited
the idea between the contrast between a lie and a stark truth with your did I
travel to Kansas City example but you didn’t talk very much about when people
talked about their intentions and I wonder if the nature of intentions is
much less it’s much less clear when countries are lying or not lying for
interstate reasons. Okay those are two excellent questions first on the 1930s
and Hitler there is no question that he lied on a number of occasions in the
1930s about his intentions and about German capabilities as well and I
document in the book he is a good case for me
when I’m looking for examples of interstate lying and I would just say to
you you want to remember my point is and you stated it but I’ll just repeat it
that lying does take place it’s just that it’s infrequent but Hitler is a
good example so I have no problem with what you said there with regard to
intentions there is no question that it is very hard to discern what the
intentions of a particular leader are at the time okay so when Hitler says that
he has no intention of going on the offensive after he gets the Sudetenland
land as a result of the Munich Agreement we have no way of knowing at the time
what his intentions are that’s your point and I think you’re absolutely
correct and is a number of the students in the audience who know my writings on
IR theory would tell you I place a very high premium on that basic logic for
explaining how I think the world works so I’m in agreement with you but
nevertheless you can look at what a leaders intentions were in some cases
after the fact and determine whether or not they were telling the truth at the
time at the time of Munich it was very difficult to tell exactly what Hitler’s
intentions were which is in large part why they gave him the Sudetenland they
thought that if he had this Sudetenland which included all these Germans in it
that that would be the end he’d be a problem but not that big a problem but
we later found out that his intentions were far more ambitious than that so
it’s obvious that he lied and that’s why you were able to point
doubt that he lied on a number of occasions in the 1930s so intentions are
hard to figure out at the time but later on you sometimes can figure out whether
someone lied or not about their intentions. Yeah history seems to be
largely retrospective near the beginning of your talk you will suggested a
dichotomy which I’d like to ask you about that was a selfish laws versus
strategic lies and for selfish lies you are saying to benefit the self versus
strategic lies to benefit the country but it seems to me that this is rather
too limiting there are also I would think categories of lies to benefit
domestically speaking say big donors or internationally large corporations in
military corporations oil companies and whatnot and perhaps also even another
category of the greater good whatever a President might interpret that as what
if you could elaborate on that and perhaps enlarge the economy to
accommodate these other possibilities. Yeah I would categorize those sorts of
lies that you described as selfish lies where the leader obviously acting in
cahoots say with the oil company the oil companies or some element of the
military-industrial complex told a lie for their benefit and that but obviously
be to his or her benefit as well so there’d be a selfish lie. – Do we ever have
a greater good consideration rather than beyond strategic relations between
nations? – In my lexicon a strategic lie is done for the greater good again I
believe that the Bush administration and the Johnson administration lied about
the Iraq lied in the run-up to the Vietnam and Iraq Wars because they
thought they were doing it for the greater good they thought it was in
the national interest. – I guess I was thinking super nationally
in terms of the United Nations or- Oh super nationally, super national,
oh I see what you’re saying. – Is trying to enlarge a category. –
Yes, that’s a very interesting question I never thought about that
I never thought about that, by the way just before I take this gentleman’s question
I gave a talk in Denmark last week on this and a person got up and maybe but I
thought was a very interesting point that I had not thought about I told him
I wish he had told me this before I wrote the book I would have incorporated
his idea. He said as a citizen he understood that leaders sometimes had to
lie to the public but he said that as far as he was concerned it was only
acceptable for his leaders to lie to him when the issue at stake was national
survival right when there was an existential threat so he could accept
that the lie that John F Kennedy told in 1962 but a lot of the other lies that
are told don’t involve matters of survival they
don’t deal with extension existential threats and he said in those cases he
did not think it was acceptable for a leader to lie to his or her public in
large part because of the blowback effects the fact that it poisoned the
social culture. So first of all I just like to thank you for your time so thank
you. – You’re welcome. – also I just sort of like to extend the
first question that was asked regarding investigative journalism
I just just recently you’re aware of WikiLeaks
I guess phenomenon that has been occurring the past couple of months.
