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The Trouble With Lying. . .

The White House seems to think that the government of Syria was behind today's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who, lately, had been turning against the massive Syrian influence in (and semi-occupation of) his country. It's certainly a plausible account. The White House also believes that Syria must be punished for its complicity. If Syria is, indeed, complicit, that's surely right. And as the White House moves toward trying to build support for some sort of retaliation against Syria, I can't help but think that I would be 100 percent behind the president in this were I not 100 percent sure that this administration is being run by people who would think nothing of trying to manipulate the country into a military conflict with a middle eastern nation based on flawed, overblown intelligence and misleading presentation of that evidence. There's actually a reason that most presidents have chosen not to make dishonesty their main tool of policy advocacy, and the reason isn't that most administrations have been run by intrinsically honest people.

In a completely unrelated development, Mark Schmitt is wondering where the liberal privatizers have gone off to. Certainly many hawks on the right have been wondering for some time now where all the liberal hawks have gone. Well, it's all mangled corpses for moderates of all stripes; we're hopping around on broken legs with various limps strewn about the various highways of the Iraq War, the Medicare bill, the "budgets," the NCLB implementation, and whatever other roads you care to examine. Gaining public support from members of the reality-based community for any sort of Bushian initiative is going to be very difficult. So chalk me down as wanting to hear it from someone I trust before I start gunning for Damascus.

February 15, 2005 | Permalink


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» U.S. Hints at Penalties for Syria from Outside The Beltway
U.S. Seems Sure of the Hand of Syria, Hinting at Penalties (NYT rss) The Bush administration, condemning the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in Lebanon, suggested Monday that Syria was to blame and moved to get a new condem... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 15, 2005 8:08:10 AM

» Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Liars? (Truth and Consequences Department) from Brad DeLong's Website
Matthew Yglesias writes: Matthew Yglesias: The Trouble With Lying. . . : The White House seems to think that the government of Syria was behind today's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.... [A]s the White House moves toward t... [Read More]

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Last Friday night, the Four-Year-Old interrupted our game of battleship because "I want to go to the couch to take a nap." A nap? Spontaneously? Being Friday night, I was more obliging than suspicious. But then the truth came out:... [Read More]

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Thanks for the post.

I take no delight in the fact that this administration is a mess, but is surely is. They've somehow turned the idea of metaphorical truth (the 'noble lie') into lying as a matter of course, but it's OK because they're the 'good guys' and we should just trust them. Rather than believe anything they say, we have to figure out what they 'really' mean. I hate the use the 'd'-word, but it really is like a dysfunctional marriage. The idea of going through the whole boring speculation about whether they were 'right' about Syria's complicity as a casus belli or not (we could concievably never find out for sure who did this bombing) is just so fucking nauseating. Another sideshow for us mere 'reality based'-types to get gummed up in. They make history; we speculate.

Where did the liberal hawks go? Not only don't they/we not trust the administration to lie only when they have to, but I for one don't trust them to be minimally competent at much of anything. Adjustable Materialists like Hitchens don't care about domestic policy. That is unbelieveably foolish (and molto condesending, on Hitch's part). For all their 'radicalism', these people in the WH think in very hoary old ways, in extinct boxes: they really are stuck in Cold War thinking in some important ways, for one; and the idea that there is some sort of Nixonian Wall between foreign policy and domestic is a fiction we can't afford anymore.

I would love to see freedom break out all over the middle east. These aren't the people to make that happen, unfortunately. I never thought I'd see the day when a supposedly 'conservative' government relied so baldly on good intentions. I guess history is speeding up or something.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Feb 15, 2005 1:58:46 AM

The statement today was just outrageously bellicose. I thought it woulf be Iran;now I am wondering just how much BS stress the area can take.

And Bill Kristol can be a tricky devil, but always bears watching. While we were thinking Iran, Kristol was talking Syria.

