Book Review: Why Leaders Lie, by John Mearsheimer

By Babak Moussavi

Stating that leaders – and politicians of all stripes – lie is said to be a truism, so obvious and well-known that there is no point dwelling on it. Politicians are, for this reason, one of the least trusted categories of people in society: research by Ipsos Mori and the Institute for Government has shown that in the UK, they compete with journalists for the bottom spot.

The question of why leaders lie is asked surprisingly infrequently though. Moreover, why might they lie in international politics? After all, Sir Henry Wotton, a British diplomat from the seventeenth century once declared that an ambassador is “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”. Is lying the result of short-term incentives? Or is it a useful and frequently used tool in the world of Machiavellian realpolitik?

John Mearsheimer, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, explores this question in his book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics. He specifically focuses on the international sphere, where he believes that the stakes are higher than in “low”, domestic politics. According to his research, his short book of just over 100 pages is the first systematic study of this question, combining International Relations theory and case studies with the literature that exists on lying. It’s an interesting read, and makes plausible – if depressing – claims. But his theoretical assumptions should be recalled, and questioned, when reading it, as they are crucial to his analysis.

John Mearsheimer: card-carrying realist

For students of IR, Mr Mearsheimer is a notable character for being a proponent of “offensive realism”. Indeed, in the book he described himself as a “card-carrying realist”. The idea is, roughly speaking, that domestic politics is characterised by sovereignty and order, whereas international politics is characterised by anarchy, in that there is no authority higher than the states that exist in the international sphere. For that reason, states operate in a self-help world: trust is limited, and leaders should be vigilant to prioritise the state’s survival above all else. This is meant as a descriptive statement about how the world is, rather than a prescriptive statement about how leaders should act.

With this framework in mind, what does the evidence suggest about lying in international politics? To begin with, he says lying is not that common – or at least, not nearly as common as is popularly believed. For international relations to work, especially when states have to cooperate over relatively small issues, they have to believe that their counterparts are generally telling them the truth. Nevertheless, according to Mr Mearsheimer, lying is more frequent over international issues than over domestic ones.

Lying can be targeted towards an international audience (another state) or a domestic audience, mainly for strategic gain. The purpose is to have the specific audience acquire a set of beliefs that allow for the implementation of a preferred policy, or to deter a policy that one wishes to avoid. For example, President Franklin D Roosevelt lied about an incident in 1941 between the USS Greer and a German submarine in order to push the American public into a more pro-war position. A similar thing happened with President Lyndon B Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which served as a pretext for American entry into the (disastrous) Vietnam War.

Lies can often be used to cover-up a failed policy. Similarly, it can be used to deny a policy is being carried out, as it requires secrecy. These are known as “strategic cover-ups”. President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary had to lie when asked about whether there would be a rescue operation to free the hostages held in Tehran. The intended audience was Iran, as the American administration hoped to catch them by surprise. In the end, the operation went ahead, but failed anyway.

Lying is also often deployed for the purpose of “fearmongering”. This is perhaps the most controversial, as it leads Mr Mearsheimer to draw his depressing conclusion that democratic leaders are more frequent liars than their autocratic counterparts. The big case Mr Mearsheimer cites is the Iraq War in 2003, when President George Bush’s administration had, by many accounts, already taken the decision to invade, before the evidence would have permitted it. They therefore had to persuade a sceptical public, and did this by engaging “in a deception campaign to inflate the threat posed by Saddam”. They lied by suggesting they had evidence of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programmes: Vice President, Dick Cheney, said in August 2002 that “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”. They also lied when they suggested Saddam was linked to Osama bin Laden and September 11th: Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence at the time, said on September 27th that he had “bulletproof” evidence of this. Tony Blair’s government engaged in a similar sort of fearmongering in order to sell the policy of war to the British public.

"Bulletproof" evidence, or unknown unknown?

The reason Mr Mearsheimer believes democratic leaders are more prone to lying to their publics is that they have to respond to public opinion. In that sense, they at least have to make an attempt to get the public’s backing for their policies, even if this involves deception. Often, they do this by portraying their seemingly odious actions as being in the cause of justice or the common good. Mr Mearsheimer suggests painting Josef Stalin as a cheery ‘Uncle Joe’ figure was an example of such a lie. Autocratic leaders, however, have no such requirement to lie like this, as their authority does not derive from the people.

This leads to another form of lies that occur: nationalist myth-making. Leaders use this to portray their country as the victim or hero, thus instilling a sense of nationalist pride, which feeds over into support for the leaders. Mr Mearsheimer criticises France for doing this by teaching its schoolchildren a very rosy view of its colonial past. He also suggests Americans have a false view of what happened to the indigenous peoples when their European ancestors colonised the continent, but that this is now accepted and uncontroversial as it seems like ancient history. His main criticisms are reserved for Israel however, and how their leaders lied in order to cast them as victims in their struggle with the Palestinians, when the evidence would suggest otherwise: as in the case of the Qibya massacre, an operation led by Ariel Sharon. Mr Mearsheimer, it can be noted, is a well-known critic of Israel’s actions, as his 2007 bestseller, The Israel Lobby, co-authored with Stephen Walt, made clear.

From a utilitarian perspective, lying can arguably yield some pragmatic or strategic benefits. Had President Carter’s rescue attempt worked, covering it up would have been of great importance. President John F Kennedy used lying to solve the Cuban missile crisis: he told a “noble lie” by stating he would not remove any Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba, but had in fact covertly agreed to do so, after the event, in order to secure Soviet acquiescence. One could even imagine that had the Iraq War led to a prosperous and stable Iraq, the Bush and Blair administrations would not have been so vehemently castigated for their use of deception in selling it. As he puts it: “nothing succeeds like success”.

Still, it is a harrowing thought that the price of democracy is having leaders who lie. Can social justice even exist in such a paradoxical arrangement? Mr Mearsheimer examines this thought, considering the danger that lying on international issues might spill over to become routine within domestic politics. For many readers, especially those who are sceptical about some UK government members’ declarations on their dealings with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, that is perhaps something that has already happened.


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