When Do Leaders Fearmonger?

News Abroad

John Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. His books include The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize, and New York Times bestseller The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which has been translated into nineteen languages. This article is drawn from his book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Leaders engage in fearmongering when they think they recognize a serious threat to national security that the public does not see, and that the public cannot be made to appreciate with straightforward and honest discourse. They reason that the only way to mobilize their citizens to do the right thing is to deceive them for their own good. Fearmongering, which is a straightforward top-down form of behavior, is antidemocratic at its core, although leaders do it because they think it is in the national interest, not for personal gain.

There are a number of reasons why average citizens might not be able to comprehend a particular threat.They might not be sufficiently interested in international affairs to appreciate that their country is facing a lurking danger, even when their leaders give them unvarnished evidence of the threat. Moreover, they might not be collectively smart enough to recognize a specific threat. It is also possible that those citizens might get weak-kneed when confronted with a menacing threat. In short, the broader public might be prone to some combination of ignorance, stupidity, and cowardice. When that happens, according to this logic, the governing elites have to light a fire under their people so that they will rise up to meet the challenge.

A good example of this kind of thinking in action was the way theTruman administration attempted to sell a major increase in defense spending to the American people in the spring of 1950. The president and his senior foreign-policy advisors believed that the broader public would not fully support the proposed buildup, and therefore it would be necessary to initiate a “psychological scare campaign.” Of course, when policymakers take a country down this road, they will inevitably face pressure to tell lies to scare their people enough that they enthusiastically back the government’s planned policies.

It is much harder to argue that educated elites who dispute the seriousness of a threat are either ignorant or dim-witted. This is especially true when you are dealing with experts on the issue at hand. It might be the case, however, that those educated and interested dissenters are perceived to have a wishy-washy view of international politics, and therefore some threat inflation is necessary to stiffen their backbones. It might also be the case that they are simply misreading the available evidence about the danger facing their country and drawing overly optimistic conclusions about the threat environment. If leaders cannot solve this problem by providing the misguided dissenters with more detailed information, the only solution left is fearmongering.

Bamboozling those recalcitrant elites is unlikely to work, however, because those dissenters are by definition knowledgeable about the issue at hand and thus hard to fool. An alternative approach, which is more likely to work, is to use fearmongering to mobilize the broader public in ways that make it suspicious, if not hostile, to those stubborn experts. They would then be isolated and feel suspect, and maybe even worried about their careers, which would make them more likely to temper their criticisms or remain silent, or maybe even shift gears and support the government’s policy. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on For- eign 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.”

There is an alternative explanation for why leaders sometimes turn to fearmongering that is less contemptuous of the public. It is possible that a country’s political system might be prone to paralysis and thus unable to respond in a timely manner to a serious threat.The fledgling American government under the Articles of Confederation certainly fits this description, and some even argue that the system of checks and balances set up under the Constitution is not conducive to recognizing and dealing with external threats in a timely manner. Leaders will have powerful incentives to fearmonger when the governmental machinery is sclerotic, because rousing the people might be the only way to force the political system into action to meet the looming danger.

It is reasonably easy for policymakers to lie to their publics. For starters, they control the state’s intelligence apparatus, which gives them access to important information that the public does not have and cannot get, at least in the short term. Policymakers, therefore, can manipulate the flow of information to the public in various ways, and most people will be inclined to trust what their leaders tell them unless there is hard evidence that they are being deceived. Futhermore, the head of a country can use the bully pulpit to manipulate the discourse about foreign policy in different ways, including lying to the public. American presidents have significant power in this regard.

Lying to the public is relatively easy for another reason. As noted, it is difficult for statesmen to lie to each other about significant matters, because there is not much trust between countries.Anarchy pushes states to be vigilant in their dealings with each other, especially when national security issues are at play. But that is not the case inside most states, where large numbers of people, including educated elites, are pre- disposed to trust their government, whose most important job, after all, is to protect them. Robert McNamara once said that it is “inconceivable that anyone even remotely familiar with our society and system of government could suspect the existence of a conspiracy” to provoke a war. Many Americans would readily endorse McNamara’s claim, as they expect their leaders to be straight with them. This trust, of course, is what makes the public easy to fool, and this is why the behavior that McNamara describes is not just thinkable, but we have evidence of it.

One might surmise that fearmongering does not pay because the liar will eventually get caught and be punished by his public. He might lose credibility with his citizens or maybe even be voted out of office when he comes up for reelection. These possibilities are not much of a deterrent, however, mainly because leaders who lie to their publics think they can get away with it. For starters, it is not clear that the lies will be unmasked anytime soon. It took more than thirty years before it became public knowledge that President Kennedy had lied about how he settled the Cuban missile crisis. He agreed to a secret deal with the Soviets in which the United States would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets taking their missiles out of Cuba. But Kennedy and his advisors denied making that deal during and after the crisis.

Furthermore, perpetrators are likely to think that even if they get caught, they will be able to rely on smart lawyers and friends in high places to help them craft a clever defense so that they can escape punishment. Finally, and most importantly, leaders who engage in fearmongering invariably believe that their assessment of the threat is correct, even if they are lying about some of the particulars. They think that they are in the right and what they are doing is for the good of the country. Thus, their lies will matter little in the long run if they expose the threat for what it is and deal with it effectively. The end result, in other words, will justify the means.

This line of thinking surely underpinned the Bush administration’s deception campaign in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and it probably would have worked if the United States had won a stunning victory, like it did in the 1991 war against Iraq. A comment by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen in November 2005, when the second Iraq War was going badly, illustrates the cleansing power of military victory: “One could almost forgive President Bush for waging war under false or mistaken pretenses had a better, more democratic Middle East come out of it.”

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