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Why Leaders Lie

This article is a book review of John J. Mearsheimer’s 2011 book Why Leaders Lie.

“I think the inherent right of the Government to lie to save itself when faced with nuclear disaster is basic” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 31). This statement was made in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Arthur Sylvester, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs during the John F. Kennedy administration. Mearsheimer defends this view, stating that “[a]lthough lying is widely viewed as reprehensible behavior in ordinary life, it is acceptable conduct in international politics because there are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to other countries and even to their own people. Nevertheless, there is actually not much lying between states” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 6).

As Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once said: “For the sake of the Land of Israel, it’s all right to lie” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 28). Okay, so leaders and politicians do lie. What is so surprising about this book, however, is that the author, a “card-carrying realist”, becomes convinced that there is in fact, relatively little lying in politics, at least compared to what one might expect. In reading this book, readers are educated on the different types of lies and which are relatively “good” lies and “bad” lies. The author, John J. Mearsheimer, is Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. His previous books include The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize, and New York Times bestseller The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which has been translated into twenty-one languages.

Never before has an academic examined the act of lying in international politics, so this book is a groundbreaking look at a subject that has clear uses for leaders and for educated citizens who either: don’t like being “bamboozled” or want to better understand why their leaders lie to them and under what circumstances lying can be a responsible action by a country’s leadership. This book lays a foundation for further research on lying in international politics, and below you will see the primary types of lies, the usual reasons for them and the consequences of lying in international politics.

The Consequences of Lying

We all (hopefully) understand that lying to people in everyday life is usually bad, but there are certain situations that require us to, well, let’s say we emphasize the counterintuitive. Sometimes we hear a loved one say things such as “how do I look in this dress?” Or maybe we are the invited dinner guests at a friend or neighbor’s home and find the food objectionable, but do not want to upset the hosts and so we might say that the food was better than we really believe it to be. Most would consider these things the “little white lies” that make the world more civil and hospitable. Mearsheimer has found the corollaries in international political lying and described these “little white lies” as well as their less reputable counterparts which can cause serious damage.

Initially, the author lays out some of the rationale for why he believes lying among leaders is relatively uncommon. First, “a deliberate deception campaign usually involves many people, and at least some of them are bound to talk eventually” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 28). The second reason that lying is uncommon is that “it is usually difficult to bamboozle another country’s leaders”  (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 28). There are also differences in quantity of lying between countries depending on the topic of discussion. A third reason that leaders may be hesitant to lie is for the simple reason that even when successful, lying can backfire, as Khrushchev found out when exaggerating the Soviet stockpile of nuclear weapons to the United States. This set off a fear of a “missile gap” within the United States, prompting a heavy buildup of nuclear arms in both countries, which Khrushchev did not want (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 32). Lying may be most common amid security concerns, or “high politics”, which often has a higher risk/reward ratio, providing potentially greater returns to lying. When leaders are contemplating economic issues or the environment, or “low politics”, the stakes are usually relatively low, so there is less incentive to lie.

The primary concern that states have when considering international lying is the “blowback” faced domestically and the potential for “backfiring” that states face in foreign policy (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 86). While Bush (43)’s argument for invading Iraq might be the poster child for “blowback” due to a flimsy argument and flimsier results in the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), Khrushchev’s “missile gap” speech was clearly one that falls into the “backfiring” category as its opponent, the United States, doubled down on nuclear weapons production, endangering Soviet security.

The “Good” Lies

 “Inter-state lying is unlikely to cause serious trouble at home…[because] most people understand that the rulebook for international politics is different than the one used for domestic politics” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 86). Keep in mind that by “good” lies, I mean more accurately “tolerable” lies. Stealing food because one is impoverished is never “good”, but is far more understandable or acceptable the closer one gets to a survival context. Consider these “good” lies the ones that are done in a similar way, as states believe that survival or key interests are dependent upon the outcome and lie in order to protect the collective interests of the nation.

