The Truth, the Whole Truth, and When It Matters

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and When It Matters

Only certain kinds of international deception demand concern.

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.”

Of course U.S. policy toward Egypt has been based on much more than just the extent to which whoever is in power in Egypt at the moment is respecting democracy and the rule of law. It also necessarily, and quite understandably from the standpoint of U.S. interests, has been based on such objectives as maintaining productive relations with the Egyptian military, which affects such things as U.S. access rights. But I would not expect the president to talk about such things at a news conference in Tanzania. In fact, we should consider it an inept performance if he did talk about such things. (Moreover, to apply Kessler's usual nit-picking standards, the president did not assert that democracy and the rule of law were the only criteria in making U.S. aid decisions, and in that sense he did not tell a lie.)

As Mearsheimer's discussion indicates, any assessment of the pros and cons of even outright lies is apt to be complicated. Let me suggest a standard, however, for distinguishing those instances of untruthfulness that are worthy of our outrage from those that are not. Did the lie, or other shortcoming in truthfulness, distort public debate by leading people to believe what was false, and did this make an identifiable difference in the debate or the policy? To take the subject of Kessler's column, have statements by the president or his administration led the public (at either home or abroad) to believe that U.S. policy toward Egypt has been governed solely by considerations of democracy and the rule of law? Has any such mistaken belief corrupted the public debate about policy toward Egypt? It would be implausible to answer yes to either question.

A contrasting example that also involves motivations for policies of the Obama administration toward North Africa concerns the military intervention in Libya. Administration statements fostered the belief that the purpose of the intervention was not regime change but instead to save innocent Libyans from a bloodbath. That mistaken belief took hold in some quarters, overseas as well as at home. The Russians certainly seem to believe they were misled. Understanding that is important in understanding the posture of Russia to later proposed interventions.

The most damaging example of this type concerns the untruthfulness associated with the launching of the Iraq War. Notwithstanding much of the subsequent talk about alleged lies by the Bush administration, the most flagrant lying was not contained within the substance of the administration's case for war but rather concerned explanations of the motivation and basis for launching the war. When the White House spokesman said in 2007, “The president made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein for a number of reasons, mainly the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and Saddam Hussein's own actions, and only after a thorough and lengthy assessment of all available information as well as Congressional authorization,” that was a baldfaced lie. With no policy process at all leading to the decision to launch the war, there was nothing even remotely close to a “thorough and lengthy assessment,” and the referenced intelligence estimate did not even exist until well after the president had made his decision and even after the campaign to sell that decision to the public had moved into high gear. The resulting damage, on top of the damage of the war itself, has been that a continuing mistaken belief that bad intelligence about weapons drove the war has corrupted public discourse about how to prevent similar blunders in the future.

There is plenty of destructive untruthfulness out there. The damage can occur not just through direct lies but also through less direct techniques for imparting a mistaken belief. Let's save our outrage for the genuinely damaging cases and not waste our energy on the diplomatic equivalent of white lies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mrkgrd. CC BY-SA 3.0.