This administration has its amps turned up to 11, man. They've put a brick on the gas pedal. Ride the tiger, boys. SS is going to be a much tougher fight than you think.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 15, 2005 2:20:52 AM

This "Bush as uniquely mendacious" meme naturally has lots of legs after the WMD fiasco, but I wonder how true it actually is. Of the Presidents that have involved us in serious wars, Madison, Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ, Nixon, Bush I and Bush II, I'd say that Polk, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, LBJ and Nixon easily match up with Bush II in terms of lying and manipulation. Polk maneveured troops into disputed territory and then claimed we'd been attacked, McKinley used "Remember the Maine" as propaganda even as he himself probably knew Spanish involvment was fictitious, Wilson campaigned on a peace platform in 1916, though there's room to claim he was more naive than mendacious. FDR is of course the supreme example, claiming in 1940 he would keep our boys out of foreign wars even as he had already edged us almost all the way in. The careers of LBJ and Nixon need not be rehearsed here. Indeed, the difference between Bush and most past war presidents is not his allegedly unprecedented untruthfulness but his relative incompentence except when compared to LBJ and maybe Nixon. The lies of the others didn't matter because they won decisvely (though arguably Wilson "ambiguities" came back to bite him in the end). You could even argue that Bush's "lies" were less mendacious than average because he believed most of them himself, whereas FDR saw the large gap between his words and intentions the whole time. In short "Bush the screw up" is far more persuasive than "Bush the liar."

Posted by: rd | Feb 15, 2005 2:34:54 AM

A car-bomb doesn't strike me as being particularly Syrian, these days. (One would expect them to be subtler.) And while the target might have been someone whom Syria didn't like, the Lebanon is absolutely crawling with people whom Syria doesn't like -- why assume that because one of them gets killed, Syria must be responsible?

Given the chaos that the Middle East is in these days (for which the U.S. government bears much of the blame) a small grouping might easily have got hold of the fixings for a car-bomb. There's no need to assume that any government was behind it -- governments aren't behind the bombings elsewhere in the Middle East, these days.

So I object to your preliminary assessment -- in effect, you are making things easier for the U.S. government to spin this into a pretext for war. (Not that I really think this would happen, but a lot of the warmongers in Washington seem to enjoy fantasizing about it, and unfortunately, the more they rant, the more right-wing Americans become all knee-jerky about the idea that SYRIA MUST BE STOPPED NOW!!!)

Posted by: MFB | Feb 15, 2005 3:10:52 AM

You're basically right, rd. There's some stuff I'd quibble with, but you are broadly right. There is a difference, though. This Administration lies even when it doesn't have to - as a matter of course, as a basic tactic. That is different -even from LBJ. If presidential lying is no longer anomalous, then the whole context is different. I don't see how it can possibly be worth it.

But you are right - the proof is and has always been in the pudding. Bush, in true cold-war mystical fashion, conviniently asserts that 'we'll all be dead' before we know if he's 'right' or not. I don't buy it. If you're going to be radical, you'd better be competent about it. He clearly isn't. This is a con.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Feb 15, 2005 3:15:11 AM

I'd like to think it will be "different this time" - that folks will finally "get it" - but this is the American people we're talking about here. Being a child of watergate, I've never known a time in my life in which the body politik didn't mindlessly accept or warmly embrace virtually every lunatic reactionary idea or policy that came down the pike. The war on drugs? Good idea! The war on crime? Lock em up - let God sort em out. Progressive taxation? The safety net? Fuck that shit! We're *all* gonna be billionaires someday, right? Universal health care? Not if it means that bitch Hillary wins. Support for fascist insurgencies and dictators in Latin America? Latin what? Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, Gulf II? Fuck yeah! We're 'Merica.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Feb 15, 2005 3:28:32 AM

"So chalk me down as wanting to hear it from someone I trust before I start gunning for Damascus."

I wouldn't wait by the phone. They will not be calling us for input.

While the Administration does have a credibility problem within the ranks of global leaders and diplomatic missions, it is still operating from a position of sufficient power to exercise a number of limited options pursuant to the Administration doctrine of GWOT (Global War on Terror) as endorsed by the Congress. Limited response campaigns, justified or not, fall well within the purview of GWOT operations not requiring further Congressional support or oversight.

I wouldn't expect that there is any consideration whatsoever of "needing" the support of the American public for a limited response or unwarranted action on Syria, should the Administration elect to do so. No Administration is going to seek citizen input for any military action other than full invasions, or massive bombing campaigns that might lead to eliminating current ruling regimes.


"Gaining public support from members of the reality-based community for any sort of Bushian initiative is going to be very difficult."

