WHY LEADERS LIE The Truth about Lying in International Politics



The key individuals in the Bush administration who pushed hard for the United States to invade Iraq before March 19, 2003 maintained that they were certain that Saddam Hus sein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Their claims, they said, were based on hard evidence. Proponents of the war who were not in the administration frequently repeated those claims, creating a chorus of hawkish voices that helped convince many Americans that it was essential to disarm Iraq and depose Saddam. In this view, Iraq was a necessary war, not a war of choice. Anyone who doubted that claim was almost certain to be labeled an appeaser or a fool, or even accused of being unpatriotic. When no WMD were found in Iraq, those in the war party had to explain why they were so profoundly mistaken. How was it possible that so many who were so sure about Saddam’s capabilities were so wrong?

The explanation offered for this blunder placed the blame squarely on Saddam, arguing that he effectively lied to us about whether Iraq had WMD. Specifically, he is said to have been deeply worried that Iran–or maybe even the United States-might attack Iraq, which had been badly weakened by its drubbing in the 1991 Gulf War as well as the sanctions and inspections regime that was imposed on Baghdad after that devastating defeat. To deter an attack on his country, so the story goes, Saddam put out false information that was designed to make Tehran and Washington think that he had WMD which he would use in the event of war. His job was made easier by the fact that the United Nations (UN) was not able to establish with a high degree of certainty that he no longer had any WMD, although it had no hard evidence that he possessed those weapons.

This line of argument is laid out in the “Duelfer Report,”‘ which was released in September 2004 by the Iraq Survey Group, an international team comprised of more than one thousand members that was tasked with finding Iraq’s WMD stockpiles as well as the infrastructure used to build them. Former UN weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer led it. After describing the various threats facing Iraq, the report tells us, “in order to counter these threats, Saddam continued with his public posture of retaining the WMD capabil ity.” The report goes on to say: “While it appears that Iraq, by the mid-1990s, was essentially free of militarily significant WMD stocks, Saddam’s perceived requirement to bluff about WMD capabilities made it too dangerous to clearly reveal this to the international community, especially Iran.” George Tenet makes the same argument in his memoirs. He writes in At the Center of the Storm:  “We had no previous experience with a country that did not possess such weapons but pretended that it did…. Before the war, we didn’t understand that he was bluffing.”

These claims notwithstanding, there is no evidence in the public record that Saddam tried to convince the world that Iraq possessed WMD. The Duelfer report, for example, furnishes no proof to support its claim about the Iraqi leader’s bluffing. That claim is merely an assertion, and the authors of the report do not provide facts to back it up. Indeed, the report itself provides evidence that casts doubts on that contention. It notes “Saddam never discussed using deception as a policy,” and that one of his most trusted deputies stated that he “did not reveal he was deceiving the world about the presence of WMD.” This is hardly surprising, since there is no evidence that he was deceiving the world. In fact, he said on a number of occasions that he had no WMD and he was telling the truth.

The Bush administration, on the other hand, told four major lies in the run-up to the Iraq War.They are all discussed in detail below, but let me briefly summarize them here. Key figures in the administration falsely claimed that they knew with complete certainty that Iraq had WMD. They also lied when they said that they had foolproof evidence that Saddam was closely allied with Osama bin Laden, and they made various statements that falsely implied that Saddam bore some responsibility for the September 2001 attacks on the United States. Finally, various individuals in the administration, including President Bush himself, claimed that they were still open to peaceful resolution of their dispute with Saddam, when in fact the decision to go to war had already been made.

In short, 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. They also lied about some other important matters. This behavior by the two sides might seem surprising, maybe even shocking, to some readers. One might think that at the very least it is a highly unusual case. But that conclusion would be wrong. Both sides acted in ways that are consistent with two of the main findings in this book. Specifically, I find that leaders do not lie very often to other countries, but instead seem more inclined to lie to their own people. Let me explain.

Although lying is widely viewed as reprehensible behavior in ordinary life, it is acceptable conduct in international politics because there are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to other countries and even to their own people. Nevertheless, there is actually not much lying between states. When I began this study, I expected to find abundant evidence of statesmen and diplomats lying to each other. But that initial assumption turned out to be wrong. Instead, I had to work hard to find the cases of international lying that I discuss in this book. Leaders do lie to other countries on occasion, but much less often than one might think. Therefore, it is not surprising that Saddam Hussein did not lie about whether he had WMD before the Iraq War, which is not to say that there are no circumstances in which he would have lied.