Obviously they’re undermining some of the lies that
Nations have told whether they’d be strategic or selfish lies so I was just
wondering if how you regarded that sort of investigative journalism
if you selectively supported it or if you were against it. Okay with, regard to
WikiLeaks it’s not an example of investigative journalism there was this
man Bradley Manning who was a soldier in the army who gave all of this data to
Julian Assange and he then made it available to a handful of newspapers and
the newspapers have published those documents but this is not investigative
journalism as I said the mainstream media doesn’t do much investigative
journalism anymore the American media is basic the American mainstream media is
basically toothless you young people in the audience can’t appreciate it because
you don’t remember when the American mainstream media actually had some bite
but I can assure you it’s toothless now and presidents manipulate it with great
ease with regard to WikiLeaks I think that what you see if you look at the
documents that have been released so far is number one there’s not much evidence
of lying there is some for sure and much of the lying is leaders lying to their
own public not lying to each other and the best example of this is the head of
Yemen who was in cahoots with the Americans in particular with General
Petraeus to allow us to use the American Air Force to strike it al Qaeda targets
in Yemen but the president of Yemen said you can do that to General Petraeus but
you have to understand that I have to tell my people that it is the Yemenis
Air Force that’s doing the attacking not the American Air Force because it
would get me into an immense amount of trouble on the homefront right and I am
very interested he had a vested interest in dealing with Al-Qaeda
hey so he had a good strategic reason for wanting to deal with Al-Qaeda he
couldn’t do it himself he was willing to let the Americans do
it but he had to be able to tell his people that it was not the Americans it
was his military their military that was doing it this is a strategic cover-up by
the way the president of Yemen’s cover was blown by the WikiLeaks documents and
one of the reasons that he’s in so much trouble today and in danger of going
overboard being thrown overboard is because of WikiLeaks
so WikiLeaks has had a big influence. Thank you I also want to thank you I
enjoyed the lecture very much I just got satellite radio and and I
find the BBC a lot sharper by far than the domestic questioners I don’t know if
that’s your experience also my thought about how politicians talk to each other
is is like you have Lyndon Johnson and you have Everett Dirksen and Lyndon
Johnson says I really need a couple of Republican votes on this and Everett
Dirksen saying something like you know we need a couple of judges confirmed
here and Johnson saying oh these are very good men and in Dirksen saying well
yeah that legislation you know we could do something about that and no deal has
ever been made you know officially they can go out and tell everybody that no
deal was made but obviously a deal was made and they have they have covered to
say that they’re just kind of and I’m just wondering in the conversation
between Khrushchev and Kennedy you portrayed it and
I don’t know if you have the documents or whatever as being very direct I’m
going to lie I’m going to say this whereas Kennedy might have put it as you
know I can’t make a deal about these missiles but but I’ve never been
interested in having them there anyway and I’m interested in peace and then
turning around and telling the vice-president
you know if somebody if you call them and said we’re going to pull these
missiles out I certainly wouldn’t contradict you and then he
could turn around and truthfully say no actual deal was made but obviously a
deal was so I guess I’m trying to say when do do just more of a straight lying
go on and when does more of a kind of an obfuscation type situation take place is
it an international versus domestic. I think that I would call obfuscation
spinning okay and and you’re talking about the trade-off between lying and
spinning I believe that if a leader can deal with an issue by spinning and that
leader does not have to tell a lie the leader will spin every time I don’t
think I’ve come across any leaders with the possible exception of Hitler who
enjoys telling lies it’s not something that that people relish the point that
I’m trying to make is that leaders tell these lies because they think it’s
important for the national security of their country they think they’re doing
it for the welfare of all of us okay but if they don’t have to why if they can
deal with it another way they’d much prefer to do that so leaders will
obfuscate all the time and this is why if you go over to the library in your rummage
through all the books on deception what you discover is that pretty much
everybody says that there is a great deal of deception
in everyone’s daily life and the argument here is that you can’t sort of
deal with your wife or your husband or your kids without spinning all the time
