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Distributed April 8, 2004
Contact Mark Nickel

About 680 Words

Corey Brettschneider
Should presidents lie?

In many cases where strong national interests are at stake, a deliberate deception may be called for. But the decision to go to war is among the most fundamental questions the state faces. For this reason, Article I of the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress, our deliberative body, and an agent of the people’s consent. Can people give their informed consent if they have been deceived?

Paul O’Neill’s recent statements, as well as the evaporating evidence about weapons in Iraq, have now made it plausible to believe that the Bush administration knowingly deceived the American people about the reasons for the recent Iraqi war. The invasion of Iraq, many now think, was more about the desire to protect supposed national interests such as access to strategic resources and a concern for stability in the region, than it was about protection against an immediate security threat. But apart from the factual question of whether the administration lied or exaggerated about the reasons for war is a more fundamental question: Would it have been wrong if the administration did lie to promote the more basic goal of preserving national interests?

The answer is not obvious, especially given the major current of thought among scholars of international relations, some of whom are currently in the White House. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, for instance, is a self-declared “realist” in matters of international decision-making. For realist thinkers, the sole purpose of international decision-making is to preserve national self-interest. All other considerations are instrumental to this goal. In many cases, knowing deception in the national interest is called for. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis President Kennedy lied during a press conference about the matters being negotiated with the Soviets to protect national interests. But this logic extends beyond matters of immediate national security. In instances where the American people do not understand what is in the national interest – whether through a lack of information or a lack of understanding of the complexity of global issues – from the realist view, it would be reasonable to lie to them here too.

The traditional philosophical arguments against lying, in contrast, might seem hopelessly naïve and unrealistic. The eighteenth century ethicist Immanuel Kant famously worried about the meaning of truth in a world where lying took place and suggested the practice is inconsistent with treating people in a dignified manner. But in a world where blood is spilled by bombs and hijacked airplanes, truth might seem a trivial sacrifice. Lying can be defended on the grounds that it is necessary to preserve life.

So why would it be wrong if the administration did knowingly lie to protect us? The answer has less to do with inherent wrongness of lying than it does with the ideal of democracy. In a democracy, the state acts legitimately only if it has the consent of the governed. But it is impossible to consent in the face of deception. If I hand over my money under false pretenses, I did not consent to give it away. I have been the victim of a fraud. So it seems the American people could not consent to war if they were knowingly deceived.

In some instances international decisions must be made quickly, without time for debate or consent. But the decision to go to war is not like this. It is among the most fundamental questions the state faces. For this reason, Article I of the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress, our deliberative body, and an agent of the people’s consent. Indeed, the ability of the people to influence such a grave decision arguably helps to define the United States as a democracy. National debate among the populace proceeds on the basis that the people have a role in major foreign policy decisions. If the administration lied, however, they will have trivialized this process.

Of course those in the administration might deny that the model for any decision – even the most fundamental – should be democratic. They might see themselves as trustees of the national interests who must protect Americans – even when this requires protecting us from ourselves. This is certainly a common view in the academic literature of international relations. But if this is, in fact, the administration’s view, then the rhetoric of “fighting for democracy” seems a cruel irony. The very willingness to lie in such an important matter would call into question the extent to which the United States is a democracy at all.

Corey Brettschneider is assistant professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, where he teaches courses in ethics and political theory.

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