Furthermore, leaders appear to be more likely to lie to their own people about foreign policy issues than to other countries. That certainly seems to be true for democracies that pursue ambitious foreign policies and are inclined to initiate wars of choice, i.e., when there is not a clear and imminent danger to a country’s vital interests that can only be dealt with by force. Of course, that description fits the United States over the past seventy years, and, not surprisingly, American presidents have told their fellow citizens a number of important lies about foreign policy matters over those seven decades. Thus, it is hardly surprising that key figures in the Bush administration, including the president himself-lied to the American people in the run-up to the Iraq War. Bush was following in the footsteps of illustrious predecessors like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lied about a naval incident in 1941 to help draw the United States into World War II, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who lied about events in the Gulf of Tonkin in the summer of 1964 so that he could get congressional support to wage war against North Vietnam.

It is important to emphasize that in none of those cases were the president or his lieutenants lying for narrow personal gain. They thought that they were acting in the American national interest, which is not to say they acted wisely in every case. But the fact is that there are good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to their publics as well as to other countries. These practical logics almost always override well-known and widely accepted moral strictures against lying. Indeed, leaders sometimes think that they have a moral duty to lie to protect their country. Leaders do not always lie about foreign policy, of course, but they occasionally say things or purposely imply things that they know are not true. Their publics usually do not punish them for their deceptions, however, unless they lead to bad results. It seems clear that leaders and their publics believe that lying is an integral part of international relations.

In domestic politics, however, lying is generally considered wrong, save for some special circumstances, such as when individuals are bargaining over the price at which they would buy or sell a house, or when protecting an innocent person from wrongful harm. Most people consider “white lies” that friends tell one another—as when dinner guests praise an ill-cooked meal, or that parents tell their children to protect them—permissible. After all, these sorts of lies involve small stakes and they are told for someone else’s benefit. They are altruistic lies. But on the whole, lying is widely seen to have a corrupting effect on individuals as well as the broader society in which they live. It is not surprising, therefore, that people often tell the truth even when it is not in their material interest to do so. This is not to deny that there is a good deal of lying of the unacceptable sort in every society. Still, the less of that there is the better. Thus, it makes good sense to stigmatize and discourage lying on the home front.

There is a simple explanation for these different attitudes toward domestic and international lying. A leader has no higher obligation than to ensure the survival of his country. Yet states operate in an anarchic system where there is no higher authority that they can turn to if they are seriously threatened by another state. In the harsh world of international politics, there is no 911 number to call if a state gets in trouble, and even if there were, there is nobody at the other end to pick up the phone. Thus, leaders and their publics understand that states operate in a self-help world where they have to do whatever is necessary to provide for their own security. If that means lying and cheating, so be it. International politics, in other words, tends to be a realm where rules are often broken with little consequence. This is not to say that leaders are enthusiastic about telling lies or to deny that many leaders would prefer to see the international realm governed by a well-defined set of moral principles. But that is not feasible in the absence of a common sovereign to enforce them.

In contrast to the international system, the structure of a state is hierarchic, not anarchic. In a well-ordered state, there is a higher authority—the state itself—to which individuals can turn for protection. Consequently, the incentives to cheat and lie that apply when states are dealing with each other usually do not apply to individuals within a state. Indeed, a strong case can be made that widespread lying threatens the inner life of a state. It does so in good part for purely utilitarian reasons, as it is hard to make a state function efficiently when people lie to each other all the time. One can also make a moral case against lying within the confines of a state, because a well-defined community usually exists there, which is not the case in international politics. Thomas Hobbes put the point succinctly in Leviathan: “Before the names of Just, and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive Power to compel men equally to the performance of their Covenants…. Where there is no Common-wealth, there nothing is Unjust.”

Lying is obviously a form of deception, but not all deception is lying. There are two other kinds of deception: concealment and spinning. Unlike lying, neither involves making a false statement or telling a story with a false bottom line. Concealment and spinning, however, are not the same as telling the truth.

These two kinds of deception are pervasive in every realm of daily life, and they cause hardly a word of protest. For example, a person interviewing for a job is allowed to spin his life story on a resume in ways that present him in the most favorable light. He is free to omit information from that resume as he sees fit.” Politics is an especially fertile breeding ground for spinning and concealing. A president can tell a story about the state of the American economy that accentuates the positive trends and downplays or even ignores the negative ones, while a critic from the opposing party is free to do the opposite. But neither individual is allowed to lie to make his case. Indeed, getting caught in a lie would probably do them significant political harm.

