The Corner

Lying and Foreign Policy

An email about my article on NRO today:

One part toward the end gave me pause:

“We had gone to war for our own interests, [Krauthammer] said, not for the freedom of Afghan women. Now this was a kind of hypertrophic realism. From the principle that a nation should follow its interests it does not follow that it is in its interests always to make its case in terms of its interests. “

Perhaps I misunderstand, but you seem to give support for a Kissinger-style

policy of disinformation regarding the country’s intents. Restated: What is

truly in the nation’s interests does not always sound good when placed

against the backdrop of standard liberal values, so therefore, the president may find it desirable to disguise his true intentions under the cloak of

liberal values.

I must take exception, and state that such a stance can only hurt the

administration. Among other things, it was this sort of policy that led to

the “credibility gap” of the Vietnam-era presidents, and is leading to the

resurfacing of that exact same charge against the current administration. I

have yet to see the exact term “credibility gap” resurface in the major

media, but they are dancing around the term, and it is only a matter of

time. It is not a charge of lying, per se, but rather one that denotes

untrustworthiness on the part of the president’s spokesmen.

Call me a liberal idealist, but I believe that if classified information is

not at stake, the president as well as his competitors should be as

forthcoming as possible with their intentions and ideas. Massaging the truth

is tempting and may work in the short term, but ultimately, it may render a

president as powerless as it did LBJ and Nixon in their final months.

My response: I was not primarily arguing here that American administrations should dissemble about their motives–although I wouldn’t categorically rule that out. On the Afghan case, what I would say is this: We did not go to war to free Afghan women from oppression for its own sake, and would not go to war only to free other women elsewhere from oppression. But their liberation is a very beneficial side-product of the war; it is probably in our long-term interests; and there is no reason not to highlight this happy effect when encountering people who regard America as a force for evil. Let me use another example to get at what I had in mind. Let us say that the administration believes that the Kyoto global-warming pact would hurt the economy a lot and help the environment very little. Now the U.S. could say we won’t participate in this treaty because it hurts us–because it’s against our national interests. Or it could say: We oppose this treaty because it’s a bad idea for everyone. I’m just saying that the former public rhetoric, which the administration has adopted, may not serve its interests as well as the latter, which is just as true. Very often there are multiple motives for a political decision, or multiple layers of motives; all of them can be taken into consideration, but not all of them are equally worth dwelling on. In the Kyoto case, you could go behind one of the motives to explain that for the same reason it wasn’t in America’s interests, it wasn’t in anyone’s.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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