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Why Leaders Lie

The lies of leaders are often condoned – if they succeed.

By Jordan Michael Smith / February 2, 2011

Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics By John J. Mearsheimer Oxford University Press 142 pp

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John Mearsheimer has to be the most fearless political scientist working in the United States today.

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He is best known as coauthor of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the most controversial book on international affairs that has appeared since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But he is hardly someone who can be reflexively dismissed as anti-American or as fonder of European conventions than of American power. In his magisterial 2001 book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” Mearsheimer takes an agressive approach to the protection of American interests, articulating a doctrine of “offensive realism,” which includes suggestions that America deliberately limit China’s economic growth, given the high likelihood of war between the two countries as China muscles the US out of Asia.

In short, he is the perfect scholar to tackle the subject of lying in international politics. There is surprisingly little written on the subject, despite the fact that citizens frequently erupt in anger when they discover their leaders have lied to them. Perhaps lying seems like such an amorphous concept that it is difficult to study, or maybe scholars have shied away from a subject – lying in foreign policy – that seems an intrinsic part of the state system.

In Why Leaders Lie, however, Mearsheimer has made the intangible largely concrete. He differentiates between such phenomena as domestic lying, lying between states, strategic coverups, fearmongering, and nationalist myths. He is unconcerned with lying for personal sake, such as Richard Nixon’s claim that he knew nothing about Watergate. Rather, the book concerns lies that are told for national-security purposes.

Since lying is generally considered unjust behavior in one’s personal life, it might suggest that lying in international politics would be similarly taboo.

But as Mearsheimer points out, this isn’t the case. We know now beyond a reasonable doubt that President Franklin Roosevelt lied about German attacks on US ships before America was involved in World War II. Roosevelt also played down Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s tyranny, lest Americans be reluctant to work with a vital ally to defeat Hitler. Mearsheimer calls these “noble lies,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. America was much better off for Roosevelt’s lies, which focused US attention on the German threat.

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