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Mearsheimer On Lying in International Politics: “Nationalist Mythmaking” & “Fearmongering”

I picked up a provocative book by John J. Mearsheimer in B&N today, “Why Leaders Lie -- The Truth About Lying In International Politics” (Oxford, 2011). I highly recommend it. Mearsheimer rationally but bluntly explores past and current deadly global military crises promoted by the mendacity of leading “players.”

As Mearsheimer points out below, the major incendiary lying that occurs from leaders is often not found in nation-to-nation communication but in said leaders lying to their own people. Additionally heart-troubling is how some craven, demonizing, nationalistic “myth-making” takes hold so strongly it takes decades, or even future generations, for this demonization, at least by some, to be called out. Another insight explored below concerns how leaders who lie often enough about international situations to their citizenries will lapse more and more into lying about domestic issues as well.

Here are some thought-provoking passages from Mearsheimer on the profound manipulative powers of “nationalist mythmaking” and “fearmongering” that contribute to national group-think and the enablng of the psychopathological, massive brutality of wars within the human family.

page 6

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 ...

page 49

The Bush administration engaged in fearmongering before the United States attacked Iraq on March 19, 2003. There is no question that the president and his principal advisors sincerely believed that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous threat who had to be removed from office sooner rather than later. At the same time, they understood that there was not much enthusiasm for invading Iraq in the broader public. Moreover, the American military, the intelligence community, the State Department, and the U.S. Congress were not keen for war. To overcome this reluctance to attack Iraq, the Bush administration engaged in a deception campaign to inflate the threat posed by Saddam. It involved spinning, concealing and lying to the American people. I will describe four key lies.

First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on September 27, 2002 that he had “bulletproof” evidence that Saddam was closely allied with Osama bin Laden. In fact he had no such evidence ... The Bush administration actually had solid evidence before the war that Saddam and bin Laden were not working together. ...


Second, the architects of the war often claimed that the United States knew with absolute certainty that Iraq had particular WMD capabilities, when, in fact, that was not true.


Third, the Bush administration made numerous statements before the war that were designed to imply that Saddam was in part responsible for the attacks on September 11. ...The aim, of course, was to lead the American public to draw a false conclusion about Saddam without plainly stating that conclusion.


Fourth, in the year before the war, President Bush and his advisors frequently said that they hoped to find a peaceful resolution to the Iraq crisis and that war was an option of last resort. ... In fact the Bush administration was bent on war by the summer of 2002, if not earlier ...

page 77

.. Duke political scientist Alexander Downes shows in his seminal book Targeting Civilians in War that “desperation to win and to save lives on one’s own side in costly, protracted wars of attribution causes belligerents to target enemy civilians.” Indeed, he shows that “democracies are somewhat more likely than non-democracies to target civilians.” Remember that the United States purposely killed about 900,000 Japanese civilians in the last five months of World War II, not because it feared losing the war, but because it wanted to win the war without having to invade the Japanese homeland. General Curtis LeMay who was in charge of that murderous bombing campaign, once remarked, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

Such brutal state behavior, however, is not restricted to wartime. The United States, for example, played the leading role in getting the UN to impose economic sanctions on Iraq from August 1990 until May 2003. That financial and trade embargo helped create a humanitarian disaster killing about 500,000 Iraqi civilians according to UNICEF estimates. Statesmen also form alliances with particularly odious countries when they believe that it makes good strategic sense. To defeat Nazi Germany in World War II both Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked closely with Josef Stalin, who was not simply a tyrant, but was also one of the greatest mass murderers of all time.

When states act in ways that run counter to liberal norms or international law, their leaders often invent false stories that are designed to mask what they are doing. Not surprising, both British and American elites -- including academics, journalists, and policymakers -- went to considerable lengths during World War II to portray Stalin in a favorable light, so that it would not appear that Britain and the United States were run by ruthless statesmen who would cooperate with one tyrannical mass murderer to defeat another.

page 91

The problem with this kind of behavior [fearmongering] is that the leadership’s low regard for the public is likely to spill over into the domestic realms. Once a country’s leaders conclude that its citizens do not understand important foreign policy issues and thus need to be manipulated, it is not much of a leap to apply the same sort of thinking to national issues.

page 95

George Orwell captures the essence of this collective self-delusion when he writes, “nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also -- since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself -- unshakably certain of being in the right.”

page 73

It is also sometimes feasible for a state with an influential diaspora to export its myths to the countries where the diaspora is located. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon involves Israel and the American Jewish community. There was no way that the Zionists could create a Jewish state in Palestine without doing large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Arab populations that had been living there for centuries. This point was widely recognized by the Zionist leadership well before Israel was created. The opportunity to expel the Palestinians came in early 1948 when fighting broke out between the Palestinians and the Zionists in the wake of the UN decision to partition Palestine into two states. The Zionists cleansed roughly 700,000 Palestinians from the land that became Israel, and adamantly refused to let them return to their homes once the fighting stopped. Of course, this was a story that cast Israel in the role of the victimizer and would make it difficult for the fledgling state to win friends and influence people around the world, especially in the United States.

