Saturday, April 01, 2006

Lying in International Politics

John Mearsheimer, one of the current leaders of the Realist school of thought on international relations, has some interesting views on the use of deceit in managing populations and manipulating allied nations. From his address at the American Political Science Association's 2004 annual meeting:

Elites fear-monger because they believe that their public (or their political system) is incapable of dealing effectively with threats to national security, and therefore the people must be lied to so that they do the right thing. The underlying assumption is that the people do not know what is best for their country. In effect, the masses are asses, while the leaders are wise and prescient. Fear-mongering is anti-democratic at its core and it is also a pure top-down form of behavior.

Mr. Mearsheimer has been an outspoken critic(.PDF) of the Iraq War.


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John J. Mearsheimer
University of Chicago
August 22, 2004

Prepared for delivery at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 2-September 5, 2004

Copyright by the American Political Science Association


Virtually all individuals engage in some deception in their daily lives, and it is hardly controversial. But lying, which is a particular kind of deception, is widely considered to be a loathsome form of behavior. Yet it is an accepted feature of international relations. Statesmen obviously believe that lying sometimes has utility.

This paper explores the role of lying in world politics and its consequences. The analysis is built around four questions. First, what are the different kinds of lies that statesman tell? Second, what are the strategic logics that explain each kind of lying? Third, when are statesmen more or less likely to tell each of those different kinds of lies? Fourth, what are the consequences of international lying for a state’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy?

I argue that international lying takes four forms. Inter-state lying is where states lie to each other to gain strategic advantage. Fear-mongering is where foreign policy elites lie to their own public because they believe that the people do not recognize the seriousness of an external threat and they need to be motivated to deal with it. Nationalist myth-making is where elites tell lies about their state’s history to help foster a powerful sense of national identity among all segments of society. Anti-realist lying is where elites attempt to disguise brutal behavior carried out in pursuit of realist (or other) goals, because it conflicts with widely-accepted liberal norms.

Although there are compelling logics for pursuing each of these different kinds of lying, fear-mongering stands out as the one most likely to have serious negative consequences. Specifically, it is likely to encourage a culture of dishonesty on the home-front, and it has the most potential for backfiring and leading to a strategic debacle.

Lying in International Politics

John J. Mearsheimer
August 22, 2004

Lying is widely viewed as a despicable form of behavior. Nevertheless, it is an accepted practice in international politics, mainly because there are sometimes compelling strategic reasons for a state’s leaders to lie either to other states or their own people. These practical logics almost always override moral arguments against lying. For sure, elites do not lie frequently about foreign policy matters, but they occasionally say things or purposely imply things that are not true.

In domestic politics, however, lying is generally considered an unacceptable form of behavior, save for some very special circumstances. It is bad for individuals and for the broader society in which they live. Not only is lying almost always wrong from a moral perspective, but there are few compelling strategic logics which might justify tolerating falsehoods in domestic politics. In fact, because of its corrupting effects on a society, it makes good sense to stigmatize and discourage lying on the home front as much as possible. This is not to deny that lying routinely occurs in every society. Still, the less lying there is, the better it is for society.

Lying is obviously a form of deception. There are, however, two other kinds of deception: spinning and concealment. Whereas lying involves making an assertion that is known to be wrong, spinning is all about assembling known facts in a way that presents a favorable picture to the person telling the story. No false statements are involved and no attempt is made to present an untrue bottom line. Concealment simply involves withholding information from others. Individuals sometimes have good reasons not to reveal facts about themselves or others, or about their knowledge of particular events.

Deception is pervasive in every realm of everyday life. We all engage in deceptive behavior – some more than others – in our dealings with other individuals. Politics is an especially fertile breeding ground for deception. All of this deceptive behavior hardly seems to bother most people. However, only spinning and withholding information are considered acceptable forms of deception. Lying is different; it is considered perfidious behavior, and thus is generally ruled out of court, except in international politics.

One can point to all sorts of instances where individuals spin and conceal in their daily lives without raising hardly a word of protest. For example, a person interviewing for a job is allowed to spin his life story on a resume in ways that present him in the most favorable light. He is free to omit information from that resume as he sees fit. President Bush can tell a story about the state of the American economy that accentuates the positive trends and downplays or even ignores the negative ones, while Senator John Kerry is free to do the opposite. Neither the job candidate nor the presidential contenders, however, is allowed to lie to make his case. Indeed, telling a lie would almost certainly do them significant harm.

In short, deception is a legitimate form of behavior in both domestic and international politics, but lying is not. Telling lies is considered unacceptable behavior in most walks of life, save for international politics, where it is viewed as a regrettable but necessary element of daily life.

This paper examines the role of lying in international politics, a subject on which there is hardly any literature. I address four main questions. First, what are the different kinds of international lies that statesmen tell? Second, why do they lie? What are the strategic logics that motivate each kind of lying? Specifically, what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of lying? Third, what are the circumstances that make each type of lying more or less likely? Fourth, what are the consequences of lying for a state’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy?

I will address each of these questions in the order they were presented above. But before doing so, I need to define and contrast the three forms of deception -- lying, spinning, and concealment -- in greater detail.


A lie is a false statement made with the intent to deceive. A person lies when he purposely makes a statement that he knows to be false in the hope that others will think it is true. A lie is a positive action; an individual must actually do something to lie.

Lying can involve making up facts that one believes to be false or denying facts that one knows to be true. But lying is not only about the validity of particular facts. It can also involve the arrangement of facts in the telling of a story. Specifically, a person is lying when he uses facts – even true facts – to tell a story that is untruthful.

There is always the possibility that a person who thinks he is telling a lie has the facts wrong and is inadvertently telling the truth. The reverse might be true as well: a person who thinks he is telling the truth might have his facts wrong. This problem, however, is irrelevant for my purposes, because I am interested in determining whether a person is being truthful – telling what he believes to be true or false – not whether he ultimately proves to be right or wrong about the facts. In other words, my concern is with truthfulness, not the truth.

Spinning is different from lying, although there will be occasional cases where the distinction is not clear. Spinning is where a person telling a story emphasizes certain facts and links them together in ways that play to his advantage, while, at the same time, downplaying or ignoring inconvenient facts. Spinning is all about interpreting the known facts in a way that allows the spinner to tell a favorable story. It is all about emphasizing and de-emphasizing particular facts to portray one’s position in a positive light. With spinning, one makes no attempt to render a completely accurate account of events. The story you tell is distorted for sure, but the facts are not put together so as to tell a false story, which would be a lie.

What usually happens in an American courtroom provides a good way of understanding the difference between lying and spinning. When a witness is called to the stand he is sworn to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” and then he is asked a series of questions, which he is expected to answer truthfully. Here the witness has the opportunity to lie, although he is expected to tell what he believes to be the truth.

