Paul Pillar

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and When It Matters

Lying is generally taken to be a bad thing—especially when the term “lie” is applied explicitly to shortcomings in truthfulness, which comprise more than outright lies—but there are always exceptions. We all know this from our personal lives. “White lies” often are accepted as a way to preserve the innocence of a child, harmony in a relationship, or social lubricity.

Similar things can be said about politics and diplomacy. A couple of years ago John Mearsheimer wrote a useful short book titled Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Mearsheimer's focus was not so much the sort of self-serving and unreservedly condemnable mendacity in which political leaders sometimes indulge. Rather, it was the variety of lies that can serve legitimate purposes on behalf of a nation's interests—even though those sorts of lies, as Mearsheimer explains, also have their downsides.

Unfortunately much public discourse that touches on anything in which there was something less than total truthfulness fails to make the sorts of careful distinctions that Mearsheimer does. Truth and falsity get treated in an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all way that raises dander needlessly about worthwhile statecraft while diluting the outrage that is more appropriately directed at truly damaging deceit.

One of the most common situations in international affairs in which less than complete truthfulness is a legitimate part of upholding the national interest involves not necessarily the telling of lies but rather simply not mentioning certain activities. The activities may be well-established instruments of statecraft but are not carried out in public and cause problems only when details about them become public. Such activities include, among many other things, the clandestine collection of information about foreign governments and their doings, an endeavor that has sometimes been referred to as the world's second oldest profession.

A current example of misguided discourse about such things is much of what has been said about secrets purloined by the leaker-cum-defector Edward Snowden. The details he and his collaborators revealed about information-gathering activities of the United States overseas have to do with what is part of a long-established means of informing and supporting U.S. foreign policy, is essentially identical to what most of the same foreign countries do to inform and support their own policies, is no surprise to the leaders of those countries, and is what U.S. citizens habitually expect their government to do more of, or to do more aggressively, whenever there is a publicized “failure” of the government to know of something going on abroad. All of this is business as usual to the foreign governments as long as it is not publicized. It is only when publicity occurs that the leaders of those governments feel obligated to say they are shocked, shocked that such activities are going on and to make threats about slowing down trade talks or whatever. In short, there was no damage at all from the activities themselves. The damage has all come from the leaks.

Another subject of misdirected raised dander concerns what Mearsheimer calls “liberal lies,” although that term may imply something narrower than what he is referring to. Basically this involves openly identifying, as the basis for one's policy decisions, motives and reasons that are so noble and pure they cannot be a target of international opposition and criticism. It also involves speaking publicly as if these are one's only motivations, while leaving unstated other, less internationally noble, factors that may have influenced the decision. So one might speak publicly about democracy and human rights as motivators but say nothing about how management of a relationship with an authoritarian government was also a big part of the decision-making. Call this a lie if you wish, but it is a time-honored and very understandable way of pursuing one's own national interests, and of making public as well as private diplomacy serve those interests.

It is thus inappropriate to do what Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler—who usually performs a useful service in exposing baloney, and is an equal-opportunity baloney-exposer—did in recently taking aim at a statement President Obama made about considerations that have shaped U.S. policy toward Egypt. The president remarked during his African trip that U.S. decisions about assistance are based on whether the Egyptian regime is observing democracy and the rule of law. Kessler details how, given the Egyptian record over the last several years and the history of U.S. aid, these clearly are not the only considerations that have guided U.S. policy. His column is essentially a critique of U.S. policy toward Egypt—although like many other critiques, it doesn't offer an alternative to what the current or past U.S. administrations have done, or show why any alternative would be better. And all of this isn't really “fact-checking.”