Political Lying

POLITICAL LYING….When is it OK for a president to tell a lie? A big lie?

Let’s take the canonical case in recent history: FDR and World War II. Did Roosevelt know that the Japanese were planning an attack on Pearl Harbor? This is still a matter of intense speculation, but let’s suppose he did. Was he right to let it happen anyway?

In hindsight, most of us would say yes. The dual threats of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were so great that he was justified in getting America into the war regardless of whether he gave honest reasons. History has proven that his judgment was wise, and if it took a lie to convince America to go to war, then that lie was warranted.

This brings us to the great divide between left and right regarding the Iraq war. It’s becoming clearer and clearer, as this Guardian article summarizes, that the Bush administration flatly lied about the reasons for going to war. There was no WMD in significant quantities, there was no link to al-Qaeda, and there was no threat to the United States.

So were those lies OK? The evidence of the polls is that no one really cares. If you trust George Bush’s judgment and believe that Gulf War II was the domino that will eventually bring peace and stability to the Middle East, then the lie was justified and it causes you no lost sleep.

In a broader sense, though, it’s just another sign that nobody on either side of the aisle even pretends to care about political lying anymore. Or worse: the current mood of the country is so partisan, and the country so evenly divided, that I think a lot of people feel that loud and public lying is the only way to get anything done. The other side won’t listen to reason, so there’s really no choice, is there?

It’s not just that we don’t care about political lying anymore, it’s that we actively approve of it. From our own guys, anyway.

This strikes me as a devil’s bargain that eventually does no one any good. Maybe once in a century a big lie turns out to be a last resort that history eventually endorses, but used routinely they provide no lasting victory. Policies built on lies can’t last, and those who use them may win their battles but will eventually lose their wars.

Or so I would like to believe. Am I just an incurable optimist?

UPDATE: Paul Krugman is puzzled too. Maybe war supporters are just trying to avoid cognitive dissonance over Iraq, he says.

Maybe. I think I’m closer to the truth.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation