The Yemeni government was quick to take responsibility for the early-morning airstrikes that destroyed an al-Qaida training camp on Dec. 17, 2009, claiming it alone had "planned and executed" them. This was false: The attacks, ordered by President Barack Obama, were the work of U.S. cruise missiles. But lying was official policy, intended to conceal the fact that Yemen had given the U.S. government virtually free rein to kill terrorists inside Yemeni borders. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," President Ali Abdullah Saleh is quoted as telling Gen. David Petraeus in one of the cables released by WikiLeaks. You can just picture the smirk on Saleh's face, the dismissive wave of his hand, as he tells Petraeus not to worry, that in his country, it is feasible to maintain such a fiction.
John Mearsheimer has a name for this type of lie: "strategic cover-up." The term is not necessarily pejorative. As he explains in his compact new book, Why Leaders Lie, a government may tell this type of lie so it can pursue a wise but unpopular policy. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, President John F. Kennedy denied that he had agreed to withdraw U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets' pulling their missiles from Cuba. Kennedy had in fact made that very trade, but he kept it secret because he knew it would be unpopular with U.S. voters and NATO allies.
Japanese leaders made a similar calculation in the 1960s, granting the U.S. Navy permission to dock nuclear-armed ships at Japanese ports, an operational requirement of the U.S. deterrence strategy. But they realized that if the decision—one at odds with the country's anti-nuclear stance—were made public, it would prove so controversial that it might have to be reversed. So, for half a century, they denied the agreement. Only last March did the government finally acknowledge it.
Strategic cover-ups are just one of the categories of lies the book catalogs. Like a lepidopterist pinning butterflies to foam, Mearsheimer collects and classifies the various species of lies in international politics, inventing his own taxonomy. Countries lie to each other to exaggerate their own military capabilities (Hitler: "I threatened … to send six extra divisions into the Rhineland. The truth was, I had only four brigades") or to understate them (as Britain did during World War I when it claimed its tanks were intended only for carrying water rather than gunning down infantrymen). They lie to maintain the element of surprise before attacking an enemy (as the Soviet Union did in 1945 when it said it had no intention of invading Japan) or to create the false impression of an impending attack (as the Reagan administration did when, pressuring Muammar al-Gaddafi, it said U.S. bombers were about to attack Libya). But "inter-state" lies like these are rare; it is more common for governments to lie to their own people, since the public tends to trust its own government more than governments trust each other.
The type of domestically targeted lie Mearsheimer spends the most time deconstructing is fear-mongering—inflating a threat so the public takes it seriously. To yank reluctant Americans into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt misled them about a skirmish between the USS Greer and a German submarine. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, famously thought arguments about the menace of communism had to be made in terms "clearer than truth." Putting theory into practice, Lyndon Johnson misled Congress about a supposed attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin so he could secure a mandate for the Vietnam War.
It was in this tradition, Mearsheimer argues, that members of the George W. Bush administration lied their way into Iraq, contending that "Saddam told the truth about his WMD capabilities before the 2003 Iraq war, while senior figures in the Bush administration lied about what they knew regarding those weapons." But inappropriate optimism is not the same as willful falsification. Although U.S. officials did spread misinformation about Iraq's terrorist ties, they did not invent evidence about weapons so much as overstate their confidence about what that thin evidence meant. Saddam was undoubtedly more deceptive, undertaking a concerted campaign to exaggerate his military capabilities. Regardless, there is no doubt that the Bush administration's flexible vision of the truth was problematic, and not just because it led to a foreign policy disaster. As Mearsheimer argues, this type of behavior corrodes public debate and breeds mistrust. But is lying always bad?