Magazine article The American Conservative

Leviathan's Lies

Magazine article The American Conservative

Leviathan's Lies

Article excerpt

Leviathan's Lies [Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics, John J. Mearsheimer, Oxford University Press, 160 pages]

POLITICIANS NOWADAYS treat Americans like medical orderlies treat Alzheimer's patients, telling them anything that will keep them subdued. It doesn't matter what untruths the people are fed because they will not long remember. But in politics, forgotten falsehoods almost guarantee new treachery.

This new book by John Mearsheimer, coauthor of the courageous masterpiece The Israel Lobby, is a step toward remedying the academy and media's disregard of political perfidy. Mearsheimer "concentrates on lies that are told in the service of the national interest. These strategic lies benefit the collectivity, unlike selfish lies, which benefit a particular individual or group of individuals." He explains that "strategic lies can do good things for a country, although there is always the possibility that they will do more harm than good." On the book's own evidence, there's more than a possibility.

Why Leaders Lie deals solely with foreign policy lies. Mearsheimer analyzes five different types: inter-state lies (to delude foreign governments), fearmongering (deceiving the citizenry by exaggerating a foreign threat), strategic cover-ups (such as denying military and other debacles), nationalist myths (dissimulating about the nation's sordid past), and "liberal lies" (such as denials about targeting foreign civilians).

Mearsheimer touts President Kennedy's deceits regarding the Cuban missile crisis as an example of a successful strategic lie. In a secret deal with Khruschev, JFK agreed to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey to sway the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba. JFK vehemently denied that any such deal was made at the time, and the agreement was kept secret for 30 years.

But the lies had repercussions. The apparent U.S. triumph in the Cuban missile standoff sanctified JFK and increased the arrogance of the Best and the Brightest. The successful con on Cuba probably spurred more brazen lying by the Kennedy administration on Vietnam - with disastrous results for the United States.

Mearsheimer discovers that while national governments lie to each other much less often than readers might presume, rulers are far more likely to deceive their own people. This is especially troublesome because democracy is far more effective at breeding gullibility than at leashing politicians. Lord Bryce, author of The American Commonwealth, observed in 1921 that "State action became less distrusted the more the State itself was seen to be passing under popular control." The rise of democracy has enabled politicians to convince citizens that government poses no threat because they control its actions - or so the myth goes.

While some people regard political lies as negligible offenses, official deceits often prove fatal to foreigners. Mearsheimer quotes recent research concluding that "democracies are somewhat more likely than nondemocracies to target [foreign] civilians" during wars. Why Leaders Lie examines the British government's brazen falsehoods about the intentional slaughter of German civilians in RAF bombing raids during World War II. "The British government did not want to tell its public that it was purposely killing civilians, because this was a gross violation of the laws of war."

Similarly, President Harry Truman told Americans in August 1945 that "the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians." But Hiroshima was actually a major city with more than a third of a million people prior to its incineration.

In recent times, the American media and Congress brushed aside almost all concerns about the slaughter of innocent people in Fallujah. Any cheery statement by a Pentagon spokesman was sufficient to prove that the U. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.