Lying leaders: public backlash and backfiring

Selfish lies are told for self-benefit while strategic lies are told for the purpose of benefiting the country

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan June 09, 2024
The author is postdoctoral scholar at the International Affairs Department of Kazan Federal University (KFU) Russia


Lying is saying what is not true. People don’t expect leaders that they admire to tell lies. Yet history tells us that lying sometimes makes strategic sense and leaders all over the world have used it as a strategic tool to advance the interests of their countries. Prof John J Mearsheimer in 2011 wrote a book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. The author goes to great length to describe various forms of lies that leader tell and help readers to understand the reasons and compulsion that leaders all over the world feel to tell lies. My two big takeaways after reading the book are. Firstly, domestic lying — leaders telling lies to their own people is more common than international lying i.e. leaders indulging in interstate lying. Secondly, Third World countries or in the countries of developing world, leaders tell lies more for selfish than strategic reasons. Selfish lies are told for self-benefit while strategic lies are told for the purpose of benefiting the country. Lying is actually a form of deception. Two other forms of deception are concealment and spinning. America’s war against Iraq in 2003 was a classic example of explaining the difference between these forms of lies.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, in September 2002, said that there was bulletproof evidence of link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. That was when the US wanted to go to war with Iraq. But two years later, in 2004, the same Secretary of Defense was saying, “I think there is no strong and hard evidence that links the two.” It was in America’s interest to go to war with Iraq, and lies were told to American public for strategic reasons. In 2003, more than half of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 as the people were being deceived by a series of lies to convince them that it was in the interest of America to go to war with Iraq.

Concealment is not telling other parts of the same fact or story. Osama bin Ladin and Saddam Hussein hated each other and this was the information known to the Bush administration but it chose to conceal it from the American public because the concealment of this fact was essential to deprive people of forming any positive opinion about Saddam Hussein. Spinning is all about arranging facts. You arrange facts to present yourself or the issue you represent in a positive manner. Tell positive facts and downplay all the negative facts. Going to war with Iraq was projected as the most important event for the world’s peace and security and the public mood was built to accomplish this mission. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is a typical example of how concealing and spinning the facts is used today as a form of deception to lead both the domestic and global audience astray.

Professor Mearsheimer explains that there are five kinds of international lies that leaders tell: interstate; fear-mongering; strategic cover-up; national myth making; and liberal lies.

Interstate lies are lies spoken to foreign audience. Russia will use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war; India carried out air strikes in Pakistani territory to destroy terrorist camps; Hamas’s attack on Oct 7 resulted in the beheading of babies and rapes of women; and China is the greatest geopolitical threat of 21st Century are some of the lies spoken for the sake of global narrative building about an issue or an event.

Fear-mongering is about threat inflation by leaders who lie to their own public. PM Modi’s stance that Pakistan is a terrorist state and a great threat to India and hence there has been no peace dialogue between the two countries since he came to power in 2014. Russia under President Vladimir Putin is being projected as a state back to the business of empire building. These two are the examples of fear-mongering.

Strategic cover-up is lying about an issue or an event the disclosure of which may harm the national interests. Most strategic cover-ups are related to twisting and turning the war history and the reasons of losing the wars. National myth making is when leaders resort to telling lies about their nations and its past. All countries portray themselves as good and their foes as bad. National myth making is a strategic tool used to stitch the nation and the state together but at the cost of creating national history that may be a myth and untrue.

The last type of international lies is the liberal lies that the leaders are forced to tell when their states carry out violations of laws of war but they need to cover them up to portray themselves as not the tyrants but liberals. In World War-II when Britain bombed German cities, PM Churchill termed it the bombing against military and economic targets in the German cities but in fact Britain bombed civilian targets and that was a liberal lie told by Churchill. Many liberal lies were told by American leadership to cover up American violations of war in in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Lying leaders can never win over the trust of the people. When leaders lie about their domestic and foreign policies, they end up fostering a culture of dishonesty in society. In their wisdom the leaders feel that the people cannot deal with some issues if they are told the truth. This happens more in the Third World and developing countries where majority of people are not considered civilised, sophisticated and wise enough to deal with the outcomes of strategic issues. Two Bs always haunt leaders that tell lies both for selfish or strategic reasons — blowback and backfiring. Employing distortion of truth as a policy by the leaders and fear-mongering as a strategic tool to subvert the minds of the people is a dangerous thing to do. In civilised world the blowback and backfiring from people comes through elections. If free and fair elections are held, like they were recently held in India, they end up validating or invalidating strategic vision of a leader. People have invalidated in the Indian elections PM Modi’s strategic vision built on the foundation of ideological politics, populism, protectionism and nationalism. People in India have also invalidated Modi’s ‘end of secular India concept’ — that’s the blowback and backfiring from the people who no longer believe in the lies told by the leaders. There was a blowback and backfiring by people in elections in Pakistan as well which was deprived to them. One can only pray that people’s blowback and backfiring doesn’t take another form.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2024.

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