The prosecutor and the defense attorney, on the other hand, each make an opening and closing statement, which calls for them to spin the facts of the case in a way that favors either the plaintiff or the defendant. They invariably tell two different stories, but neither is necessarily guilty of lying, although it is possible that one of them might be lying.

The third kind of deception is concealment, which involves withholding information that might undermine or weaken one’s position. A good example of a state concealing unfavorable information is the Bush Administration’s decision not to tell the public before the recent war with Iraq that Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and Abu Zabaydeh had separately told investigators that Osama bin Laden had thought about asking Saddam Hussein to form an alliance against the United States, but then decided against it. These facts, if made public, would have undermined the Bush Administration’s claim that bin Laden and Saddam were joined at the hip, which was important for winning public and congressional support for the war. This behavior is certainly deceptive, but it is not lying according to my definition of the term, because it does not call for taking a positive step to deceive someone.

Lying is more difficult to detect and protect against than either spinning or concealment. Liars make false assertions in ways that are designed to leave little doubt that their claims are true. This air of certainty makes it difficult for the victim to figure out that he is being bamboozled. With spinning, however, the victim can usually figure out that he might not be getting a complete and accurate picture by comparing the spinner’s motives with how the spinner is putting his story together, i.e., what he is leaving out, what he is emphasizing, and what he is de-emphasizing. The victim can also ask questions of the spinner to get at the full story and he can expect to be told the truth. The victim can also defend himself reasonably well against concealment. In particular, the victim can ask if there is information available on the relevant subject, and he can expect to be told the truth.

In sum, lying, spinning, and withholding information are all forms of deception, and all three can be contrasted with truth-telling, which is where an individual does his best to state the facts and tell his story in a straightforward and completely honest way.

Let me now shift gears and talk about the different types of lies that are found in international politics. I argue that there are four basic kinds: 1) inter-state lying, 2) fear-mongering, 3) nationalist myth-making, and 4) antirealist lying. Each type is designed to serve a different purpose, although a single lie can serve multiple purposes. I will describe each kind of lying and then lay out the strategic logic underpinning it, as well as when it is more or less likely to occur. In other words, I am going to explain why and when you get each of the four different kinds of international lying.

It should be clear by now that my focus is on lying that is done in service of the national interest. These are strategic lies; they are carefully calculated to benefit the collectivity, not any individual or group of individuals in a state. For example, lies that create fear abroad to protect narrow political interests at home – social imperialism – fall outside the boundaries of this study. I am also not concerned with lies that aim to protect the diplomatic and military incompetence of particular leaders, unless, of course, such behavior serves the broader interests of the state. Finally, I pay no attention to wanton lying, where an individual tells lies all the time, even when it is not in his interest, much less his state’s interest.


Lying of this sort is aimed directly at other states for the purpose of gaining a strategic advantage over them. One state, in other words, manipulates another in a dishonest way for the benefit of the national interest. For example, a state that fears an attack from a rival might try to deter that adversary by declaring that it has certain military capabilities, even if it does not. If North Korea’s leaders thought that an American invasion was imminent, it would make good strategic sense for them to announce that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons, even if it did not have them.

Inter-state lies are usually directed at rival states, but states also lie to their allies. Israel, for example, consistently lied to the United States in the 1960s about its nuclear weapons program. When elites engage in inter-state lying, they usually end up lying to their own people. But the lie is not aimed at them. It is an unfortunate by-product of the action, a regrettable form of collateral damage.

Statesmen do not constantly tell lies to each other. In fact, they tell each other the truth more often than not. If statesmen spouted lies to each other all the time, it would be almost impossible for them to interact with each other in meaningful ways, since nobody would know what to think was true and what was false. Moreover, if statesmen were inveterate liars, nobody would believe anything they said, which would rob lying of its effect. After all, lying is only effective when the potential victim thinks that the liar is probably telling the truth. Thus, there has to be good reason for 6 statesmen to think that they are not being bamboozled, which means that they cannot lie to each other too often without rendering lying an ineffective tool of statecraft. In essence, inter-state lying must be done selectively and carefully to be effective.

Why do states lie to each other?

Basic realist logic largely explains inter-state lying. States bent on surviving in an anarchic system in which they cannot be sure of other states’ intentions quickly understand that the best way to survive is to be the most powerful state in the system. States therefore look for opportunities to gain advantage over each other, and they do whatever is necessary -- including cheating and lying – to gain power over rivals, or at least maintain the existing balance of power. Survival is of paramount importance for states, and that end justifies almost any means.

Of course, lying does not always work. Indeed, it sometimes backfires and leaves a state worse off than if its leaders had told the truth. In short, inter-state lying, like any instrument of statecraft, can prove counterproductive. The bottom line, however, is that statesmen lie when they conclude that the perceived benefits will outweigh the potential costs.

When are states more or less likely to lie to each other?

I offer two propositions in response to this question. First, states that live in dangerous neighborhoods where intense security competition is part of the warp and woof of daily life are likely to lie more often than states that live in relatively peaceful circumstances. The reason links back to the previous discussion of the premium that states place on survival. States that live in high-threat security environments invariably feel vulnerable and thus have powerful incentives to employ any tactic or strategy that might enhance their prospects for survival.

Second, inter-state lying is likely to be more prevalent in wartime than during peacetime. There are two reasons for this. War is a deadly serious business where foreign-policy elites usually think that their states’ survival is at stake. This was even true in wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan, where many American and Soviet leaders respectively thought that defeat would spell national disaster. Furthermore, there will be many situations in wartime where it makes excellent sense for a state’s leaders to try to deceive their opponent with lies. Churchill put the point well in World War II when he talked about the need to create a “bodyguard of lies” to protect important information. One could argue that lying (and deception more generally) is an essential part of war and that in some circumstances it can play an important role in determining the final outcome.


Fear-mongering is where elites lie to their public about a particular foreign-policy threat for the purpose of motivating the people to take that threat seriously and make the necessary sacrifices to counter it. In other words, elites believe that they see a serious external threat but the public fails to recognize or fully appreciate that there is a wolf at the door. Of course, elites can exaggerate the danger facing them without lying. They could rely instead on spinning and concealment for that purpose. But the focus here is on using lies to threat inflate.

The public might not be able to come to grips with the threat facing it because it is: 1) not sufficiently interested in international politics to notice the danger, 2) not smart enough to recognize it, or 3) simply weak-kneed when confronted with a serious threat. In short, the public might be prone to some combination of ignorance, stupidity, and cowardice. When that happens, according to this logic, the elites have to light a fire under their people so that they rise up to meet the challenge

It is also possible that a state’s political system is prone to paralysis and thus unable to respond in a timely manner to a serious threat. The American government under the Articles of Confederation certainly fits this description, and some even argue that system of checks and balances set up under the Constitution is not conducive to recognizing and dealing with external threats in a timely manner. Elites will have powerful incentives to fear monger when the governmental machinery is sclerotic, because rousing the people might be the only way to force the system into action.

