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Lies and the Lying Liars...

Zbigniew Brzezinsky has this anecdote he likes to tell, one that John Kerry even picked up at one point on the campaign trail, the point of it is that when John F. Kennedy was president and he said something to foreign leaders, they believed him. Via Laura Rozen, Dafna Linzer reports that "In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. . . But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction."

I believe I've made this observation before, but it's important to note that this business isn't just bad in a generic lying is wrong sense. It's an extraordinarily grave threat to our national security. The President of the United States and his subordinates have access to a lot of intelligence data. Based on that intelligence data it is, from time to time, necessary to undertake new policy initiatives. Undertaking these necessary initiatives successfully typically requires support by members of congress, the American public, foreign leaders, and, to some extent, even foreign public opinion. But all Presidents will, quite rightly, argue that aspects of the intelligence they see cannot be shown in raw form to outsiders. Effective foreign policymaking requires, in other words, that people trust the President when he says that something is happening. At this point, however, no rational person would take "The Bush administration claims that x" as grounds for believing that x is, in fact, the case. Nevertheless, just because the administration is full of liars doesn't mean everything they ever say will be a lie. What if the time comes when they speak the truth and it's important that something be done? Well, they won't be believed, and they won't be able to prove that they're speaking the truth. The elements of secrecy and trust are irreducible, and something terrible could happen because that trust has been destroyed.

The use of the lie as the main tool of policymaking may be morally wrong on the domestic front, but it's pragmatically disastrous on the national security front. Fortunately, Karen Hughes will be heading up public diplomacy now, so there's no need to worry that the administration will get the two confused. Um...

March 20, 2005 | Permalink


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"What if the time comes when they speak the truth and it's important that something be done?"

The correct title for this post was "Wolf!!"

Posted by: Allen K. | Mar 20, 2005 12:07:12 PM

Do you really think Bush/Cheney want international relationships built on trust and friendship? Any? At all? Putin was taught a lesson in the Ukraine. I think they have delberately betrayed trust whenever possible and useful.

Force,bribes,fear....you are on your own,baby. Maybe we will default on bonds, maybe not. Maybe we will attack Iran, maybe not. Do what you gotta do.

You don't destroy international institutions on paper. You do it by creating a Hobbesian environment, and constant Prisoners's dilemmas.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 20, 2005 12:23:28 PM

Bob McManus--

That strategy looked clever when the Neo-Cons were promising we could wipe the mat with Iraq and then turn to steam-rolling Iran, N. Korea, and the rest of the baddies with our overwhelming military might.

Now that Iraq has had exactly the *opposite* effect, i.e. shown the limitations of US military power, and now that N Korea has at least a plausible threat of nukes, you'd think the Rove/Bush/DeLay gang would be slightly less enthusiastic about Hobbesian environments.

It's not that I'm saying the approach you attribute to them is *immoral* (I think it is, but some think that's irrelevant in foreign policy). No, I'm saying it is simply *infeasible*. Just won't work anymore. We have been eyeball to eyeball w/ NKorea for some time, and we've been doing an embarrassing amount of blinking. So much that China now knows we'll blink over Taiwan, too, and is calling our bluff publicly.

A little bit of moral stature and credibility would have come in handy about now. Too bad we sold ours so cheap....

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 20, 2005 12:41:04 PM

At this point, however, no rational person would take "The Bush administration claims that x" as grounds for believing that x is, in fact, the case.

Helluva lot of voters, though.

But then, a lot of people in this country think Velveeta is cheese.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Mar 20, 2005 12:48:25 PM

I think the knives are coming out for Bolton.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 20, 2005 1:53:00 PM

What they say doesn't matter. Their strategy is to appear irrational, simple as that.

Being armed to the teeth and mad as a hatter - that's how you convince people, not by 'speaking the truth' nonsense...

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 20, 2005 2:53:53 PM

Shorter MY:

Bush is the little boy who cried wolf.

That is all.

Posted by: Glaivester | Mar 20, 2005 2:58:46 PM

The Boy Who Cried "Wolfowitz"

Posted by: Jim Tobias | Mar 20, 2005 4:23:50 PM

velveeta isn't cheese?

Posted by: itsnot? | Mar 20, 2005 5:02:13 PM

The small problem is that no one will trust what Bush says. The large problem is that no one will trust what Bush's successor says.

This administration is engaged in persuading the world that the US can't be trusted. The US will act alone. The US will pull out of international agreements. The US will support the states it likes and destabilize the ones it doesn't.

So what happens in 2009 with a different administration? Regardless of who it is, why would the rest of the world want to work with them? The Bush administration gets to force its successors to follow its policies, because their other options have been destroyed. Not a pretty picture, but to me an all too plausible one.

Posted by: Jade | Mar 20, 2005 5:18:36 PM


Who are you talking about? Bush? Kim Jong-Il? Sharon? So many mad hatters armed to the teeth...

Posted by: Rachel | Mar 20, 2005 7:28:37 PM

Somewhat shy of the point, but is the Zbig anecdote the one in which a Kennedy emissary appears before de Gaulle with a sheaf of U-2 spy plane photos of Cuban missile installations and de Gaulle sits back and thinks to himself I guess I have two responses:

1. HTF am I supposed to know whether these photos have been doctored by a CIA that Kennedy himself can't vouch for, or

2. No need to show them to me. If the President says there are missiles in Cuba, that's good enough for me.

Now, which response should I give. Being President of France is hard, hard, hard ...

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Mar 20, 2005 11:19:27 PM

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