The ability or genuine desire of the Administration to reach outside of its political base in seeking support of ongoing domestic initiatives is, at best, a futile exercise that principally will be avoided by the leadership of the Administration and the Congress. It's a vision problem.

What we're observing, of course, is an Administration making financial decisions and proposing legislation based on one-sided philosophical reasoning. Budgetary analysis based on mathematics and overall population needs are far down the list of considerations. We're just watching a domestic household exercise in "her things and his junk". And "his junk" is headed out the door.

The notion that the leadership of the Administration and the Congress feel any Constitutional obligation to consider and support the needs of all citizens of the United States of America is nonexistent. Their philosophy does not allow for a wide range of vision or consideration. Moreover, their financial donor base would not sustain their political existence if the philosophy was expanded.

The Administration's lack of respect for the values of the reality-based community of citizens makes Mark Schmitt's question appear to be one which will fall on deaf ears, on both sides of the political spectrum. We're talking about people who weren't formally invited to the party and who wouldn't attend if invited.

Posted by: Movie Guy | Feb 15, 2005 3:42:19 AM

Personally, I don't think a significant incursion into Syria is in the cards this year, but I can certainly see why Bush might want to make the Syrians nervous enough to worry about it. Geostrategically, of course, Syria's current management has got to go. But it'll be much easier to manage that a year or two down the road - assuming no internal implosion before then renders the point moot.

As for considering the "values" of the "reality-based community" in making WoT policy, the track record of said community makes a pretty good case for doing exactly the opposite. The only consistent "value" on display is that everything is always our fault and we should, therefore, you know, lose.

As you have loudly and repeatedly announced that you don't believe anything the Bush administration says about its intended ends in the Middle East, and have said in advance that there's also nothing you will believe that might validate making Syria the next stop in the WoT World Tour, why should the administration pay any attention to what you guys want at all? It's not like you won the election or anything. At best, you've taken yourselves out of the game. At worst, you're cheerleading for the other side.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Feb 15, 2005 5:13:48 AM

I know it is much more interesting to discuss the Bush Administration's use of this incident to "get" Syria, which obviously had nothing to do with it, and my saying so is not news or anything. There are several posts on the arabist.net site that go into some detail about Rafik hariri's background and Syria's reaction and stuff like that. But it is apparent to me that most of you would rather discuss Bush's machiavellianism with some elements of what can only be described as reluctant admiration, as if it is not exactly cool that they manipulatively plan to strike yet another country for no reason at all by lying to their citizens, but they do it so WELL!

I never knew that Americans discussing politics could get this cynical. You guys have become like egyptians. I.E., the only thing to discuss is how the govt. will lie about this in order to have a rhetorical flourish to back the insane illegal action they were going to undertake anyhow. And we all know they are lying, but we keep watching them in fascinated interest.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo | Feb 15, 2005 5:44:46 AM

So, basicly what you're saying is, you don't want a Republican administration doing even what YOU think is the right thing, we have to wait until Democrats are in control again before we can have a foreign policy?

And, Matt, you're slinging this word, "lie", around too freely. Essentially EVERYBODY thought Saddam had WMD programs. Hell, apparently Saddam thought he did. Just how big was this Republican conspiracy of lies, anyway? Big enough to include Clinton, I guess, since HE thought Saddam had WMDs. The only reason we know otherwise is that we DID invade, for a heck of a lot of reasons besides the WMD, though I know Democrats don't want to admit that. (Pretending that the other reasons only appeared afterwards is a crock. They were right there in the Congressional authorization for the war.)

Rd, funny how the only President to get caught lying under oath, (If you leave aside the oath of office, of course.) got left out of that list of lying Presidents...

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 15, 2005 5:47:26 AM

OK, Anna. How can you say it's obvious that Syria had nothing to do with it? Your saying so is news. It's possible Syria wasn't behind the bombing, but that's hardly clear today. There are a lot better analysts of Lebanese politics out there than the guys at the Arabist and Juan Cole.

Posted by: Jeff in Cairo | Feb 15, 2005 6:25:38 AM

You guys have become like egyptians

And Anna drops her precision-guided expression smack onto the target! 10 points!

