The Yemeni government was quick to take responsibility for the early-morning airstrikes that destroyed an al-Qaida training camp on Dec. 17, 2009, claiming it alone had “planned and executed” them. This was false: The attacks, ordered by President Barack Obama, were the work of U.S. cruise missiles. But lying was official policy, intended to conceal the fact that Yemen had given the U.S. government virtually free rein to kill terrorists inside Yemeni borders. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” President Ali Abdullah Saleh is quoted as telling Gen. David Petraeus in one of the cables released by WikiLeaks. You can just picture the smirk on Saleh’s face, the dismissive wave of his hand, as he tells Petraeus not to worry, that in his country, it is feasible to maintain such a fiction.
John Mearsheimer has a name for this type of lie: “strategic cover-up.” The term is not necessarily pejorative. As he explains in his compact new book, Why Leaders Lie, a government may tell this type of lie so it can pursue a wise but unpopular policy. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, President John F. Kennedy denied that he had agreed to withdraw U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets’ pulling their missiles from Cuba. Kennedy had in fact made that very trade, but he kept it secret because he knew it would be unpopular with U.S. voters and NATO allies.
Japanese leaders made a similar calculation in the 1960s, granting the U.S. Navy permission to dock nuclear-armed ships at Japanese ports, an operational requirement of the U.S. deterrence strategy. But they realized that if the decision—one at odds with the country’s anti-nuclear stance—were made public, it would prove so controversial that it might have to be reversed. So, for half a century, they denied the agreement. Only last March did the government finally acknowledge it.
Strategic cover-ups are just one of the categories of lies the book catalogs. Like a lepidopterist pinning butterflies to foam, Mearsheimer collects and classifies the various species of lies in international politics, inventing his own taxonomy. Countries lie to each other to exaggerate their own military capabilities (Hitler: “I threatened … to send six extra divisions into the Rhineland. The truth was, I had only four brigades”) or to understate them (as Britain did during World War I when it claimed its tanks were intended only for carrying water rather than gunning down infantrymen). They lie to maintain the element of surprise before attacking an enemy (as the Soviet Union did in 1945 when it said it had no intention of invading Japan) or to create the false impression of an impending attack (as the Reagan administration did when, pressuring Muammar al-Gaddafi, it said U.S. bombers were about to attack Libya). But “inter-state” lies like these are rare; it is more common for governments to lie to their own people, since the public tends to trust its own government more than governments trust each other.
The type of domestically targeted lie Mearsheimer spends the most time deconstructing is fear-mongering—inflating a threat so the public takes it seriously. To yank reluctant Americans into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt misled them about a skirmish between the USS Greer and a German submarine. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, famously thought arguments about the menace of communism had to be made in terms “clearer than truth.” Putting theory into practice, Lyndon Johnson misled Congress about a supposed attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin so he could secure a mandate for the Vietnam War.
It was in this tradition, Mearsheimer argues, that members of the George W. Bush administration lied their way into Iraq, contending that “Saddam told the truth about his WMD capabilities before the 2003 Iraq war, while senior figures in the Bush administration lied about what they knew regarding those weapons.” But inappropriate optimism is not the same as willful falsification. Although U.S. officials did spread misinformation about Iraq’s terrorist ties, they did not invent evidence about weapons so much as overstate their confidence about what that thin evidence meant. Saddam was undoubtedly more deceptive, undertaking a concerted campaign to exaggerate his military capabilities. Regardless, there is no doubt that the Bush administration’s flexible vision of the truth was problematic, and not just because it led to a foreign policy disaster. As Mearsheimer argues, this type of behavior corrodes public debate and breeds mistrust. But is lying always bad?
Imagine if every head of state woke up tomorrow with an inability to lie, like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. In this thought experiment, the United States would be worse off. Not because it lies that often—it does not—but because it depends on the lies of other countries. With interests that span the globe, the United States has no choice but to deal with unrepresentative governments, particularly in the Middle East. In a country where people recoil at the thought of their government secretly helping the Americans, Washington benefits from foreign leaders keeping their citizens in the dark.
Double-dealing is a tricky gambit. Political scientist Robert D. Putnam has likened the foreign policy process to playing two board games at the same time, each at a different table. Sitting at the table that represents domestic politics are advisers, union leaders, rival politicians, and so on. (In autocracies, a combination of generals, relatives, and radicals might take their place.) The second table represents international politics, and gathered around it are other heads of state. The challenge for the leader shuttling between the two is to make moves that satisfy those at the domestic table while fending off threats at the international table. The game becomes much easier if foreign policy decisions are obscured from the domestic audience. A ruler who says yes to the United States without being labeled a stooge can enhance his position internationally while holding on to power at home.
But although Mearsheimer does not say so, duplicity is becoming harder to practice. Call it the audience differentiation problem: Leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to send one message to foreign powers while telling their own people something else. Advances in communications technology and democratic representation have steadily accelerated the free flow of information and tied the hands of governments hoping to dam it.
The day-by-day erosion of the Yemeni government’s narrative monopoly is a case study in the difficulties of media management in a modern-day autocracy. The day of the airstrikes, ABC News, citing Obama administration officials, exposed Washington’s role. A Yemeni opposition party’s Web site soon picked up the story, while Al Jazeera interviewed witnesses who said they saw U.S. aircraft conducting surveillance around the site and ran footage of what appeared to be American-made artillery shells, a theory later corroborated by photographs released online by Amnesty International. When the WikiLeaks cables came out—one year after the strikes—America’s hand in Yemen’s counterterrorism policy was widely known. By contrast, it took more than 30 years for the truth to come out about Kennedy’s Turkish missile deal. Such a feat seems impossible today.
This is partly good news, since governments will find it harder to bamboozle their people into accepting bad policies. “Whenever leaders cannot sell a policy to their public in a rational-legal manner,” Mearsheimer writes, “there is a good chance that the problem is with the policy, not the audience.” But what if the problem is with the audience? Most people would prefer, for example, that Yemen lie to its people and let the United States fight al-Qaida than cave to public opinion and call off the operations. Yes, the endangered status of the international lie represents a victory for American values like democratic representation, open government, and free speech. But for American interests, it may count as a loss.