The elites, it should be emphasized, are fear-mongering here because they believe it is in the national interest, not because they are evil people and or because they are pursuing selfish gain. The fact is that there may be cases where the public fails to see or is unwilling to deal with a threat and therefore it makes good sense for the elites to lie to their public to get them off the dime. For example, if we replayed the 1930s, most people would probably applaud any lies told to enhance public awareness of the threat posed by Nazi Germany.

With fear-mongering, elites might work to create a threat that hardly exists in the public’s mind, or more likely, they will exaggerate or “hype” an existing threat. Among the steps that the elites might hope to get the public to support are: 1) increased defense spending, 2) enlisting in the military, 3) supporting a draft, 4) maintaining support for an ongoing war, and 5) launching a war against another state. War-time propaganda fits in the fourth category, as is made clear in Phillip Knightley’s famous book, Truth is the First Casualty.

Why do leaders fear-monger?

Elites fear-monger because they believe that their public (or their political system) is incapable of dealing effectively with threats to national security, and therefore the people must be lied to so that they do the right thing. The underlying assumption is that the people do not know what is best for their country. In effect, the masses are asses, while the leaders are wise and prescient. Fear-mongering is anti-democratic at its core and it is also a pure top-down form of behavior.

It is reasonably easy for the governing elites to lie to their public, because they control the state’s intelligence agencies, which means that they have access to important information that the public does not have and cannot get, at least in the short-term. The ruling elites, therefore, can control the flow of information to the public in important ways, and the public has little choice but to trust its leaders, at least up to a point. Furthermore, the governing elites can use the bully pulpit to manipulate the discourse about foreign policy in all sorts of ways, to include lying to the public. American presidents have great power in this regard.

One might think that fear-mongering does not pay because the liar will eventually get caught and be punished. This eventuality, however, is not much of a deterrent for three reasons First, it is not clear that the lies will be unmasked anytime soon. Second, even if the perpetrators get caught, elites tend to believe that they can find smart lawyers and spinmeisters who will help them to craft a clever defense so that they can escape punishment. Third, and most importantly, elites who engage in fear-mongering invariably believe that their assessment of the basic nature of the threat is correct, even if they are lying on the particulars. Thus, the lies they tell will matter little in the long run if they expose the threat for what it is and deal with it effectively. The end, in other words, will justify the means. This is surely the logic that underpinned the Bush Administration’s lies about WMD and Saddam’s links to al-Qaeda in the run-up to Iraq.

When are elites more or less likely to fear-monger?

The likelihood that fear-mongering will take place is largely a function of three sets of circumstances. First, it is more likely in democracies than autocracies, because elites are more beholden to public opinion in democracies. There is a rich tradition of this kind of thinking on the right in America, where it is widely believed that democracies are at a disadvantage against non-democracies, because the masses make it hard to execute a smart and bold foreign policy. This line of thinking was evident during the Cold War among neo-conservatives and others like Jean Francois Revel, who thought that the publics in democracies were prone to appease adversaries rather than confront them. But this perspective is not restricted to the right, as is evident in The Public Philosophy by Walter Lippmann.

This kind of behavior, however, is not simply limited to democracies, because in the age of nationalism, even elites in non-democracies must pay attention to public opinion. Hitler, for example, closely monitored the German public’s thinking. Nevertheless, the more autocratic or the more firmly the autocrat’s grip on his society, the less likely the need for fearmongering.

Second, fear-mongering is more likely in threatened states that do not share a border with an adversary than those that are next door neighbors. An enemy on the doorstep is likely to be seen and feared by all whereas a distant enemy is likely to appear less threatening to many people and therefore generate pressure for threat inflation.

Off-shore balancers -- states separated from both their foes and allies by large bodies of water -- are especially prone to fear-mongering. This point is evident by comparing the behavior of Britain and the United States (both off-shore balancers) during World War I with that of France, Germany, and Russia in the same war. There was much more fearmongering in the two Anglo-Saxon countries, mainly because the German threat was less immediate for them than it was for France and Russia, which shared a border with the Kaiserreich. Germany, of course, had little need to threat inflate during the war, since it was effectively taking on the world.

Third, elites promoting preventive war are especially likely to engage in fear-mongering, because it is usually difficult to motivate the public to start a fight with a state that is not a serious threat at the moment, but might be sometime in the future. Because the threat is not imminent, the public’s sense of danger is not likely to be high. Moreover, given the difficulty of predicting the future in international politics, many are likely to think that the threat might not ever materialize for one reason or another.

Regarding the run-up to the recent war in Iraq, it is worth noting that the United States is a democracy as well as an off-shore balancer, and it was attempting to sell a preventive war. Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration employed lies to create the impression that the threat was imminent and that the United States was therefore launching a pre-emptive war, not a preventive war.


With the rise of nationalism over the past two centuries, ethnic or national groups all around the globe have established or are trying to establish their own state, or what are commonly called nation-states. In the process of building a nation-state, the relevant elites invariably create sacred myths about the past and the present that portray their national group in a favorable light and rival national groups in a negative light. The basic goal is to tell a story where “we” are always right and “the other” is always wrong. This leads to telling some lies (as well as spinning and concealment) about the historical record as well as contemporary political events. Ernest Renan put the point succinctly when he wrote: “errors about history are an essential factor in forming a nation.”

Why do elites create nationalist myths?

Elites concoct myths about their states’ history for two reasons. First, myths are essential for creating a powerful sense of nationhood, which is necessary for building and maintaining a nation-state. They give members of a national group the sense that they are part of a noble enterprise, and that they should not only be proud of it, but that they should also be willing to fight and die for it. Actually, the people themselves hunger for these myths; they want to be told “happy” stories about the past and present that put them on the side of justice and virtue. In effect, nationalist myth-making is as much a bottom-up phenomenon as it is a top-down phenomenon.

Second, elites create myths about their nation-state to gain international legitimacy. The payoffs here are usually small, however, because it is difficult to hoodwink outsiders with myths that are contradicted by the historical record.

When do elites engage in nationalist myth-making?

The severity of nationalist myth-making is largely a function of two factors: 1) the level of brutality involved in creating the nation-state, and 2) how recently the nation-state was formed.

The more brutal the state-building process, the more bad behavior there is to cover up, and thus the greater the need for elites to tell lies about what actually happened. The more recent the state-building process, the more likely it is that people on different sides of the fight are going to remember it and care deeply about it. Therefore, the elites will have to work overtime to concoct a story of how their state was created that makes them look like knights in shining armor, and their rivals like the devil incarnate.

The creation of the American and Israeli states provides a good example of the effects of time. Both state-building processes were brutal, but the Israeli case is much more recent and thus a much more contested subject than the American experience, which seems like ancient history to most people.


There is a well-developed and widely accepted body of idealist or liberal norms in international politics. They prescribe acceptable forms of state behavior in peacetime and wartime and they also proscribe unacceptable kinds of behavior. These norms are inextricably bound up with just war theory and liberal ideology, and many of them are codified in international law.