The reason for the similarity, Anna, is because, like your Egyptians, they are powerless to affect the direction of events. Unlike your Egyptians, however - who have the legitimate excuse of being entirely excluded from political influence by authoritarian rule - the American left chooses impotence and irrelevance.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Feb 15, 2005 6:30:31 AM

A large proportion of the commenters on this thread are fools. So now, instead of a ship of fools, we have dozens of little fool-lifeboats, spreading the illustrious myth of America as God, God himself, striding across the planet, God who can do no wrong, and anyone who isn't with him is against him and irrelevant.

Goddamn fools.

Posted by: fear is the mind killer | Feb 15, 2005 6:57:00 AM

OK Jeff: I think the guys at the Arabist, and Juan Cole, who spend their lives studying the Middle East, know a bit more about Rafik Al Hariri than the Bush Administration. Now I will be the first to admit that it is a low bar. But who decided to discuss their view as opposed to anyone else's? It was not me. And Dick, yeah, I agree, I also wish the Left would get up and fight and live in hope that this will eventually happen.

I am not an expert on Syria but the level of conspiracy theory you would have to have in order to really think they would have pulled this off is kind of overwhelming. Rafik Al Hariri has traditionally gotten on quite well with them while he was the PM. There is nothing evident to show that he really has angered them that much in the little tiny tiff regarding the amending of the Constitution. And keep in mind right now that Syria is behaving very circumspectly because the US has been really bellicose towards it and it knows that an attack on it by the US would be a war it could never win. The question I have is why do American political thinkers seem to think it is so logical that a Middle Eastern state would do something so clearly against its self-interest? And the same political thinkers who think that the leader of ANOTHER Middle Eastern state is way cleverer and more Machiavellian than the US is? Does no one ever see the cognitive dissonance in these two assumptions? Jeff, the burden of proof is on the people who would run to the Bush Administration spin and treat it as a real solid statement with a basis in fact. Why on earth would Syria decide to go blow up downtown beirut and kill 9 people not to mention that one of them is Rafik Al H.? What do they gain? They already won the constitution fight.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo | Feb 15, 2005 6:57:23 AM

The White House had been pushing the line that the Iraq war brought greater stability to the Middle East, with democracy breaking out all over, etc. But this bombing seems to kick that argument in the pants.

Posted by: Bob H | Feb 15, 2005 6:59:02 AM

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: democracy simply doesn't work.

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 15, 2005 7:47:33 AM

And, Matt, you're slinging this word, "lie", around too freely. Essentially EVERYBODY thought Saddam had WMD programs.

Actually, once the inspcetors came into Iraq, it was becoming gradually obvious that Bush's claims were incorrect, and particularly every additional claim pushed by the administration was contradicted by the evidence. At that point, the administration went into lie mode. A group of people can agree, before the curtains are opened, that it is night time, but once you part the curtain, and the sun shines in, those who insist that it's still night are going to be the ones exposed as liars.

What else to call Bush when he claimed in the spring of '03 that Saddam was going to attack america with remote control planes loaded with WMDs and that non-existent IAEA reports predicted that Saddam was going to have a nuclear bomb in 6 months? You didn't relaly believe that crap, did you?

Posted by: Constantine | Feb 15, 2005 8:08:25 AM

I too have been looking for signs as to where the Necons are going next. I listen and read the news, listen to what they are saying and try to detect where they are going. North Korea announces that they have nukes and so we invade Syria would seem their MO, but one can never be sure. I had thought the initial ranting about Iraq was just a campaign for the 2002 mid-term election, but they kept it up after the election until to my horror, I realize they actually intended to invade.

They have their agenda and only four years to exercise it. The clock is ticking. Their going to get us into such a mess, it will take generations to get back to where we are now. Sort of like the previous century began with a little trouble in the Balkans and ended the same way. Did anything significant happen in between? Were people affected?

And what could we do if we could divine their next conquest? Say I told you so – some consolation.

Posted by: scou29c | Feb 15, 2005 8:25:46 AM

Anna, there are other thinkers tackling this problem besides the guys at the Arabist, Juan Cole and the Bush administration. I'll grant you that the White House is going to blame Syria for this, right or not. A State Department official said as much yesterday.

You say Hariri got on well with Syria until the "tiny tiff" regarding the constitution and that they won the constitution battle. Well, that "tiny tiff" caused Hariri and his cabinent to resign. And in recent weeks he's been throwing his weight behind those calling for a Syrian pullout from Lebanon at a time when international pressure for a withdrawl is at its highest.