Not surprisingly, Israel and its American friends went to great lengths after the events of 1948 to blame the expulsion of the Palestinians on the victims themselves. According to the myth that was invented, the Palestinians were not cleansed by the Zionists; instead, they were said to have fled their homes because the surrounding Arab countries told them to move out so that their armies could move in and drive the Jews into the sea. The Palestinians could then return home after the Jews had been cleansed from the land. This story was widely accepted not only in Israel but also in the United States for about four decades, and it played a key role in convincing many Americans to look favorably upon Israel in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Israeli scholars, however, have demolished that myth and others over the past two decades, and the new history has slowly begun to affect the discourse in the United States about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that make at least some Americans less sympathetic to Israel’s past and present actions toward the Palestinians.

page 101

Moreover, American leaders have not been shy about using military force to achieve their grand goals. The United States has fought five wars since the Cold War ended in 1989, and it has been at war for fourteen of the subsequent twenty-two years: 1991 against Iraq; 1995 and 1999 against Serbia; 2001-2002 against Afghanistan; 2003-2011 against both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will surely dampen the foreign-policy elite’s enthusiasm for reshaping the world at the end of a rifle barrel, but it remains to be seen how much. As a result, it may not be long before the United States marches off on another crusade. There is little reason to think that its basic commitment to running the world will go away anytime soon, which means that the United States is going to be deeply involved in global politics for the foreseeable future.

Such an ambitious foreign policy is likely to create numerous situations in the years ahead where America’s leaders feel compelled to fearmonger. Remember, the leaders who are mostly likely to lie to their publics are those who head democracies bent on fighting wars of choice in distant places. That description obviously fits the United States, and it goes a long way toward explaining the Bush administration’s deceptions in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. But it was certainly not the first administration to engage in fearmongering and it will not be the last. The United Stats spends more on its military than the rest of the world put together; it has a robust nuclear deterrent and its insulated from most dangers by two enormous oceans. Given how secure America really is, the only way its leaders can justify ambitious global crusades is to convince the American people that relatively minor problems are in fact dire and growing dangers. Given America’s global ambitions, therefore, we should expect fearmongering to be a constant feature of its national security discourse in the years ahead. This is bad news, because fearmongering not only can have a corrosive effect on democratic institutions, it can also lead to disasters like Iraq and Vietnam.

The more of us citizens clued in to war-mongering group-think manipulation from our leaders, the greater our chances to bring about a paradigm shift from patriarchal power and competition to partnership and cooperation. To assert a "citizens without borders" mandate for global peace. An end to gratuitous mayhem for corporate profit and/or ego-driven hegemony. We need the vigilance of citizens of conscience.

Clearly, the culture of lying and violence will continue to thrive, if unchallenged, under this Obama administration.

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Submitted by lambert on

If somebody could put me to an I/P thread that did anything other than end badly, I'd be very grateful.

Submitted by Randall Kohn on

But I just can't seem to help myself. ;(

What make it worse, IMO (and maybe yours as well?) is that basically it isn't an I/P thread. The more important part of Mearsheimer's thesis was American misconduct, and he may well be a reliable source in that area (although I'll likely never think of him as one).

If I had it to redo, I'd phrase my objection more temperately, though.

On edit: OK, I WAS able to redo. Now I can sleep soundly, knowing I made the world a better place. ;)

Submitted by libbyliberal on

... before I do, the wink was the real, patronizing fecal frosting on the remade cake which was a tell for me, that power and control was your payoff, not a real assertion of the heart. You don't have to bother with intellectual or emotional integrity and respect. Gamesmanship all the way. SHOCK AND AWE! INSULT!!! TERMINATE!!!!! And then crony up having wreaked your lesson. Works every time.

I wish I had immediately said that for me you proved the points of what Mearsheimer was saying stunningly. And your initial "shock and awe"-inducing Pavlovian over-reaction, emotional, don't bother with historical points or civility to prove how wronged "you" as collective rep were, was certainly from the playbook. Hugh said it well in the sabotaging, or beginning of it (cronyism in the name of civility took over from there), aborting any courageous explorations by this community if they were possible. Corrente might as well be the UN ... where cronyism and psuedo civility prevails.

Well, it is not like it is a momentous issue, this third rail. Only what has bottlenecked world peace for decades. And the Goldstone Report ... never to be seriously heeded, either, I guess. Gaza and flotilla massacres never happened? Israel's borderline personality disorder has infected the US. Yes, I find it the manipulation of cronyism and so much more. But you sure have Congress and the Prez totally on your side.

My two cents. I wonder if I will be castigated or just ignored for being honest?

Yeah, you sleep soundly. How many people in this world can't because of the myth-making and fearmongering? Sleeping? How about living?

You certainly did well. Forgive me for not eating shit and smiling.

Submitted by Hugh on

Unfortunate that the feces flinging should start so quickly. It's such a great way to shut down any discussion. The AIPACkery aside, Mearsheimer is correct the Big Lie is an integral part of both class and political warfare, and so is littering the discourse with so many small ones that honest debate involving a wide audience becomes pretty much impossible.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

Some are awake now or will awaken to decide for themselves what is reality and what is toxic and anti-humane as best they can in this age of profound disinformation and cronyism and oligarchy and be myth-busters.

Some won't and whether active or passive will be myth-promoters. Short term convenience or plastic fuzzy reward of cronyism group-think, long term dooming society to a killer, spiritual and/or physical, status quo.