The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq violated international law, unless it was clearly an act of self-defense against an imminent threat. Revenge is not enough. The Trump administration has claimed there was an imminent threat, but the evidence for the claim mostly referred to past Iranian actions.
Belief that America faced an imminent threat rests on trust in President Donald Trump and his administration, yet the president has consistently denigrated his own intelligence agencies. And his looseness with the truth has debased the currency of trust that is needed in a crisis. According to a new Pew poll, only 29 percent of people surveyed in 32 countries trust Trump.
Cynics dismiss such facts by saying that all politicians lie, particularly about international politics. Yet, behind this current controversy lurks a serious question about how honest we want our leaders to be. Sometimes we do not want them to tell the literal truth, but that raises many problems.
Sometimes, democratic leaders have objectives that differ from their followers and, rather than revealing the differences, they deceive the public. If such actions are self-serving, as in cases of corruption or narcissistic ego gratification, moral censure is easy. In other instances when leaders have different objectives from their followers in a democracy, we expect them to invest in educating the public.
But what if they cannot do so in time, or their followers are too deeply divided to reach a consensus? As Franklin Roosevelt complained to an aide about American isolationist opinion in the 1930s, what is a democratic leader supposed to do if he looks over his shoulder and no one is following? FDR decided to deceive the public for what he saw as their larger, and later, good.
Roosevelt’s case was not unique. Charles de Gaulle did not reveal his strategy for Algerian independence when he came to power in France in 1958, because he knew that doing so would doom it to failure. John F. Kennedy misled the public about the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear warheads from Turkey in the deal that peacefully ended the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. And Winston Churchill once said about World War II that the truth may be “so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
The fact that leaders’ ends may sometimes justify violating honest means does not indicate that all lies are equal, or that we must suspend our moral judgment. Machiavellian deception is often part of a strategy, for example, in bargaining or even in bringing a group to accept new goals. But a president’s intentions matter. Deception that is purely self-serving distorts a strategy — especially one that may benefit others — into mere self-serving manipulation.
Even if one admits that deception may sometimes be acceptable in a democracy, we should always ask about the importance of the goal, the availability of alternative means to achieve it, whether the deception is likely to spread through precedent, and whether a leader’s behavior can be discovered and later held accountable.
In “Do Morals Matter?” — my study of the 14 U.S. presidents since 1945 — I found that even good presidents may set bad precedents. When Roosevelt lied about a German attack on the American destroyer USS Greer in 1941, he set a low bar for Lyndon Johnson’s highly embellished description of a second North Vietnamese attack on U.S. naval vessels, which led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.
It is all too easy for leaders to convince themselves that they are telling a noble lie for the good of their followers, when in fact they are merely lying for political or personal convenience. That makes it all the more important in a democracy that we continually examine the tradeoffs between ends and means that leaders make. There may indeed be situations where we would subsequently approve a political leader telling us a lie, but such cases should remain rare and subject to careful scrutiny.
Even if we accept some lies from our leaders, we should condemn self-serving lies and a high frequency of lies. President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE is not unique as a leader who uses lies, but he is extreme in their type and frequency. According to fact-checking by the Washington Post, Trump reached 15,000 false or misleading statements by his thousandth day in office.
That is why we should not shrug off Donald Trump’s rhetoric as simply “something all politicians do.”
Politicians are not all the same when it comes to lying. President Trump has made many more false statements than any of his modern predecessors, and only some of his falsehoods pass the test of not being self-serving. This looseness with the truth now hampers him when he makes a claim that there was an imminent threat that legalized the Soleimani killing.
The president’s personal loss of credibility weakens our national power to influence others.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.” He served as undersecretary of State and chairman of the National Security Council group on nuclear nonproliferation during the Carter administration, as assistant secretary of Defense and chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration, and as a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board during the Obama administration.