Nevertheless, states act largely according to the dictates of realism, which sometimes -- but not always -- causes them to act contrary to those idealist norms. States, for example, sometimes behave in brutal fashion towards other states, or form alliances with particularly odious states. During World War II, the US bombing campaign against Japan purposely killed almost one million Japanese civilians. To defeat Germany in that same conflict, Franklin D. Roosevelt worked closely with Josef Stalin, one of the most ruthless tyrants of all time.

When there is a contradiction between actual state behavior and those idealist norms, the elites usually invent a story about their state’s actions that portrays them in idealist terms. For Americans, this means disguising brutal behavior with liberal rhetoric. This deception frequently involves telling lies.

Why do elites engage in anti-realist lying?

The logic here is similar to the one that underpins nationalist mythmaking. Elites lie to cover up realist behavior because the public demands it, and because the elites themselves want it. Anti-realist lying is both a bottom-up and top-down phenomenon. People far and wide identify with the idealist norms described above, and they very much want to believe that their state acts in accordance with those norms. Even Osama bin Laden felt compelled to explain to the world why al Qaeda was justified in killing thousands of civilians on September 11.

States, however, sometimes have to do terrible things in international politics. But most people cannot accept the idea that their state is behaving in a fundamentally immoral fashion, because it challenges their conception of themselves as decent and honorable individuals. Put bluntly, they cannot stand the truth. To avoid this cognitive dissonance, elites sometimes tell lies to their citizens about their state’s actual behavior.

Furthermore, as with nationalist myth-making, elites tell anti-realist lies to gain international legitimacy for their actions. But the payoffs here are likely to be even smaller than with nationalist myth-making, mainly because anti-realist lies deal almost exclusively with recent or immediate events, where outsiders are likely to know what happened and thus not that easy to fool.

When is anti-realist lying likely?

Modern states – whether they are autocracies or democracies -- rarely justify their behavior in terms of realist rhetoric. For example, it is difficult to imagine any world leader telling his people that they are going to war to shift the balance of power in their favor. Wars are invariably justified in terms of time-honored values like liberty and justice.

This penchant for liberal rhetoric does not encourage lying when state behavior is consistent with both realist and idealist strictures, as was the case for the United States during the Cold War. American elites could then honestly emphasize the liberal or idealist motives for their actions and ignore the realist ones. The problem arises when realist and idealist imperatives are at odds. In those cases, elites will act like realists and talk like idealists, which invariably necessitates some lying.


At the most general level, one can think about the consequences of lying from either an absolutist or utilitarian perspective. Absolutists like Immanuel Kant and St. Augustine maintain that lying is almost always wrong and it does not have any positive effects. Utilitarians, on the other hand, believe that lying sometimes makes sense, because it serves a useful social purpose, but other times it does not. The key for them is to determine when lying has positive utility.

It makes sense to assess the consequences of international lying from a utilitarian perspective, mainly because there are compelling logics that justify it and, not surprisingly, there is a lot of it. Obviously, it is widely accepted that there are circumstances in international politics where it pays to lie.

To assess the consequences of lying, one must consider how each of the four kinds of international lying affects a state’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy. But as emphasized below, we need different criteria to evaluate how lying affects each of those realms. Let me start by laying out the criterion for evaluating the consequences of international lying on domestic politics.

There are few good reasons for lying at home. Indeed, permissive lying will invariably do grave damage to a body politic by creating a culture of dishonesty. This situation is different from the international realm, where 14 there are compelling logics for lying. The problem, however, is that lying in international relations might have blowback effects on daily life inside a state’s borders. There is a danger that international lying might spill over into the national political arena and cause serious trouble by legitimizing and encouraging dishonesty.

Lying in the domestic realm has four dangerous consequences, especially for democracies. First, lying makes it difficult for the people in a democracy to make informed choices when they vote on issues and candidates, simply because they would be basing their decisions on false information. How can a voter hold a politician or leader accountable when it is impossible to know the truth about that person’s actions? Democracies work best when they include a reasonably efficient marketplace of ideas, which can only work when citizens are given reliable information and there are high levels of transparency and honesty.

Second, lying threatens to undermine a state’s policy-making process, whether that state is democratic or not. For starters, the transaction costs in a world of deceit are enormous, because policymakers cannot trust each other, and therefore they have to devote extra time and resources to making sure that they have the correct facts at their disposal. Nevertheless, they may fail to get the correct information, in which case decisions might be made on the basis of wrong information.

Third, lying threatens the rule of law, which is at the heart of democracy. Of course, laws exist in part to punish lying, which means that some reasonable amount of dishonesty is expected in democratic societies. But there has to be a modicum of honesty and trust in a society for the rule of law to prevail. Widespread lying in any society would almost certainly render its legal system ineffective. For example, George Ryan, the former governor of Illinois, who favored the death penalty, suspended all executions in his state because there was convincing evidence that many of those on death row were convicted on the basis of lies told by police and prosecutors.

Finally, if the lying is pervasive enough in a society, it might alienate the public to the point where it undermines political support for democracy itself. After all, it is hard to see how a democracy can remain viable for long if the people have no respect for their leaders, because they think they are a bunch of liars, and no respect for their institutions, because they think they are deeply corrupt.

What about the consequences of lying on a state’s foreign policy? As emphasized, statesmen lie because they believe that it works to benefit the national interest. Otherwise lying would not be an important part of life in world politics. However, lying occasionally backfires and a state can end up worse off rather than better off for having told a lie. Therefore, the key question is: which kinds of lies are most likely to backfire and have disastrous strategic consequences?

In sum, the potential for blowback is the criterion for assessing the consequences of international lying on the home-front, while the relevant criterion in the foreign-policy realm is the potential for backfire.


Inter-state lying does not have a significant downside. There is not much danger of blowback into the domestic arena. Most people understand that states sometimes have to lie and cheat in international politics, especially if they are dealing with a dangerous opponent. For better or for worse, lying is widely seen as a necessary part of life in the international system. This is why hardly anyone is ever punished when they are caught engaging in inter-state lying

At the same time, however, most people understand that international politics and domestic politics are different realms and that states operate according to different rules than individuals in a society. What is permissible in one domain is not permissible in the other. The key difference, of course, is that survival is almost always a consideration in the international realm, and rarely at play in domestic politics.

This rather sharp distinction between domestic and international politics may seem nonsensical, but if one thinks about it, most of us accept the fact that there are a few well-defined arenas in our personal lives where lying is considered acceptable behavior and where there is thought to be little danger of spillover into other arenas. A good example is the bargaining that is often part of buying a house. Both buyers and sellers are allowed to lie about the price they will pay or accept for the house they are negotiating over. Inter-state relations is another domain where lying is considered to be acceptable behavior, and where there is not much danger of spillover.

Turning to foreign policy, there is there is no good reason to think that inter-state lying is particularly prone to backfiring. But even if it does backfire and a state is caught in a lie, the consequences are not likely to be severe. After all, most people understand that states sometimes lie and occasionally they get caught red-handed.

One might argue that getting caught telling a lie hurts a state’s reputation, which many believe is an important concept in international politics. Reputations, however, do not matter much in international politics, because states cannot be sure that they will not be duped by a state with a good reputation. States can never be certain about other state’s intentions; because a state has been honest ten times does not mean it will be honest the eleventh time. In short, states largely discount past behavior when dealing with issues that involve their survival, and thus a damaged reputation is usually not a serious price to pay for getting caught in a lie.


Lies of this sort are likely to have serious negative consequences at both the domestic and international levels. To start, there is real potential for blowback with fear-mongering. This kind of lying is based on a certain amount of contempt for the public and for democratic processes. Elites, according to the logic, cannot trust the wider public to support the correct foreign policy if it is given a straightforward assessment of the threat environment. Therefore, it is necessary to inflate the threat, which often involves deploying lies about the adversary.

The problem here is that the elite’s contempt for the public is likely to spill over into the domestic realm as well. Once a state’s leaders conclude that the people do not understand important foreign policy issues and thus need to be manipulated, it is not much of a leap to employ the same line of thinking to domestic issues. In essence, when fear-mongering is at play, it is difficult to build a firewall between domestic and foreign policy, because the same basic circumstances are likely to be at play in both domains, although the imperative to deceive will be greater in foreign policy, because the state’s security is at stake.

There are also good reasons why fear-mongering might backfire and lead to a foreign-policy disaster. First, public debate about the relevant threat cannot help but be seriously flawed, since the elites are purposely deceiving their public. In effect, the ruling elites recognize that they cannot sell their threat assessment in a rational-legal debate with honest intelligence on the table.

There is no doubt that there may be circumstances where the public is out to lunch and the elites have no choice but to fear-monger. However, it is also possible -- maybe even likely -- that the public is reasonably intelligent and responsible, and that the reason the elites are having difficulty making their case in the face of public doubts is that they are pushing a wrongheaded policy. If they had sound arguments, they would be able to defend them in the marketplace of ideas and not have to deceive the public. In such circumstances, the government’s policy is likely to have bad consequences.

Furthermore, if the elites lie and the policy goes wrong, the elites are likely to lose public support as the public discovers it was misled, compounding the scope of the disaster. George Bush’s problems with Iraq and Lyndon Johnson’s earlier problems with Vietnam are examples of this phenomenon at play. Nevertheless, if statesmen lie and the policy succeeds, the public is not likely to punish the elites, simply because nothing succeeds like success in international politics. Of course, this is the logic that leads policymakers to think that they can get away with fear-mongering in the first place.


Lying to help perpetrate national myths does not appear to have serious consequences. There is little danger of blowback because the vast majority of people are so taken with the myths about their state that they do not recognize them for what they are. Instead, they tend to think that the myths are hallowed truths, not lies or distortions of the historical record. Even elites sometimes fall victim to this phenomenon; they believe their own lies.

My views on the foreign-policy front are somewhat controversial. Many prominent academics, including Paul Kennedy and Stephen Van Evera, maintain that nationalist myths often lead states to misbehave. These myths, so the argument goes, often cause states to act aggressively towards other states, and to refuse to negotiate an end to conflicts that otherwise would be amenable to a settlement. Nationalist myths, for example, are said to be a major cause of Germany’s aggressive behavior in 1914, as well as one of the major obstacles to ending the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

I believe, however, that the causal arrow goes in the other direction: foreign policy behavior drives the making of nationalist myths. Specifically, the rhetoric of nationalism is tailored to suit the behavior of states, which is driven largely by other calculations. This is not to deny that nationalist myths sometimes affect foreign policy-making. Those effects, however, are usually of secondary or tertiary importance.


Anti-realist lying also has few negative consequences. The same collective self-delusion that attends nationalist myth-making works here as well, i.e., most people do not recognize that lying is taking place. Thus, there is not much danger of blowback.

Moreover, anti-realist lies do not affect foreign policy in any meaningful way. Remember, states usually act according to the dictates of realism, regardless of the rhetoric they employ to explain their behavior. As with nationalist myth-making, the causal arrow runs from foreign policy calculations to rhetoric, not the other way around.


Three broad conclusions can be drawn from this analysis. First, there is a considerable amount of lying in international relations and there are usually good strategic reasons for it. That is not the case, however, in the domestic realm, where lying is almost always detrimental to society. Second, there are four different kinds of international lying – inter-state lying, fear-mongering, nationalist myth-making, and anti-realist lying – and each has a different but compelling logic. Third, fear-mongering is the most dangerous form of lying. It not only threat to damage the body politic by fostering a culture of dishonesty, but it is the most likely of the four kinds of lying to produce a foreign-policy debacle.

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John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "An unnecessary war," Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2003

In the full-court press for war with Iraq, the Bush administration deems Saddam Hussein reckless, ruthless, and not fully rational. Such a man, when mixed with nuclear weapons, is too unpredictable to be prevented from threatening the United States, the hawks say. But scrutiny of his past dealings with the world shows that Saddam, though cruel and calculating, is eminenty deterrable.

Should the United States invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein? If the United States is already at war with Iraq when this article is published, the immediate cause is likely to be Saddam's failure to comply with the new U.N. inspections regime to the Bush administration's satisfaction. But this failure is not the real reason Saddam and the United States have been on a collision course over the past year.

The deeper root of the conflict is the U.S. position that Saddam must be toppled because he cannot be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Advocates of preventive war use numerous arguments to make their case, but their trump card is the charge that Saddam's past behavior proves
he is too reckless, relentless, and aggressive to be allowed to possess WMD, especially nuclear weapons. They sometimes admit that war against Iraq might be costly, might lead to a lengthy U.S. occupation, and might complicate U.S. relations with other countries. But these concerns are eclipsed by the belief that the combination of Saddam plus nuclear weapons is too dangerous to accept. For that reason alone, he has to go.

Even many opponents of preventive war seem to agree deterrence will not work in Iraq. Instead of invading Iraq and overthrowing the regime, however, these moderates favor using the threat of war to compel Saddam to permit new weapons inspections. Their hope is that inspections will eliminate any hidden WMD stockpiles and production facilities and ensure Saddam cannot acquire any of these deadly weapons. Thus, both the hard-line preventive-war advocates and the more moderate supporters of inspections accept the same basic premise: Saddam Hussein is not deterrable, and he cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear arsenal.

One problem with this argument: It is almost certainly wrong. The belief that Saddam's past behavior shows he cannot be contained rests on distorted history and faulty logic. In fact, the historical record shows that the United States can contain Iraq effectively - even if Saddam has nuclear weapons - just as it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Regardless of whether Iraq complies with U.N. inspections or what the inspectors find, the campaign to wage war against Iraq rests on a flimsy foundation.