That is not true, however, if a foreign-policy issue is at stake. Statesmen and diplomats are rarely punished for lying, especially if they were telling lies to other countries. Probably the only exception to this rule involves cases where it becomes known that a leader lied to his fellow citizens about a policy that failed in ways that obviously damage the national interest. But even here, the main reason that a leader would likely incur his public’s wrath is because the policy failed, not because he lied. Of course, this is why a leader who is discovered to have lied to his public about a particular policy is unlikely to pay much of a political price if it works as intended. When it comes to foreign policy, success excuses lying, or at least makes it tolerable.

In short, concealment and spinning are generally seen as legitimate forms of behavior in domestic as well as inter national politics. Buy lying is a different matter, 12 It is con sidered unacceptable behavior in most walks of life, save for international politics, where it is generally viewed as regrettable but sometimes necessary

There is a substantial body of literature on lying, but hardly any of it deals explicitly with lying in international politics. One notable exception is Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, which provides an excellent narrative of presidential lying over the past seventy years. However, Alterman is not a social scientist and he does not attempt to theorize about international lying. Nor has anyone else. One might respond that there are numerous studies dealing with deception among states. While this is true, that literature tends not to distinguish between concealment, lying, and spinning, and more importantly, no work zeroes in on lying and attempts to make general arguments about that particular behavior. The aim of this book is to fill that void by theorizing about international lying, not the broader concept of deception.

At the most general level, one can think about lying from either an absolutist or a utilitarian perspective. Absolutists like Immanuel Kant and Augustine maintain that lying is always wrong and that it has hardly any positive effects. Lying, according to Kant, is “the greatest violation of man’s duty to himself.” Utilitarians, on the other hand, believe that lying sometimes makes sense, because it serves a useful social purpose; but other times it does not. The key is to determine when and why lying has positive utility.

I look at international lying from a strictly utilitarian perspective, mainly because there are compelling reasons that justify it and, not surprisingly, we find a considerable amount of it in the historical record. Many people seem to believe that there are circumstances in world politics where it pays to lie. This is not to deny, however, the importance of examining the moral dimensions of this phenomenon. Nevertheless, that task involves a different set of calculations and considerations, which lie beyond the scope of this book.

Broadly speaking, leaders tell international lies for two different reasons. They can tell lies in the service of the national interest. These are strategic lies that leaders tell for the purpose of helping their country survive in the rough and tumble of inter-state relations. Leaders can also tell selfish lies, which have little to do with raison d’état, but instead aim to protect their own personal interests or those of their friends. My concern is with lies that leaders tell for the good of the collectivity, not for selfish purposes. Thus, when I use the term international lying, I am talking about strategic lies, not selfish lies.

The subsequent analysis is built around four questions. First, what are the different kinds of international lies that leaders tell? Second, why do they lie? What are the strategic logics that motivate each kind of lying? Specifically, what are the potential benefits of lying that cause leaders to engage in this distasteful, if not noxious, behavior? Third, what are the circumstances that make each type of lying more or less likely? Fourth, what are the potential costs of lying for a state’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy? In other words, what is the downside of telling international lies? Thus, I consider both the benefits and the costs of the various kinds of lies that statesmen and diplomats tell each other as well as their own publics. However, I do not address the important question of when each kind of lie is likely to achieve its intended effect or not, mainly because I could not come up with a good answer.

I attempt to answer these questions by providing simple analytical frameworks that draw on the theoretical literature in international relations as well as the extensive literature on lying. I have tried to ensure that my arguments are logically sound, and I have provided historical evidence to illustrate them. However, I do not test my various claims by bringing evidence to bear in a systematic manner. That task is beyond the scope of this book, which is mainly concerned with providing a theoretical template for thinking about international lying. I hope other scholars will systematically test some of the arguments offered in the following pages.


I make numerous claims in the subsequent analysis, but five of them stand out above the rest. First, international lying comes in a variety of forms, but the most important distinction is between the lies that states tell each other and those that leaders tell their own publics.

