Why Leaders Lie

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

John J. Mearsheimer’s Why Leaders Lie notes that democratic leaders lie more than dictators:

The University of Chicago political scientist argues that the leaders most likely to lie are precisely those in Western democracies, those whose traditions of democracy perversely push them to mislead the very public that elected them. In fact, Mearsheimer says, leaders tend to lie to their own citizens more often than they lie to each other.
Such state-to-state lies are relatively uncommon, Mearsheimer contends, and successful ones are even less so. In a world where each state must fend for itself, leaders are unlikely to take each other’s word on serious stuff. (The world doesn’t buy Iran’s pronouncements that its nuclear program is peaceful, insisting instead that international inspectors verify the claims.) Also, if you lie too often, no one will trust you, so what’s the point?

Mearsheimer says that “fearmongering” — when leaders cannot convince the public of the threats they foresee and so deceive the people “for their own good” — is far more prevalent and effective.
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.

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