Those who call for preventive war begin by portraying Saddam as a serial aggressor bent on dominating the Persian Gulf. The war party also contends that Saddam is either irrational or prone to serious miscalculation, which means he may not be deterred by even credible threats of retaliation. Kenneth Pollack, former director for gulf affairs at the National Security Council and a proponent of war with Iraq, goes so far as to argue that Saddam is "unintentionally suicidal."

The facts, however, tell a different story. Saddam has dominated Iraqi politics for more than 30 years. During that period, he started two wars against his neighbors - Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. Saddam's record in this regard is no worse than that of neighboring states such as Egypt or Israel, each of which played a role in starting several wars since 1948. Furthermore, a careful look at Saddam's two wars shows his behavior was far from reckless. Both times, he attacked because Iraq was vulnerable and because he believed his targets were weak and isolated. In each case, his goal was to rectify Iraq's strategic dilemma with a limited military victory. Such reasoning does not excuse Saddam's aggression, but his willingness to use force on these occasions hardly demonstrates that he cannot be deterred.

The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88

Iran was the most powerful state in the Persian Gulf during the 1970s. Its strength was partly due to its large population (roughly three times that of Iraq) and its oil reserves, but it also stemmed from the strong support the shah of Iran received from the United States. Relations between Iraq and Iran were quite hostile throughout this period, but Iraq was in no position to defy Iran's regional dominance. Iran put constant pressure on Saddam's regime during the early 1970s, mostly by fomenting unrest among Iraq's sizable Kurdish minority. Iraq finally persuaded the shah to stop meddling with the Kurds in 1975, but only by agreeing to cede half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to Iran, a concession that underscored Iraq's weakness.

It is thus not surprising that Saddam welcomed the shah's ouster in 1979. Iraq went to considerable lengths to foster good relations with Iran's revolutionary leadership. Saddam did not exploit the turmoil in Iran to gain strategic advantage over his neighbor and made no attempt to reverse his earlier concessions, even though Iran did not fully comply with the terms of the 1975 agreement. Ruhollah Khomeini, on the other hand, was determined to extend his revolution across the Islamic world, starting with Iraq. By late 1979, Tehran was pushing the Kurdish and Shiite populations in Iraq to revolt and topple Saddam, and Iranian operatives were trying to assassinate senior Iraqi officials. Border clashes became increasingly frequent by April 1980, largely at Iran's instigation.

Facing a grave threat to his regime, but aware that Iran's military readiness had been temporarily disrupted by the revolution, Saddam launched a limited war against his bitter foe on September 22, 1980. His principal aim was to capture a large slice of territory along the Iraq-Iran border, not to conquer Iran or topple Khomeini. "The war began," as military analyst Efraim Karsh writes, "because the weaker state, Iraq, attempted to resist the hegemonic aspirations of its stronger neighbor, Iran, to reshape the regional status quo according to its own image."

Iran and Iraq fought for eight years, and the war cost the two antagonists more than 1 million casualties and at least $150 billion. Iraq received considerable outside support from other countries - including the United States, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and France - largely because these states were determined to prevent the spread of Khomeini's Islamic revolution. Although the war cost Iraq far more than Saddam expected, it also thwarted Khomeini's attempt to topple him and dominate the region. War with Iran was not a reckless adventure; it was an opportunistic response to a significant threat.

The Gulf War, 1990-91

But what about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990? Perhaps the earlier war with Iran was essentially defensive, but surely this was not true in the case of Kuwait. Doesn't Saddam's decision to invade his tiny neighbor prove he is too rash and aggressive to be trusted with the most destructive weaponry? And doesn't his refusal to withdraw, even when confronted by a superior coalition, demonstrate he is "unintentionally suicidal"?

The answer is no. Once again, a careful look shows Saddam was neither mindlessly aggressive nor particularly reckless. If anything, the evidence supports the opposite conclusion.

Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait was primarily an attempt to deal with Iraq's continued vulnerability. Iraq's economy, badly damaged by its war with Iran, continued to decline after that war ended. An important cause of Iraq's difficulties was Kuwait's refusal both to loan Iraq $10 billion and to write off debts Iraq had incurred during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam believed Iraq was entitled to additional aid because the country helped protect Kuwait and other Gulf states from Iranian expansionism. To make matters worse, Kuwait was overproducing the quotas set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which drove down world oil prices and reduced Iraqi oil profits. Saddam tried using diplomacy to solve the problem, but Kuwait hardly budged. As Karsh and fellow Hussein biographer Inari Rautsi note, the Kuwaitis "suspected that some concessions might be necessary, but were determined to reduce them to the barest minimum."

Saddam reportedly decided on war sometime in July 1990, but before sending his army into Kuwait, he approached the United States to find out how it would react. In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, "[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had "no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait." The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did.

Saddam invaded Kuwait in early August 1990. This act was an obvious violation of international law, and the United States was justified in opposing the invasion and organizing a coalition against it. But Saddam's decision to invade was hardly irrational or reckless. Deterrence did not fail in this case; it was never tried.

But what about Saddam's failure to leave Kuwait once the United States demanded a return to the status quo ante? Wouldn't a prudent leader have abandoned Kuwait before getting clobbered? With hindsight, the answer seems obvious, but Saddam had good reasons to believe hanging tough might work. It was not initially apparent that the United States would actually fight, and most Western military experts predicted the Iraqi army would mount a formidable defense. These forecasts seem foolish today, but many people believed them before the war began.

Once the U.S. air campaign had seriously damaged Iraq's armed forces, however, Saddam began searching for a diplomatic solution that would allow him to
retreat from Kuwait before a ground war began. Indeed, Saddam made clear he was willing to pull out completely. Instead of allowing Iraq to withdraw and fight another day, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his administration wisely insisted the Iraqi army leave its equipment behind as it withdrew. As the administration had hoped, Saddam could not accept this kind of deal.

Saddam undoubtedly miscalculated when he attacked Kuwait, but the history of warfare is full of cases where leaders have misjudged the prospects for war. No evidence suggests Hussein did not weigh his options carefully, however. He chose to use force because he was facing a serious challenge and because he had good reasons to think his invasion would not provoke serious opposition.

Nor should anyone forget that the Iraqi tyrant survived the Kuwait debacle, just as he has survived other threats against his regime. He is now beginning his fourth decade in power. If he is really "unintentionally suicidal," then his survival instincts appear to be even more finely honed.

History provides at least two more pieces of evidence that demonstrate Saddam is deterrable. First, although he launched conventionally armed Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Gulf War, he did not launch chemical or biological weapons at the coalition forces that were decimating the Iraqi military. Moreover, senior Iraqi officials - including Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and the former head of military intelligence, General Wafiq al-Samarrai - have said that Iraq refrained from using chemical weapons because the Bush Sr. administration made ambiguous but unmistakable threats to retaliate if Iraq used WMD. Second, in 1994 Iraq mobilized the remnants of its army on the Kuwaiti border in an apparent attempt to force a modification of the U.N. Special Commission's (UNSCOM) weapons inspection regime. But when the United Nations issued a new warning and the United States reinforced its troops in Kuwait, Iraq backed down quickly. In both cases, the allegedly irrational Iraqi leader was deterred.