Second, leaders usually tell international lies for good strategic reasons, not because they are craven or corrupt. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that lying is a great virtue and that more international lying is better than less. I am merely saying that lying is sometimes a useful instrument of statecraft in a dangerous world. Indeed, a leader can occasionally tell what Plato famously called a “noble lie.” For example, President Franklin Roosevelt lied to the American people about the German attack on the USS Greer in August 1941. He was trying to get the United States into World War II against Nazi Germany, which then appeared to be on its way to conquering all of Europe. Roosevelt’s objective was the right one and it was appropriate for him to lie in this instance.

Third, while lying among states is a permanent fixture of international politics, it is not commonplace. In the discussion of inter-state lying in chapter 3, I describe a variety of cases in which the leaders of one state lied to another state. Reading this chapter might give the impression that inter state lying is routine behavior among statesmen and diplo mats. But I had difficulty finding those cases, and, moreover, the chapter includes almost all the cases I was able to identify. I was especially surprised by how difficult it was to find evidence of states attempting to bluff each other in bargaining situations. In fact, it appears that leaders are more likely to lie to their own people than to rival states. That seems to be particularly true for democracies like the United States.

Fourth, the most dangerous kinds of international lies are those that leaders tell their own citizens. They are more likely to backfire and damage a state’s strategic position than the lies that leaders tell other states. Moreover, they are more likely to corrupt political and social life at home, which can have many harmful consequences for daily life.

Fifth, because the United States is so powerful and so heavily engaged around the globe, its leaders often confront situations where there are strong incentives to lie either to other states or to the American people. This is a matter of serious concern, since international lying can have serious negative consequences, especially for democracies like the United States.



What is Lying?

Before defining lying, spinning, and concealment, it makes good sense to define deception, the general category that includes those three behaviors, as well as truth telling, which is the direct opposite of deception.

Truth telling is when an individual does his best to state the facts and tell a story in a straightforward and honest way. Every person invariably has limited knowledge about the details of any case and biases as well. Memories can also be faulty and it is impossible to relate every fact one knows when telling a story. The key point, however, is that a truth teller makes a serious effort to overcome any biases or selfish interests that he might have and report the relevant facts in as fair-minded a way as he can. Deception, in contrast, is where an individual purposely takes steps that are designed to prevent others from knowing the full truth-as that individual understands it-about a particular matter. The deliberate aim, in other words, is not to provide a straightforward or comprehensive description of events.

Lying is when a person makes a statement that he knows or suspects to be false in the hope that others will think it is true. A lie is a positive action designed to deceive the target audience. Lying can involve making up facts that one knows to be false or denying facts that one knows to be true. But lying is not only about the truthfulness of particular facts. It can also involve the disingenuous arrangement of facts to tell a fictitious story. Specifically, a person is lying when he uses facts—even true facts–to imply that something is true, when he knows that it is not true. In such cases, the liar is purposely leading the listener to a false conclusion without explicitly stating that conclusion.

There is always the possibility, of course, that a person who thinks that he is telling a lie has the facts wrong and is inadvertently telling the truth. The reverse might be true as well: a person who believes that he is telling the truth might have his facts wrong. This problem, however, is irrelevant for my purposes, because I am interested in determining whether a person is being truthful-stating facts or telling a story that he believes to be true-not whether he ultimately proves to be right or wrong about the facts. Simply put, my concern is with truthfulness, not the truth.

Spinning is different from lying, although there will be some cases where the distinction is murky. Spinning is when a person telling a story emphasizes certain facts and links them together in ways that play to his advantage, while, at the same time, downplaying or ignoring inconvenient facts. Spinning is all about interpreting the known facts in a way that allows the spinner to tell a favorable story. It is all about emphasizing and deemphasizing particular facts to portray one’s position in a positive light. With spinning, no attempt is made to render a completely accurate account of events. The basic story being told is a lie. Spinning is exaggeration or distortion, not prevarication. Tiger Woods captured the essence of spinning when he told an interviewer from Sports Illustrated in 2000, “I’ve learned you can always tell the truth, but you don’t have to tell the whole truth.”

