There are times when it’s arguably necessary to lie to young children in order to protect them from things they can’t understand. There are times when it’s necessary to lie to adults, say, so they don’t find out what you’re buying them for Christmas.
There are, apparently, times when the American President has lied in order to boost public morale, and in turn, has created public delusion that will outlast the time that he has remaining in office. The only thing I can be thankful about the George W. Bush’s presidency is that is going to end.
From The New Yorker:
The Lies We Tell Ourselves
A young friend recently served fifteen months as a combat infantryman at an isolated patrol base in the nasty farmlands south of Baghdad. One day, he was enjoying a hot meal in the chow hall at a nearby forwarding operating base, when Condoleezza Rice appeared on the TV screen saying that the violence in Iraq hadn’t reached the point at which random bodies were turning up in the streets. The noise of dozens of hungry soldiers eating came to a stop. Some of them exchanged glances, but no one said a word. Since my friend, while out on patrol, regularly came across the corpses of tortured and murdered Iraqi civilians, he wondered if the Secretary of State was dissembling or deluded. It was, he let me know, a bad moment for him and his buddies.
I thought of this story when I read the transcript of an interview last Friday with President Bush by Martha Raddatz, of ABC. Bush, under the kind of questioning he rarely gets, admitted that in 2006, with violence soaring, he worried that the mission in Iraq might be headed for failure. But, in order to keep up morale among the troops, he kept insisting at the time that we were “winning.” Phillip Carter (whose excellent blog Intel Dump has just been picked up by the Washington Post) was serving as an Army adviser to the Iraqi courts during those grim months; I spent a few days at his compound in downtown Baquba in early 2006. He writes that he isn’t cheered to learn of the President’s solicitousness for his state of mind:
All through this period, I remember the President, his senior aides and senior military commanders toeing the party line that things were going swimmingly. The dissonance between the rhetoric from Washington and our experience in Iraq was stark. We knew the ground truth. Being deceived by our senior political leaders certainly didn’t change that, nor did it help morale at all. If anything, it hurt morale by undermining confidence in the chain of command. Put bluntly, if you can’t trust your generals and political leaders to tell you and your families the truth, how can you trust them at all?
I would argue that the morale-boosting the President now credits himself with did even more harm than that. It wasn’t as though the White House was feverishly correcting in private the problems that it refused to acknowledge publicly for fear of crushing the spirit of Captain Phillip Carter. Instead, while Iraq descended into a death spiral, Bush continued for months, even years, to pursue the bankrupt strategy of handing over responsibility from an undermanned American military to an Iraqi army that was incapable of holding ground. I’ve been told by a former White House official that the President had misgivings but remained confident in the strategy’s author, Donald Rumsfeld. When I interviewed Rice in early 2006 and asked her whether the strategy might be headed for failure, she dismissed the possibility: “Even though there is violence, there is a process that is moving, I think rather inexorably, actually, toward an outcome that will one day bring a stable Iraq.”
This wasn’t morale-boosting. It was what the Administration calls strategic communications, otherwise known as political propaganda. And, in the end, it became self-delusion. You can’t keep lying to the troops and the public without eventually believing your own words. This, in turn, makes it impossible to analyze and correct mistakes. It ensures failure, and failure kills morale. On my desk I have a copy of Douglas Feith’s new book, “War and Decision”—the first memoir by a main architect of the war policy in Washington. Once I’ve read it, I’ll let you know whether Feith shows any more evidence of self-critical thinking than he or anyone else in the Administration demonstrated throughout the years of the war.
Here’s the link to that article in it’s original publication.