Understanding lying

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

The book tries to provide an explanation for lying in politics.

Y.D. GUNDEVIA, ICS and Foreign Secretary during a crucial phase, had a favourite story. Shmule meets Moshe on the road and asks him: Where do you go? Moshe replies, To Minsk. Shmule angrily retorts, When you say, I go to Minsk, you want me to believe that you go to Pinsk; but I know that you go to Minsk. So, why do you lie? He read of this Jewish story from old Russia in John H. Hertzs book The Nation States and the Crises of World Politics (p.135). Gundevia, who was Foreign Secretary during the Swaran Singh-Z.A. Bhutto talks (1962-63), remarked: Bhutto said he was going to Minsk. He may have meant us to believe that he was going to Pinsk; but we knew that he was going to Minsk. So, why did he lie? (Gundevia; Outside the Archives; Sangam Books, 1984; p.286).

Well before the publication of his memoirs, Gundevia narrated the episode and the joke to the author at his beautiful bungalow in Poona (now Pune), adding that when dealing with that slippery customer, one had to read whatever he said backwards. The trait destroyed Bhutto.

There are a good few studies on the lie in politics, domestic and international. Three deserve particular mention. One is Peter Obornes The Rise of Political Lying (The Free Press, 2005). It is about the exponential rise of political falsehood during the John Major and, more so, Tony Blair governments. Eric Altermans When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences (New York, Viking, 2004) is well documented, so is David Wises The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy and Power (Random House, 1973).

Prof. John J. Mearsheimer is a card-carrying realist and a worthy successor at the University of Chicago to that schools iconic figure, Hans J. Morgenthau. As well as his learning, what distinguish him are his intellectual integrity and his fearlessness. He co-authored the bestseller The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy with Stephen Walt.

Can you imagine any Indian or Pakistani scholar embarking on such an enterprise on his countrys lies? Most of them are tabalchis and drummer boys of the establishment even when they write of events half a century ago without the slightest reckoning with the mass of material that has appeared since to belie the nationalist narrative of the times, which they still retail. Very many historians, including ones who themselves publicise their wares, are court historians. Pakistan celebrates September 6 as Defence Day because India marched towards Lahore that day; as it had always said it would in retaliation. Pakistans guerillas had entered Kashmir on August 5 and its armour on September 1. India claims that Pakistan attacked it on December 3, 1971. Actually it was India which attacked it on November 21, 1971.

On his orders to arrest Sheikh Abdullah and to dismiss him as the Premier of Kashmir, on August 8, 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru lied to the President, and to Parliament and the nation. Even his daughter Indira Gandhi was not spared from being treated to the lie.

Launching of the conspiracy case against the Sheikh was on his orders. On his falsehoods on the boundary dispute with China, more some day. Pakistan won notoriety for its triple lies on support to the Afghan mujahideen, to Kashmiri infiltrators, and on its nuclear programme. India sent the Army into Hyderabad and called it police action. It held a plebiscite or referendum in Goa and called it Opinion Poll, an exercise never conducted by the state.

This book deserves to be read widely in India. It is not one of those academic works written in heavy prose with overpowering footnotes. It is lucidly written, excellently sourced and refreshingly original in its analysis. The main thrust of the work is to provide an explanation for lying.

Specifically, I find that leaders do not lie very often to other countries, but instead seem more inclined to lie to their own people. Let me explain. Although lying is widely viewed as reprehensible behaviour in ordinary life, it is acceptable conduct in international politics because there are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to other countries and even to their own people. Furthermore, leaders appear to be more likely to lie to their own people about foreign policy issues than to other countries. That certainly seems to be true for democracies that pursue ambitious foreign policies and are inclined to initiate wars of choice, i.e., when there is not a clear and imminent danger to a countrys vital interests that can only be dealt with by force. Of course, that description fits the United States over the past seventy years and, not surprisingly, American Presidents have told their fellow citizens a number of important lies about foreign policy matters over those seven decades. Thus, it is hardly surprising that key figures in the Bush administration including the President himself lied to the American people in the run-up to the Iraq War. It seems clear that leaders and their publics believe that lying is an integral part of international relations.

Domestically, states have a hierarchy of institutions to provide redress. The world order is ruled by anarchy. A leader has no higher duty than to ensure the survival of his country. I look at international lying from a strictly utilitarian perspective, mainly because there are compelling reasons that justify it and, not surprisingly, we find a considerable amount of it in the historical record. Many people seem to believe that there are circumstances in world politics where it pays to lie. This is not to deny, however, the importance of examining the moral dimensions of this phenomenon. Nevertheless, that task involves a different set of calculations and considerations, which lie beyond the scope of this book.

Broadly speaking, leaders tell international lies for two different reasons. They can tell lies in the service of the national interest. These are strategic lies that leaders tell for the purpose of helping their country survive in the rough and tumble of inter-state relations. Leaders can also tell selfish lies, which have little to do with raison detat, but instead aim to protect their own personal interests or those of their friends.