Preventive-war advocates also use a second line of argument. They point out that Saddam has used WMD against his own people (the Kurds) and against Iran and that therefore he is likely to use them against the United States. Thus, U.S. President George W. Bush recently warned in Cincinnati that the Iraqi WMD threat against the United States "is already significant, and it only grows worse with time." The United States, in other words, is in imminent danger.

Saddam's record of chemical weapons use is deplorable, but none of his victims had a similar arsenal and thus could not threaten to respond in kind. Iraq's calculations would be entirely different when facing the United States because Washington could retaliate with WMD if Iraq ever decided to use these weapons first. Saddam thus has no incentive to use chemical or nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies - unless his survival is threatened. This simple logic explains why he did not use WMD against U.S. forces during the Gulf War and has not fired chemical or biological warheads at Israel.

Furthermore, if Saddam cannot be deterred, what is stopping him from using WMD against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, which have bombed Iraq repeatedly over the past decade? The bottom line: Deterrence has worked well against Saddam in the past, and there is no reason to think it cannot work equally well in the future.

President Bush's repeated claim that the threat from Iraq is growing makes little sense in light of Saddam's past record, and these statements should be viewed as transparent attempts to scare Americans into supporting a war. CIA Director George Tenet flatly contradicted the president in an October 2002 letter to Congress, explaining that Saddam was unlikely to initiate a WMD attack against any U.S. target unless Washington provoked him. Even if Iraq did acquire a larger WMD arsenal, the United States would still retain a massive nuclear retaliatory capability. And if Saddam would only use WMD if the United States threatened his regime, then one wonders why advocates of war are trying to do just that.

Hawks do have a fallback position on this issue. Yes, the United States can try to deter Saddam by threatening to retaliate with massive force. But this strategy may not work because Iraq's past use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iran shows that Saddam is a warped human being who might use WMD without regard for the consequences.

Unfortunately for those who now favor war, this argument is difficult to reconcile with the United States' past support for Iraq, support that coincided with some of the behavior now being invoked to portray him as an irrational madman. The United States backed Iraq during the 1980s - when Saddam was gassing Kurds and Iranians - and helped Iraq use chemical weapons more effectively by providing it with satellite imagery of Iranian troop positions. The Reagan administration also facilitated Iraq's efforts to develop biological weapons by allowing Baghdad to import disease-producing biological materials such as anthrax, West Nile virus, and botulinal toxin. A central figure in the effort to court Iraq was none other than current U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was then President Ronald Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East. He visited Baghdad and met with Saddam in 1983, with the explicit aim of fostering better relations between the United States and Iraq. In October 1989, about a year after Saddam gassed the Kurds, President George H.W. Bush signed a formal national security directive declaring, "Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East."

If Saddam's use of chemical weapons so clearly indicates he is a madman and cannot be contained, why did the United States fail to see that in the 1980s? Why were Rumsfeld and former President Bush then so unconcerned about his chemical and biological weapons? The most likely answer is that U.S. policymakers correctly understood Saddam was unlikely to use those weapons against the United States and its allies unless Washington threatened
him directly. The real puzzle is why they think it would be impossible to deter him today.


The third strike against a policy of containment, according to those who have called for war, is that such a policy is unlikely to stop Saddam from getting nuclear weapons. Once he gets them, so the argument runs, a host of really bad things will happen. For example, President Bush has warned that Saddam intends to "blackmail the world"; likewise, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice believes he would use nuclear weapons to "blackmail the entire international community." Others fear a nuclear arsenal would enable Iraq to invade its neighbors and then deter the United States from ousting the Iraqi army as it did in 1991. Even worse, Saddam might surreptitiously slip a nuclear weapon to al Qaeda or some like-minded terrorist organization, thereby making it possible for these groups to attack the United States directly.

The administration and its supporters may be right in one sense: Containment may not be enough to prevent Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons someday. Only the conquest and permanent occupation of Iraq could guarantee that. Yet the United States can contain a nuclear Iraq, just as it contained the Soviet Union. None of the nightmare scenarios invoked by preventive-war advocates are likely to happen.

Consider the claim that Saddam would employ nuclear blackmail against his adversaries. To force another state to make concessions, a blackmailer must make clear that he would use nuclear weapons against the target state if he does not get his way. But this strategy is feasible only if the blackmailer has nuclear weapons but neither the target state nor its allies do.

If the blackmailer and the target state both have nuclear weapons, however, the blackmailer's threat is an empty one because the blackmailer cannot carry out the threat without triggering his own destruction. This logic explains why the Soviet Union, which had a vast nuclear arsenal for much of the Cold War, was never able to blackmail the United States or its allies and did not even try.

But what if Saddam invaded Kuwait again and then said he would use nuclear weapons if the United States attempted another Desert Storm? Again, this threat is not credible. If Saddam initiated nuclear war against the United States over Kuwait, he would bring U.S. nuclear warheads down on his own head. Given the choice between withdrawing or dying, he would almost certainly choose the former. Thus, the United States could wage Desert Storm II against a nuclear-- armed Saddam without precipitating nuclear war.

Ironically, some of the officials now advocating war used to recognize that Saddam could not employ nuclear weapons for offensive purposes. In the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, for example, National Security Advisor Rice described how the United States should react if Iraq acquired WMD. "The first line of defense," she wrote, "should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence - if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration." If she believed Iraq's weapons would be unusable in 2000, why does she now think Saddam must be toppled before he gets them? For that matter, why does she now think a nuclear arsenal would enable Saddam to blackmail the entire international community, when she did not even mention this possibility in 2000?


Of course, now the real nightmare scenario is that Saddam would give nuclear weapons secretly to al Qaeda or some other terrorist group. Groups like al Qaeda would almost certainly try to use those weapons against Israel or the United States, and so these countries have a powerful incentive to take all reasonable measures to keep these weapons out of their hands.

However, the likelihood of clandestine transfer by Iraq is extremely small. First of all, there is no credible evidence that Iraq had anything to do with the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or more generally that Iraq is collaborating with al Qaeda against the United States. Hawks inside and outside the Bush administration have gone to extraordinary lengths over the past months to find a link, but they have come up empty-handed.

The lack of evidence of any genuine connection between Saddam and al Qaeda is not surprising because relations between Saddam and al Qaeda have been
quite poor in the past. Osama bin Laden is a radical fundamentalist (like Khomeini), and he detests secular leaders like Saddam. Similarly, Saddam has consistently repressed fundamentalist movements within Iraq. Given this history of enmity, the Iraqi dictator is unlikely to give al Qaeda nuclear weapons, which it might use in ways he could not control.