  1. Inter-state Lies: These lies are targeted at other countries in order to acquire an advantage over them or prevent them from gaining an advantage over the lying country. Leaders employing this type of lie end up lying to their own people, but the target for the lie is not actually the people, but the other nation. This form of lying occurs most often during wartime. In 1928, British politician Arthur Ponsonby wrote that “there must have been more deliberate lying in the world from 1914 to 1918 than in any other period of the world’s history”.
  2. Fearmongering: This sort of lie is directed at the leader’s own people in order to convince them of the seriousness of a threat they may not be concerned enough about. “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” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 22). The Bush (43) administration used fearmongering before initiating war with Iraq and Franklin Roosevelt tried the same tactic prior to World War II.
  3. Strategic cover-ups: These lies hide either failed policies or controversial policies from the people of a leader’s own nation. These lies are not designed to protect individual people who may have made mistakes, but to protect the country from harm. During the first World War, French Commander-in-Chief Marshal Joseph Joffre completely mismanaged planning and the major battles themselves. French politicians knew he was incompetent, but they hid this from the public for morale purposes and from the Germans who would have been interested to know their opposition was incompetent (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 64).
  4. Nationalist mythmaking: These are the lies told to make a nation feel that they were in the right even in a situation where an objective viewpoint might disagree. One example given is the 1948 Israeli eviction of the Palestinians from their land in order to create a Jewish state. Many Palestinians were made homeless as a result, which Israel claimed was due to refugees fleeing Arab armies. These armies were supposedly intent on driving the Israelis into the sea, so the evacuation was designed to blame the Arabs for removing the Palestinians from the territory. (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 74). The purpose of these nationalist lies is to “create a powerful sense of group identity among the broader population, because that is necessary for building and maintaining a viable nation-state” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 22).
  5. Liberal lies: These lies are what states come up with when they have intentionally acted outside their own self-proclaimed set of values, such as the violating of international law. When states form alliances with less-than-respectable leaders or “act brutally” toward other states, leaders will invent a story that provides an idealistic version of the reasons for the otherwise questionable decision. One example Mearsheimer gives is about the Soviet murder of thousands of Poles in Katyn Forest in the spring of 1940. The Allies needed the public to believe they were fighting for a moral cause and would deal adequately with war criminals, which would be difficult to do if the public knew that their country’s allies were themselves vulnerable to serious war crimes charges.

 The Bad Lies

 “Leaders appear to be more likely to lie to their own people about foreign policy issues than to other countries” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 6). Hillary Clinton might describe what she believes to be bad lies in the manner she adopted on September 12, 2007 when she commented that accepting General David Petraeus’ and  ambassador Ryan Crocker’s improved outlook in Iraq required “a willing suspension of disbelief”. Of course, Hillary was wrong here because Iraq actually was improving, but after being led into the Iraq war on a shaky foundation, domestic politicians were understandably suspicious of reports that a bad war was starting to go well. She believed this to be what Mearsheimer termed an ignoble cover-up. Below are the two “bad” lies according to Mearsheimer.

  1. Social imperialism: This lie is told to benefit a nation’s economic or political interests, or those of a particular social class or interest group. The goal is to help catalyze support from citizens against a certain target in the hope that the people will forget the controversial domestic issues that will only benefit a small section of society. This “rally-round-the-flag” strategy often is used to exaggerate threats, similar to fearmongering, but  for the purpose of masking social discontent rather than to warn the public that a  threat is more dangerous than it appears.
  2. Ignoble cover-ups: These lies are used to hide unsuccessful policies or mistakes for self-serving reasons. Protecting a leader’s friends, political benefactors or a leader’s own reputation are frequent causes for the perceived need to produce an ignoble cover-up. The Watergate scandal is widely perceived to be an ignoble cover-up. These lies are “not designed to benefit the wider public”, which is the difference between this lie and the somewhat nobler strategic cover-up. Had Nixon responded by producing intelligence that the Democratic Party actually was being funded by Soviet communists, then the lie may have benefited the wider public, which would change it from ignoble to strategic.