Mearsheimer holds that the most dangerous kinds of international lies are those that leaders tell their known citizens. They almost invariably backfire. The motives are to escape accountability and to mobilise public opinion for partisan politics. They debase politics. Though the author does not claim to develop his theories by systematically examining them in light of the historical record, he is careful to cite sources throughout. The lies about the Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964), and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq receive particular attention. Leaders who plan to attack without cause need to manufacture them by lying.

Since New Delhi is busy wooing Tel Aviv and our strategic community, such as it is, enthusiastically supports it, Israels record in mendacity deserves special mention. Yitzhak Shamir said: For the sake of the land of Israel its all right to lie. When will the Indian elite admit for the sake of Kashmir it is all right to lie?

He points out:

There was no way that the Zionists could create a Jewish state in Palestine without doing large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Arab population that had been living there for centuries. This point was widely recognised by the Zionist leadership well before Israel was created. The opportunity to expel the Palestinians came in early 1948 when fighting broke out between the Palestinians and the Zionists in the wake of the U.N. decision to partition Palestine into two states. The Zionists cleansed roughly 700,000 Palestinians from the land that became Israel, and adamantly refused to let them return to their homes once the fighting stopped.Israel and its American friends went to great length after the events of 1948 to blame the expulsion of the Palestinians on the victims themselves. According to the myth that was invented, the Palestinians were not cleansed by the Zionists; instead they were said to have fled their homes because the surrounding Arab countries told them to move out so that their armies could move in and drive the Jews into the sea.

Israels efforts to control all of what was once called Mandatory Palestine and deny the Palestinians a state of their own has been a central part of the Zionist agenda since its inception in the late 1880s. Israels actions since its founding in 1948 have been largely consistent with that original Zionist vision, and have not been driven in any meaningful way by the various nationalist myths that Israelis have invented. The main purpose of those false stories has been to whitewash Israels brutal behaviour toward the Palestinians so that Israelis and their allies abroad think that Israel is always right and the Palestinians always wrong.


Particularly dangerous is the lie used for fear-mongering, a sport in which Indira Gandhi excelled. Her shrieks about war clouds sought to mobilise public support, silence the opposition and prepare the ground, if need be, for an attack. In 1981, Atal Bihari Vajpayee warned that she might attack Pakistan. So did Morarji Desai.

Few dissent when patriotic fervour is built up. Leslie Gelb, the former President of the Council on Foreign Relations, candidly acknowledged that this kind of fear caused him to support the 2003 Iraq war. My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.

In 2001-02, Operation Parakrama silenced critics who where afraid of being branded unpatriotic.

But as Mearsheimer remarks:

Leaders who engage in fear-mongering betray a certain contempt for their people and for democracy more generally. After all, they are lying because they do not think that their fellow citizens can be trusted to understand and support the right foreign policy, even if they are given a straightforward assessment of the threat environment. Trying to present the facts of the situation even more clearly and more forcefully will not work either. Therefore, to ensure that the country adopts the correct foreign policy, it is necessary to inflate the threat by deploying lies about the adversary and engaging in other forms of deception.

The problem with this kind of behaviour is that the leaderships low regard for the public is likely to spill over into the domestic realm. Once a countrys leaders conclude that its citizens do not understand important foreign policy issues and thus need to be manipulated, it is not much of a leap to apply the same sort of thinking to national issues. In essence, fear-mongering makes it difficult to build a firewall between domestic and foreign policy, because the relationship between leaders and their people is basically the same in both domains. This is not to deny that the imperative to deceive is likely to be greater when foreign policy issues are on the table, because of the obvious link with the countrys security.

There is a direct connection between 1975 and what preceded it. Indira Gandhis lies and those of Sanjay Gandhi were exposed by the Tripathi Commission of Inquiry. Their allegations about the worst human tragedy since independence in Narainpur in Deoria were found to be false in 1981. But she had sacked the Uttar Pradesh government in 1980 under a smokescreen of her lies. It would be worthwhile even now to document a load of lies Indira Gandhi threw at the nation during the entire Emergency. Imposed on false grounds, the Emergency and its excesses could be covered only by lies galore.

George Orwell captured the essence of this collective self-delusion: Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself unshakably certain of being in the right. Even well-educated and otherwise sophisticated elites sometimes fall victim to this phenomenon; in effect, they end up believing their own lies in which case they are no longer lies.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has survived on a major lie. Its official doctrine has ever been that nuclear weapons would be employed to stop a Soviet invasion. Henry Kissinger wrote: The answer of our NATO friends to the situation I have described has invariably been to demand additional reassurances of an undiminished American military commitment. And I have sat around the NATO council table in Brussels and elsewhere and have uttered the magic words which had a profoundly reassuring effect, and which permitted the Ministers to return home with a rationale for not increasing defence expenditure. And my successors have uttered the same reassurances and yet if my analysis is correct these words cannot be true, and if my analysis is correct we must face the fact that it is absurd to base the strategy of the West on the credibility of the threat of mutual suicide (NATO The Next Thirty Years, Atlantic Community Quarterly 17, No. 4 (Winter 1979/1980): 468). But that was after his retirement. In office he purveyed lies.

The authors documentation is perfect. It is a singular feature of this work that it does not claim to accomplish more than what it does. But what it does is a lot.

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