Lebanon is a complicated place, and Cole has been consistently wrong regarding its politics.

Posted by: Jeff in Cairo | Feb 15, 2005 8:46:22 AM

"The Bush administration" has people who know Lebanese politics as well as almost anyone in the world. Sadly, I doubt they have much influence at all in shaping GWB's Lebanon/Syria policy. 'Twas not always thus.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 15, 2005 8:54:19 AM

Dick Eagleson is so delusional as to not be worth responding to.
Bellmore, the track record of Bush is of utter failure, so yes, I would not trust Bush to implement a policy I agreed with if said policy had substantial risk if it was not executed with competence -- that should not be a controversial position. Bill Bellichek calls a balanced offense with Tom Brady at QB, but if I were the QB I imagine he might call a lot of run plays.

Posted by: theCoach | Feb 15, 2005 9:02:52 AM

Gary Brecher, the war nerd over at exile.ru suggest the following test:

...So Khameini's right; we can't attack Iran. But that doesn't mean we won't. Khameini was making the same mistake everybody's been making: assuming Bush and his cronies have a lick of sense.

The best way of guessing what Bush will do is asking, what's the worst thing he could do to America? Whatever it is, that's what he'll do. I think he's been possessed by bin Laden, because everything he's done has been exactly what Al Quaeda hoped for. Right now, bin Laden is praying to Allah that we'll be stupid enough to attack Iran. That would be the cherry on his halal sundae, the one thing that could actually finish us off as a Superpower.

Yes, whatever the worst thing they could do to America - that's what they'll do. Is it Iran or Syria? Well, as John Isbell said, they have experts; the experts will tell them which one is more harmful to America. Attacking Iran would appear to be a crazier course of action, so it's probably Iran.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 15, 2005 9:16:03 AM


I tend to respect the guys at the Arabist on Shammi politics although they seem to know more first hand about Egypt. I am aware that Cole is primarily interested in Shia politics and specifically good on Iraq and the ARabist was more my primary source than him. But if you know a place that's a better source than the Arabist, point me to some good sources why don't you. I am up to learn more. I'm not a Lebanon specialist myself. As you know, Lebanese politics is even more byzantine than other Middle East politics and takes a lot of time and effort to learn about, and most Web-based sources are partisans in the Lebanon scene so not really good objective sources of info.

All I was commenting on was the fact that the Bush Admin is not the *first* place to go for facts re: the Middle East. They were the people Matt was using to do his own speculating, and although he rightly said they have been caught lying before, my point remains, why go to them? They lie. Yes, within the Civil and Foreign Service there sadly ARE people who know about the Middle East, but the Bush Admin has not been listening to them so far and i see no indication that they are going to start now.

And I still think, although I could be proven wrong, which has certianly happened before, that Hariri really was not by himself THAT much of a threat to Syria that they would really risk everything on such a dramatic way of removing him from the game. They obviously could have done much less overt things to silence him. (Like, for example, a bit of quiet blackmail regarding some of his shady business interests.) I repeat that I don't see why it would be in their interest to blow him away. Really. The Syrians have not recently been into doing such insane suicidal things, particularly since they are totally aware that the Bush Admin is loudly gunning for them. Bashar is a pretty smooth operator from the admittedly little that I can see.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo | Feb 15, 2005 9:17:12 AM

As you have loudly and repeatedly announced that you don't believe anything the Bush administration says about its intended ends in the Middle East, and have said in advance that there's also nothing you will believe that might validate making Syria the next stop in the WoT World Tour, why should the administration pay any attention to what you guys want at all?

Because guys like Matt and Josh Marshall (and Tom Friedman) were vital in convincing fence-sitters that they had to be "serious" about the problem of Saddam. I'm guessing they'll play a less pivotal role in garnering support for a Syrian conquest. Bush will have to tell the truth for a little while before the Hawkish Left will feel safe backing more unilateral aggression.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Feb 15, 2005 9:22:26 AM

Dick E. says: "the American left chooses impotence and irrelevance." Interesting choice of words Dick.

Posted by: fnook | Feb 15, 2005 9:22:31 AM

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