Intense U.S. pressure, of course, might eventually force these unlikely allies together, just as the United States and Communist Russia became allies during World War II. Saddam would still be unlikely to share his most valuable weaponry with al Qaeda, however, because he could not be confident it would not be used in ways that place his own survival in jeopardy. During the Cold War, the United States did not share all its WMD expertise with its own allies, and the Soviet Union balked at giving nuclear weapons to China despite their ideological sympathies and repeated Chinese requests. No evidence suggests Saddam would act differently.

Second, Saddam could hardly be confident that the transfer would go undetected. Since September 11, U.S. intelligence agencies and those of its allies have been riveted on al Qaeda and Iraq, paying special attention to finding links between them. If Iraq possessed nuclear weapons, U.S. monitoring of those two adversaries would be further intensified. To give nuclear materials to al Qaeda, Saddam would have to bet he could elude the eyes and ears of numerous intelligence services determined to catch him if he tries a nuclear handoff. This bet would not be a safe one.

But even if Saddam thought he could covertly smuggle nuclear weapons to bin Laden, he would still be unlikely to do so. Saddam has been trying to acquire these weapons for over 20 years, at great cost and risk. Is it likely he would then turn around and give them away? Furthermore, giving nuclear weapons to al Qaeda would be extremely risky for Saddam - even if he could do so without being detected - because he would lose all control over when and where they would be used. And Saddam could never be sure the United States would not incinerate him anyway if it merely suspected he had made it possible for anyone to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. The U.S. government and a clear majority of Americans are already deeply suspicious of Iraq, and a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies would raise that hostility to fever pitch. Saddam does not have to be certain the United States would retaliate to be wary of giving his nuclear weapons to al Qaeda; he merely has to suspect it might.

In sum, Saddam cannot afford to guess wrong on whether he would be detected providing al Qaeda with nuclear weapons, nor can he afford to guess wrong
that Iraq would be spared if al Qaeda launched a nuclear strike against the United States or its allies. And the threat of U.S. retaliation is not as far-fetched as one might think. The United States has enhanced its flexible nuclear options in recent years, and no one knows just how vengeful Americans might feel if WMD were ever used against the U.S. homeland. Indeed, nuclear terrorism is as dangerous for Saddam as it is for Americans, and he has no more incentive to give al Qaeda nuclear weapons than the United States does - unless, of course, the country makes clear it is trying to overthrow him. Instead of attacking Iraq and giving Saddam nothing to lose, the Bush administration should be signaling it would hold him responsible if some terrorist group used WMD against the United States, even if it cannot prove he is to blame.


It is not surprising that those who favor war with Iraq portray Saddam as an inveterate and only partly rational aggressor. They are in the business of selling a preventive war, so they must try to make remaining at peace seem unacceptably dangerous. And the best way to do that is to inflate the threat, either by exaggerating Iraq's capabilities or by suggesting horrible things will happen if the United States does not act soon. It is equally unsurprising that advocates of war are willing to distort the historical record to make their case. As former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously remarked, in politics, advocacy "must be clearer than truth."

In this case, however, the truth points the other way. Both logic and historical evidence suggest a policy of vigilant containment would work, both now and in the event Iraq acquires a nuclear arsenal. Why? Because the United States and its regional allies are far stronger than Iraq. And because it does not take a genius to figure out what would happen if Iraq tried to use WMD to blackmail its neighbors, expand its territory, or attack another state directly. It only takes a leader who wants to stay alive and who wants to remain in power. Throughout his lengthy and brutal career, Saddam Hussein has repeatedly shown that these two goals are absolutely paramount. That is why deterrence and containment would work.

If the United States is, or soon will be, at war with Iraq, Americans should understand that a compelling strategic rationale is absent. This war would be one the Bush administration chose to fight but did not have to fight. Even if such a war goes well and has positive long-range consequences, it will still have been unnecessary. And if it goes badly - whether in the form of high U.S. casualties, significant civilian deaths, a heightened risk of terrorism, or increased hatred of the United States in the Arab and Islamic world - then its architects will have even more to answer for.

Regardless of whether Iraq complies with U.N. inspections or what the inspectors find, the campaign to wage war against Iraq rests on a flimsy foundation.

Nuclear terrorism is as dangerous for Saddam as it is for Americans, and he has no more incentive to give al Qaeda nuclear weapons than the United
States does.

Want to Know More?

On Saddam's role in starting the 1980 war with Iran, see Efralm Karsh's
"Geopolitical Determinism: The Origins of the Iran-Iraq War" (Middle East
Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, 1990), Nita M. Renfrew's "Who Started the War?"
(FOREIGN POLICY, Spring 1987), and Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear: The
Politics of Modern Iraq, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1998). For a comprehensive analysis of Iraq's decision to invade Kuwait
in 1990, see Lawrence Freedman and Karsh's The Gulf Conflict 1990-1991:
Diplomacy and War in the New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1993). F. Gregory Gause III provides an excellent discussion of
Iraqi decision making before both wars in "Iraq's Decisions to Go to War,
1980 and 1990" (Middle East Journal, Vol. 56, No. 1, 2002). Gause also
analyzes Saddam's failure to leave Kuwait before Desert Storm, as does
Robert A. Pape in Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1996). The best discussion of the extensive cooperation
between Iraq and the United States during the 1980s is Bruce W Jentleson's
With Friends Like These: Reagan, Bush, and Saddam, 1982-1990 (New York:
Norton, 1994).

On why nuclear blackmail rarely works, see Robert Jervis's The Meaning
of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1989) and Richard K. Betts's Nuclear Blackmail
and Nuclear Balance (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1987). For a first-rate
assessment of why the United States could have won Desert Storm against
a nuclear-- armed Saddam, see Barry R. Posen's "U.S. Security Policy in
a Nuclear-Armed World (Or: What if Iraq Had Had Nuclear Weapons?)" (Security
Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1997).

The Saddam Hussein Reader (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002), edited
by Turi Munthe, includes selections by leading Iraq thinkers that cover
topics ranging from Iraqi politics to the consequences of a nuclear Iraq.
In "Think Again: Attacking Iraq" (FOREIGN POLICY, March/April 2002), FP
Senior Editor Mark Strauss analyzes the arguments in favor of and against
the war.

For a more extensive version of this article, see John J. Mearsheimer and
Stephen M. Walt's "Can Saddam Be Contained? History Says Yes" (Cambridge:
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, November 12, 2002),
posted on the Belfer Center's Web site.

>>For links to relevant Web sites, access to the FP Archive, and a comprehensive
index of related FOREIGN POLICY articles, go to

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor
of political science at the University of Chicago, where he codirects the
Program in International Security Policy. He is the author of The Tragedy
of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001). Stephen M. Walt
is the academic dean and the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international
affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty
chair of the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science
and International Affairs and is writing a book on global responses to
American primacy.

12:42 AM  

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