so there’s lots of spinning there’s lots of concealment and there are even white
lies you know which are generally considered to be permissible and
sometimes you even tell bold-faced lies because you think it’s good for the
benefit of other people. My mother is elderly and I’ve told her a
number of bold-faced lies for the purposes of sparing her pain I guess you
might consider those white lies but nevertheless they are lies but I’m not
telling him for selfish reasons I’m telling them for her benefit but the
point is there’s just a lot of deception in our everyday life and whenever
Dirksen and LBJ get together there’s no question that they’re going to tell each
other some stories that are not completely true they’ll be spinning with
each other but I think in most cases they don’t lie
I think lying is actually quite rare. In the in the case of the Iraq war and in
Vietnam you seem to have a certain amount of trust in the American people
to evaluate an international strategy correctly whereas in the case of the
Cuban Missile Crisis you seem to think that Kennedy was really right that the
American people couldn’t know really what was going on so what’s the
difference between the two cases? Well in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis I
didn’t elaborate just because of time constraints the real problem that he
would have faced is that the Republicans would have clobbered him Barry Goldwater
was then the leading figure in the Republican Party and in fact President
Kennedy expected to run against Barry Goldwater in 1964 instead LBJ ran
against gold border because Kennedy was assassinated but the Republican was very
republican party was very hardline very right-wing at the time and Kennedy felt
that it wasn’t so much the American public
per se that would kill the deal it was the Republican Party putting the
compromise up in bright lights and pounding him politically that would
undermine the deal okay so that’s why he he covered it up but the other point I would make to you is different
Presidents at different times make different assessments of the American
people they’re all you know you talked to ten professors at the University of
Chicago about what they think regarding the American public’s ability to assess
complicated issues and you’ll probably get 10 different views and the same
thing would be true with regard to leaders. My question is about the sort of
the future of lier of leaders lying to their own public if the opportunity for
lying or area if the ease of lying is increased by the tendency to trust
rather than to verify do you think that technological advances you know
with the Internet increased access to information ie
increased ability to verify information and maybe in a way of wider awareness of
leaders lying to their own publics with those trends do you see a difference in
the the way that leaders go about lying to the public’s in the future? –
Yeah I’ve been asked this question a number of times and it’s obviously a
terrific question it’s basically a question it boils down to does the
internet make lying more or less difficult and one might think given that
I just said that lying has become reasonably easy given the mainstream
media’s failure to look closely at what administrations are saying
and try to ferret out the truth that maybe because the Internet has now
become so powerful it will do the job that the mainstream media has not been
doing in recent times you can make that argument you could also make the
argument that the Internet is very good at you know reporting all sorts of
information from different sources and put it in one place and it’s good at
giving pundants an opportunity to express their views
and those pundits otherwise would not have a platform but it’s not clear to me
that there’s a lot of investigative journalism going on on the Internet and
that that would solve the problem so I’m quite agnostic on this issue
I don’t usually I have an answer for every question I don’t have a good
answer to your question I think you should write a thesis on this and and
educate me but I’m not I’m really not sure how to think about how the Internet
affects lying and I’ve been asked the question a number of times. Prior to Iraq War a year
or two prior to it 60 minutes the television program had an interview
was talking to an official of Iraq he might have been a prime minister or
whatever and this man was questioned about mass destruction material and he
said I mean he was so honest and he it seems so real
his answer was that there wasn’t any do you right but I can’t remember the man’s
name or his position do you know? – No I don’t but I would say to you it gets
back to one of the previous questionnaires just because somebody
says that Iraq doesn’t have WMD doesn’t mean that the person is telling the
truth. You know it’s very hard to be sure in
those circumstances I think the smart thing for the Bush administration to
have said was we have no hard evidence that Saddam has WMD but we think that he
does that’s what they should have said and I think it was perfectly reasonable
to think that Saddam had at least some WMD but the problem that the Bush
administration got into is that they said that they were sure they had WMD
