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Bovard on Why Leaders Lie

Jim Bovard has reviewed Prof. John Mearsheimer’s Why Leaders Lie for the new issue of TAC. At The National Interest‘s site, Ted Galen Carpenter also had some comments on the new book. As both of them explain, Prof. Mearsheimer argues that political leaders lie to their own people far more often than they lie to one another, and he also argues that strategic lies told in the national interest can sometimes be beneficial. Bovard can’t find many examples of the beneficial strategic lie, and he makes a good case that even when they appear beneficial in the short-term they can lead to significant errors later on.

Bovard helps to explain why many foreign policy deceits go unpunished. He writes:

While some people regard political lies as negligible offenses, official deceits often prove fatal to foreigners.

At the end of the review, he concludes:

There is no reason to expect government to be more honest in the future than it has been in the past. The Obama administration’s lies on Libya are eerily akin to the Bush team’s lies on Iraq and the Clinton administration’s lies on Kosovo. But deceiving the American people should no longer be treated as a victimless crime.

One difficulty in holding a deceitful government accountable for its foreign policy decisions is that the vast majority of the people who suffer because of them are not American citizens. There are cases, most notably in Vietnam, where misleading Congress and the public has led to escalation of foreign wars that have cost tens of thousands of American lives, but on the whole most of the costs are imposed on the people in other countries. The public isn’t entirely indifferent to this, but they usually aren’t going to penalize government officials for it. Of the three wars Bovard lists here, only one became the cause of major political outrage here at home. This was partly because it dragged on for many years when it was supposed to be a short war, but mostly because of the growing number of U.S. casualties. The Iraq war’s costs to the U.S. in terms of killed and wounded were quite high for a so-called “small” war, but the Iraqi civilian population suffered much higher losses and enormous dislocation of population that will have adverse effects on Iraq’s politics and economy for years and decades to come. When the government misleads the public, it has all of the harmful effects Bovard mentions, and it may even cost America dearly at times, but most of the costs are paid by others, and those costs are either invisible or quickly forgotten back home. There might be more public outrage over government deceit if there were a more complete accounting of the consequences of the policies that were enabled by this deceit.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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