Can we believe the government? For some people, there is no pretense of objectivity about the question. Republicans have no problem doubting the word of a Democrat president, and Democrats are skeptical about Republican chief executives. But that’s politics.
For others, it’s a blasphemous question no matter who’s in office. Some would divide the question. They can accept that the government would lie over a domestic issue, such as fudging budget numbers or promising not to raise taxes when a tax increase is on the hidden agenda. But some of those same people would balk at the suggestion that government officials would utter untruths in matters of war and peace. To even suggest it is somehow beyond the pale. It defines the questioner outside of polite society. Be gone, ye doubter!
One reason for this reaction is the almost mystical regard in which so many folks hold “the Nation.” When people say they love their country, they don’t simply mean they love the land in which they were born, its founding ideals (in the case of the United States), and its traditions. They go far beyond that. They mean something more like worship than love.
The nation — and its embodiment in the state — are things that command reverence, awe, allegiance, and obedience. Why do people recite the pledge of allegiance so fervently? Why do people fly flags on their cars? Why is singing the national anthem like singing a hymn? This is more than an expression of love of home, devotion to founding principles, and respect for fellow human beings with a common heritage. It is nation-worship and state-worship.
This phenomenon is magnified when war is pending. One might suppose that the reason is that a war could mean that the entire society is at risk. But that can’t be the explanation, because we see the same assertion of mystical nationalism when there is no threat to the homeland. Grenada and Panama were in no position to harm the American people. Yet many bosoms swelled with pride at the swift military operations in those countries.
In the Iraqi conflict someone occasionally struck a tone of realism by saying that, if it’s a choice between believing President Bush and Saddam Hussein, he’d take Bush.
I think this was simply disguised nationalism and not realism at all. For one thing, both might have been lying in different respects. Hussein might have had some weapons-related equipment he denied having.
But it could also be true that President Bush is not telling the truth about some important matters. He has already been caught fibbing. He often said that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) once reported that Iraq was six months away from having a nuclear bomb.
No matter how many times the IAEA says it never issued such a report, Bush and his people kept repeating the falsehood.
They also kept talking about Iraq’s aluminum tubes — again, even though experts said they were not part of a nuclear-weapons program. Then there is the report, provided by an allied government, that Hussein tried to buy uranium from Niger. It turns out the report was a fabrication. The administration pleaded ignorance, but the CIA admitted it had reason to believe the report was phony. An intelligence official told the Washington Post that when the State Department included the claim in a fact sheet, “[intelligence] people winced and thought, ‘Why are you repeating this trash?’” Yet President Bush used it in his state of the Union address. Facts didn’t matter. Stirring up war fever was all that counted.
It’s not as though American officials have never lied in matters of war and peace before this. Most relevant are the lies that were told in the buildup to the first war against Iraq, to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. President Bush’s father made much of the horrible stories of Iraqis’ seizing incubators from babies in Kuwaiti hospitals and shipping them to Baghdad.
Yet they knew that the source of the story had no credibility, and to this day there is no evidence for the alleged atrocity. Nevertheless, such reports helped galvanize public support for the war in 1991.
The first Bush administration also helped build support for war by announcing that classified satellite photos showed Iraqi troops massing on the Kuwait-Saudi border. To this day those photos have not been declassified, so we cannot directly verify the government’s claim.
But at the time of the startling announcement, the enterprising St. Petersburg Times in Florida obtained commercial satellite photos of the same area, which it had former government intelligence experts analyze: no Iraqi troops were near the border. Could government photos have shown Iraqi troops while commercial photos showed none?
I have yet to see the government’s explanation of this. What’s the most likely explanation? It is doubtful that the government misinterpreted the photos. That leaves only one other possibility: the government lied.
Vietnam War lies
Of course, George H.W. Bush was far from the first president to lie in matters of war and peace (or mundane domestic matters either). Vietnam became a full-scale U.S. war after Lyndon Johnson told Americans that North Vietnamese vessels had attacked American destroyers in international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964. As explained by Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, in his book Secrets, President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (for whom Ellsberg worked) told the American people of the attacks using words such as “deliberate,” “naked aggression,” and “unprovoked.” They described the evidence as “unequivocal.”
“I knew that each one of these assurances was false,” Ellsberg writes.
How did he know? He knew because after two hours of contemporaneous reports of the continuing attack, Capt, John J. Herrick all of a sudden stopped the reports and sent a flash cable stating, “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by [USS] Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.”
Herrick essentially repeated the message 30 minutes later. He insisted, however, that an initial “ambush” that day was for real. “But,” Ellsberg asks, “how could he be ‘certain’ of that, or why should anyone else be, when he had seemed equally confident, an hour earlier, of all the succeeding reports up till now?”
Nevertheless, the Johnson administration prepared to retaliate. As the warplanes launched from the Ticonderoga, Johnson went on television at 11:37 that night to tell the nation of the “attack” and the American response — although the captain in charge of the flotilla had grave doubts that there was anything to respond to. On August 7 Congress passed the infamous blank check known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
In the next several years it became indisputable that no attack had occurred on August 4. (For the record, according to Ellsberg, two days earlier the North Vietnamese used three PT boats in an unsuccessful attempt to torpedo the Maddox. U.S. ships and planes repelled the attack and damaged the boats. “Since there had been no American casualties or significant damage, President Johnson had decided to take no further action, except to add another destroyer … to the mission.”)
What followed from this deception, as we all know, was a long war in Southeast Asia that killed 58,000 young American men and more than 2 million Vietnamese. Big consequences flow from presidential lies.
Those who still find it hard to believe that presidents would lie about war need only to recall that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt assiduously pursued entry into the world wars while they ran for reelection on peace platforms. For many years, Roosevelt’s idolaters denied that he lied. When the denial became untenable, they switched gears and said he had lied nobly because the American people were too shortsighted to see that the United States had to get into the war.
That rationalization is the key to understanding why presidents routinely lie about war. For all the hosannas to democracy and the sacred “will of the people,” too often it runs against what presidents want to accomplish in foreign affairs.
Many people will want no part of war unless they feel directly threatened. They have better things to do than go looking for elective military engagements. That leaves a president with a choice: abandon his warmaking plans and honor the people’s opposition, or stick with the plans and deceive the people into supporting them. We know which course has often been followed.
The issue here is not whether any particular war is appropriate for the American people. The issue, rather, is whether presidents should lie their way into war. If someone has come up with a good defense of it, I haven’t yet heard it.