because they actually knew where the the weapons were and that of course wasn’t
true but if Saddam tells us he doesn’t have WMD which is what I reported and
you tell us that there was another one of his lieutenants who was on 60 minutes
and said the same thing that might make us think maybe he doesn’t have WMD but
how can you be sure we have this saying in international relations talk is cheap
do you know what I mean so you know unless we can verify trust but verify
there you go it’s just hard to know. Thank you for your time
you’re just alluded to this issue in one of your prior responses to me it seems
like in your argument there’s a presumption that the American public is
on many of these issues is going to be unable to properly judge what’s best in
the in America’s interests you know specifically the example of the Cuban
Missile Crisis I my question is why is there this presumption why leaders some
leaders think that that’s the case especially in cases of existential
threats I mean you can probably find a number of examples where the
majority opinion is probably more often right than wrong. First of all I agree that there
are a lot of cases where the majority opinion is right not wrong I
personally don’t make the argument that you’re dealing with boobas americanus and
therefore it’s important to lie to boobas Americanos
that’s not my personal view okay nevertheless I think that there could be
a situation if you made me president of the United States fortunately we don’t
have to worry about this happening but if you made me President of the United
States and the country was operating in a high threat environment it might be
the case that for one reason or another I concluded despite my rather benign
view of the American public that they that the public was not sufficiently
motivated to deal with a particular threat and therefore I had to engage in
deception I could imagine that happening I don’t think it’s likely because I
think my basic view of the issue is a lot like yours so I wouldn’t say it
would definitely happen but I would leave myself open to that possibility
now we have surely had leaders over time I don’t know who they were but we surely
have had a few leaders over time who think that they are dealing with boobas
americanus these are people who are elitist and think the public is more of
an obstacle than an asset in thinking about foreign policy and if you have
that particular view your first instinct is going to be one where you manipulate
the public right and get the public exercised and I sort of agree with the
thrust of your comments and this is why I talked about backfiring I
think if the President has to lie or deceived the American people
then the problem is probably with the policy not the public that’s what you’re
saying and I think you’re basically right but again I would leave myself
open to the other possibly the other side or the other possibility. When you discuss the concept of a noble lie you alluded to JFK lying about
exchanging the Jupiter missiles for the missiles in Cuba but of course had the
journalists discovered that JFK had been lying to him when he said there was no
deal there would have been a massive scandal it would have undermined faith
in government it would have been a political nightmare and so my question
is- And Khrushchev might not have taken the missiles out of Cuba.
-indeed so my question is is the criteria for a noble lie its intention which was
obviously very good by JFK the success of the lie or both. – I haven’t thought
of that well in terms of intentions my argument is that all of these strategic
lies have noble intentions I think that when I talk about a noble lie I’m
talking about a lie that solved a truly important problem it dealt with an
existential threat and it worked just I’m thinking as I’m answering your
question because your question is an excellent one I really hadn’t given it a
lot of thought but some people say to me okay John you told us that President
Kennedy’s lying about the Cuban Missile Crisis an example of a noble lie tell us
another example and the one I go to is President Roosevelt,
Franklin D Roosevelt, lying about the Greer incident in August
of 1941 just to tell you the story President Roosevelt was deeply committed
to getting us into World War two in 1941 and President Roosevelt was dealing with
isolationist America and he really could not get the United States off dead
center and you want to remember up until June 22nd 1941 June 22nd 1941 when the
Germans invaded the Soviet Union Germany and the Soviet Union were allies and
Britain was basically fighting all alone against Nazi Germany which was allied
with the Soviet Union so up until June 41 but of course even after June 41
Roosevelt is scrambling like crazy to see if we can get the Americans if not
into the war at least helping Britain in a really major league way for all the
obvious reasons. Anyway there’s a naval incident that takes place in the
Atlantic Ocean off the American coast in August 1941 involving a German submarine
a British aircraft and an American surface ship and Roosevelt tells a
series of lies to the American people, Eric Alterman talks about this in his
book, he tells a series of lies to the American people about that incident that
are designed to make it look like the Germans are responsible for the incident
and they are threatening the United States and what he’s trying to do is get
us into the war. Now I refer to that as a noble lie because I think it was
absolutely imperative that we get into World War two against Nazi Germany and
to a lesser extent against Japan some of the people in the audience have heard me
talk about how I believe Roosevelt engineered us into the war by in effect
pushing the Japanese to attack us in December 1941 the Japanese were trying
to get off the hook they had no interest in going to war with the United States
and I believe Roosevelt pushed the Japanese to attack us and I believe he
was right to do that because it was imperative that we get into the war so
if you think like I do I’m not saying you have to agree with me on the
importance of getting into World War two but if you think like I do that it was
imperative to get into World War two right then lying about the Greer
incident does category can be categorized as a noble lie but the fact
is it failed it didn’t work the American people hardly moved an inch on the issue
of involvement in World War two so one could argue if your criterion is success
on an important issue this is certainly an important issue but he didn’t succeed
then it’s not a noble lie if you’re looking at just intentions I think it
was a noble lie. Thank you so on the topic of an interstate lying in you know
your research have you observed any differences between representative and
authoritarian governments or open and closed societies I’m in particular I’m
thinking about Stalin and Mao who lied profusely to the International communist
movement about what was going on in their countries and you know put window-dressing on the
atrocities that they were committing and I mean even Stalin especially was very
effective in this he basically used the New York Times as a propaganda organ in
the 30s and this so-called journalism won the Pulitzer Prize so so yeah I just do you think there’s a difference
between so you know totalitarian. An excellent question I said in the
beginning of the book that I had never thought about
the subject before and I viewed the book is sort of a starting point for
discussing these issues and they’re obviously some issues I’ve told you
about one that come up from the audience that I really hadn’t thought about and
one of the previous questions was pushing me on something I hadn’t thought
about I did not see any evidence of of authoritarian leaders engaging in
interstate lying more often than Democratic leaders which is what you’re
saying I did see as I reported to you and as I say in the book that I saw
evidence of leaders Democratic leaders lying to their publics more often than
non Democratic leaders but I even qualified that because I argued that in
the age of nationalism where popular sovereignty is a core concept that
leaders even if authoritarian states have to pay attention to their publics
and I talked about Hitler in that regard it’s quite amazing how much attention
Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels paid to public attention
in the Third Reich right and that’s because the nationalism but anyway my
main point was that democracies are more likely to see lies by the leaders to
their public but on interstate lying I did not see any evidence that the
authoritarian leaders lied more often you remember the gentleman who was up
here earlier who talked about Hitler Hitler would be more evidence for your
basic perspective but the truth is you can find quite a few examples of
Democratic leaders telling interstate lies as well as non Democratic leaders
but you may be onto something but to prove to me that you’re correct
you’d have to show me what all those lies are that Stalin told and Mao told
and other authoritarian leaders because I’m very suspicious when you tell me
that they told all these lie because as I said in my talk people
often say oh there are all these examples of lies and then when they show
me the evidence there are really not lies or they’re not many of them so you
have to show me there are lots of examples of authoritarian leaders
telling lies to other leaders or other or to foreign audiences and much more so
than Democratic leaders and then the final thing that you have to do for me
and your thesis is you have to explain the logic that explain the logic that
accounts for that right in other words I need the evidence first and then I need
the logic okay [Applause] thank you very much everyone for coming
out tonight I appreciate it. The world beyond the
headlines lecture series is a project of the University of Chicago Center for
International Studies our nationally recognized program is made possible with
support from the Norman weight Harris Memorial Fund download recordings of
other events and learn more about the world beyond the headlines series at the
Center for International Studies website C is a Chicago

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