What usually happens in an American courtroom provides a good way of illustrating the difference between lying and spinning. When a witness is called to the stand he is sworn to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” and then he is asked a series of questions, which he is expected to answer truthfully. The person in the docket could lie, but the key point is that he is required by law to tell what he believes to be the truth. The attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant, on the other hand, are primarily interested in winning the case for their clients, not determining the full truth about what happened in the dispute at hand. Accordingly, each makes an opening and closing statement in which he spins the facts of the case in ways that puts his client in the most favorable light. The rival lawyers invariably tell two different stories, but neither is allowed to lie. The American Bar Association, for example, stipulates in its rules of conduct that “a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal.94 Spinning, however, is not only permissible; it is what lawyers routinely do for their clients.

The third kind of deception is concealment, which involves withholding information that might undermine or weaken one’s position. In cases of this sort, the individual simply remains silent about the evidence, because he wants to hide it from others. Of course, if he is asked a question about the matter and lies to conceal it, that behavior fits my definition of lying. A good example of concealment is the Bush admin istration’s decision not to tell the public before the Iraq War began in March 2003 that two key Al Qaeda figures-Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zabaydah-had separately told their American interrogators that Osama bin Laden had thought about asking Saddam Hussein to form an alliance against the United States, but then decided against it. If these facts had been made public, they would have undermined the Bush administration’s claim that bin Laden and Saddam were collaborating with each other, which was important for winning public and congressional support for the war. This behavior was certainly deceptive, but it was not lying, at least according to my definition, because it did not involve taking a positive step to deceive someone. In short, when a person spins a story or conceals facts, he is not lying, but neither is he being completely truthful.

Lying, as emphasized, is usually considered deplorable behavior, whereas most people seem to believe that it is acceptable to spin and conceal, even though these behaviors are designed to deceive. One possible reason for this difference is that lying is more difficult to detect and protect against than either spinning or concealment. Liars make false assertions in ways that are designed not to raise any doubts about the truthfulness of their claims. Skillful liars present false assertions with an air of certainty that makes it especially difficult for the target audience to figure out that it is being bamboozled.

With spinning, however, the listeners are much more likely to be able to recognize that they are not getting a complete and accurate picture, and then rectify the prob lem by filling in the missing pieces of the story. Specifically, the target audience can compare the spinner’s motives with how the spinner put his story together, i.e., what he might have left out, what he emphasized, and what he deemphasized. If there is reason to be suspicious of the spinner’s story, the listeners can ask the spinner for additional information, do independent research on the spinner’s story, or listen to counter-spinners, who are usually not in short supply when it comes to foreign policy.

The target audience should also be able to defend itself reasonably well against concealment. In particular, it can always ask if there is information available on specific aspects of the subject at hand, and it should expect to be told the truth. None of this is to deny, however, that the target audience might not know all the relevant lines of inquiry. After all, sometimes you do not know what you do not know, and therefore do not know what questions to ask.

To reinforce the point that lying is considered shameful because it is so difficult to detect, let us look at one of the few realms in our daily life where it is acceptable to lie: commercial negotiations where buyers and sellers are trying to reach a price agreement. Consider, for example, a case in which two individuals are bargaining over a commodity like a car or a house. Each person is allowed to lie about his “reservation price,” which is the price above or below which he would no longer agree to a deal. Both the buyer and the seller understand that lying–the euphemism is “bluffing”-is part of the game; thus neither side gains an unfair advantage when it lies about the selling price or the purchase price. In essence, we are talking about a fair fight in which neither side can claim that it was wrongly bamboozled by the other side.

Not surprisingly, there is hardly any stigma attached to lying about one’s reservation price in business dealings. Indeed, one might argue that this kind of bluffing is not lying, because, to quote the British statesman Henry Taylor, a “falsehood ceases to be a falsehood when it is understood on all sides that the truth is not expected to be spoken.”? I reject that logic, however, because both the buyer and seller are telling falsehoods that are intended to deceive the other side, which is the essence of lying.

In sum, lying, spinning, and withholding information are all forms of deception, and all three can be contrasted with truth telling. The subsequent discussion focuses on how lies are used to deceive others in the foreign-policy realm. But in practice, deception campaigns invariably involve spinning and concealment as well as lying. In fact, given the opprobrium attached to most kinds of lying, leaders who think that they have good reason to deceive another state or their own public usually prefer spinning and concealment to lying. Nobody wants to be called a liar, even if it is for a good cause. This preference is reinforced by the fact that it is often difficult to lie without getting caught red-handed. Of course, leaders sometimes conclude that they have no choice but to lie for their countries and that circumstances make it feasible to do so. In general, however, lying will be the option of last resort for leaders seeking to deceive another country.