Mearsheimer’s greatest weakness with this book is the amount of repetition it contains. Khruschev’s “missile gap” lie and FDR’s USS Greer lie, among a number of other topics are repeated more times than is helpful, even in a book that is just over a hundred pages. Mearsheimer is without question a talented academic; the only negative impression I took away was that he was stretching the book in order to reach the hundred page mark. Was he concerned that an academic book under a hundred pages wouldn’t be taken seriously by his peers? If true, that would say troubling things about the state of academia, but on the positive end, after reading, you will definitely remember the most repeated stories. The strength of the book is in the well-organized chapter framework and index of the book, which makes the book a valuable reference on the shelf. The chapters are laid out so that a reader can quickly get to a particular type of lie and review it, while the index is detailed enough that a reader could look for a particular country or leader for the actions they took and find multiple page references with which to examine the issue.

Remember the quote at the beginning? Over twenty years after Arthur Sylvester claimed that governments’ right to lie when faced with imminent disaster was “basic”, President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell stated “But Sylvester, of course, was right. In certain circumstances, government not only has the right but a positive obligation to lie” (Mearsheimer, 2011, p. 31). No matter one’s politics, this book is very useful for becoming far more conversant in the strategies employed by leaders of all political “stripes”. Readers may even find that they are more sympathetic to leaders, even when those leaders err. The British and French leaders, for example, were highly concerned with Germany’s military build-up before the Second World War, but German lying was plausible enough that many people did not believe Hitler would go as far as he did. Should the British and French governments have engaged in fearmongering in order to help the public fully appreciate the Nazi threat? Should FDR have done more to convince Americans that the danger was real? This book has very substantive contributions to offer and I could not begin to scratch the surface even with this long review. If you have a penchant for politics or history and enjoy reading literature that challenges the way you think, Mearsheimer’s Why Leaders Lie will not disappoint.

Review of:

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2011). Why Leaders Lie. New York: Oxford University Press.

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About Barry Saturday

The author is a Lexington, Ky-based financial advisor and formerly taught high school social studies for Fayette County Public Schools. Along with a M.A. in Education, his educational background consists of a B.A. in Foreign Languages and International Economics and an M.A. in Diplomacy with a concentration in Global Commerce. In 2012, he finished a two-month stint student teaching in Xi'an, China, and recently (2018) ran for City Council in Lexington, KY (District 4: Tates Creek / Nicholasville Rd area). Today's news outlets profit most from incendiary, surface-level appeals to emotion, which is poisoning much of our political discourse nationwide. Barry created this site in order to learn more about our world and share that knowledge with others. He hopes this site, aimed at an educated audience, will provide objective information for those seeking greater clarity and understanding than is often available in the current news environment. If you like what you see, feel free to comment and share with your network.

3 Responses to “Why Leaders Lie”

  1. Ryan Countryman Reply 2011.11.28 at 05:57

    Good summary of an important topic! The categories of lies make sense and would seem to apply to leaders in local government as well (with only minor modifications). It would be interesting to see a follow up on when these strategies are likely to succeed and what missteps would make them more likely to fail.

  2. Callie Davis Reply 2011.12.09 at 12:28

    Was watching Noam Chomsky on LINK TV, and had to push pause button so I could go Syndicate and read this article!!! Chomsky was discussing the way that leaders and institutions spin perspective between domestic and foreign policy spheres. Your review helped me better understand what Chomsky was talking about. According to Chomsky, the US seems to be isolating itself from the international community. And if Mearsheimer’s older, controversial piece about the Israel Lobby (that US politicans are pressured to support foreign policy that may not be in America’s national interest) is on target, then this book is provocative indeed. Information like this gives us a way to classify political behavior so that we can articulate differences between shades of gray. It strengthens cogency, no matter the argument being made. Thanks for breaking it down, Barry. I appreciate your reading, and I want to see more book reviews.

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