Politics & Policy

Honesty Is The Best Policy

The beauty of truth in foreign affairs.

As some readers — though surprisingly not nearly all of them — know, I was marginally involved in the Lewinsky chapter of the Clinton scandals. I’m very reluctant to write directly about that stuff anymore for a bunch of reasons, chief among them the irrelevance of those days on current events and, somewhere further down the list, my desire not to spend any more time than necessary talking about the former president’s pants — or lack thereof. Nevertheless, I did learn a great deal from my days as scandal boy.

One of the most important lessons I learned was that life is a lot easier when you tell the truth. Oh, don’t worry, I’m not one of these people who fetishizes the truth as a value above all others. I’m not going to sermonize or speechify about the sanctity of truth. I do think honesty is morally really, really important, but if telling someone on his death bed that he “looks great” will make him feel better, that’s fine by me. Telling little Timmy that Santa’s coming or that Fido went to a lovely farm would cost me not a moment’s slumber. I don’t think God looks down at us and counts all of our fibs equally.

No, I mean, literally, life is easier when you don’t lie. Lies are hard to remember, especially when you tell different people different lies. I always marveled at how good Clinton’s spinners were at defending him when at any moment the rug of deceit they were standing on could be yanked out from underneath them. And it happened often. Clinton himself had to juggle, literally, thousands of lies. Lies to his friends, lies to his enemies, lies to himself, lies about lies he told, and lies told as half-truths.

Meanwhile, I knew that what I knew was the truth. When I didn’t know the truth — about dates, times, people, and other stuff grand juries might be interested in — I simply said “I don’t know” because that was the truth too. It was very liberating.

In fact, I’m sure everybody knows what I’m talking about — even the Clinton apologists who think I’m lying about having told the truth understand the principle. When we’re kids, when we’re dating, and even when we’re married, some of the biggest messes we get into involve protecting the integrity of lies we never should have told in the first place.


I’ve been thinking about this ever since President Bush’s Middle East speech Monday. For years, U.S. foreign policy has been based on a series of ever-more-complicated lies, some of them forgivable or necessary. But many of them have been dangerous and counter-productive. The two most obvious lies that have thrown off spider webs of deceit: that Yasser Arafat is a man of peace and that being an “ally” of the United States somehow makes you a “moderate.”

The New York Times first reported Tuesday that the administration decided to pull into the harbor of honesty in part because of the revelation that Yasser Arafat authorized a $20,000 payment of suicide bombers while he was condemning suicide bombing. This comes on the heels of, by my calculations, 7 trillion other pieces of evidence that Yasser Arafat is, in fact, at war with Israel.

Think of the countless lies that have had to be concocted in order to pretend this wasn’t the case. Take the countless fools and apologists who’ve insisted that Arafat is a “man we can deal with” or that “he’s doing everything he can.” Or, those who blamed the impasse on Ariel Sharon or some other “hardliner” when the Israeli “hardliners” — whether you like them or not — only get elected when the Israelis need to take a hard line against terrorism. Whenever peace has seemed possible, Israelis have elected men to seek peace. Meanwhile, Arafat has remained, across the decades, a murderer who can get reservations with a snap of his fingers at any restaurant in Paris or Brussels.

Think of the moral equivalence that constantly confused arsonists for firefighters and vice versa. Think of the slander we’ve had to listen to — to poor people around the world and across time who didn’t murder children because they were “poor and hopeless.” Recall the liberals in the U.S. who insist that “hatred has to be taught” but who deny that textbooks and teachers encouraging the mass slaughter of Jewish “animals” have any effect at all.

Think of the exhausting Catch-22 logic that maintained simultaneously that Arafat couldn’t stop the terrorism and that he needed his armed goons to stop the terrorism. And, then when he did stop terrorism for short-term gain — it happened several times — his defenders would say, “See, he’s a man of peace.” Then, when Arafat predictably unleashed the dogs again, his defenders would say he couldn’t stop the terrorism. It was enough to give you whiplash.

But my favorite example of this Mobius-strip logic: the people here in the U.S. who would justify suicide bombings because Palestinians don’t have tanks and planes while insisting that the Palestinians want peace. Well, if they are only using suicide bombers because they don’t have tanks and planes, logic suggests that if they had tanks and planes they would use them. In other words, they’re at war with Israel, they’re just poorly equipped. If a career armed robber doesn’t have a gun and uses a crowbar instead, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a robber. If he told the judge “I don’t have guns and squad cars like the police, I have to use a crowbar,” we wouldn’t nod with appreciation at the impeccable logic. But if you make this point about Palestinians, eyes roll at your simplistic view of such a complicated situation.

Which brings us to the larger “complicated situation,” the Middle East generally. Rich Lowry notes, rightly, that the Palestinians are merely minnows in the Middle East. They go whatever direction the big fish go. And, the big fish swim in an ocean of lies. For years we’ve maintained that Saudi Arabia is a “moderate” state because they sell us oil and say nice things about us when we’re listening. At best, this is the geopolitical equivalent of the guy who lives next door to a serial killer and tells the local news, “He was always such a nice, quiet guy.”

This “moderate” lie has cost us dearly, even though we didn’t know it until the 9/11 hijackers — who were neither hopeless nor poor nor Palestinian — murdered 3,000 Americans in an attempt to kill ten times that many. For decades, the Saudis have been exporting an ideology which is in many respects more dangerous than that which the Soviets peddled during the Cold War. And they did it with our approval.

Everywhere else in the world, the United States has a single, consistent, and, most of all, an honest message: We value democracy, the rule of law, free markets, free speech, free religion, freedom. Only in the Arab world do we get tongue-tied in fealty to the lies we’ve been telling since, at least, FDR got wined and dined by Saudi rulers. That is, until the day before yesterday when President Bush said, in effect, “enough with the lies.” He spoke honestly about the fact that America can tell the difference between arsonists and firefighters, between right and wrong, between truth and lies.

By no means does a policy of honesty make things uncomplicated. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times responded to the president’s remarks by playing with the same words. The Times’s editorial was headlined “A Plan Without a Map.” The Post’s was “An Uncertain Road Map.” Both chided the president for not having a detailed map toward peace in the Middle East — as if concrete plans have worked so well in the past. What both the Times and the Post do not understand is that by placing honesty over moral equivalence and kowtowing to crapulent corruption, the administration has established the best of all policies. Sure it will be complicated, but any terrain can be traversed once you’ve found True North.


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