A theory of Presidential lying (part 1)

First of all, fuck PolitiFact. Facts are binary. Politics are manifold.

All politicians lie. And usually, when politicians lie, what they lie about is the necessity, rationale or purpose of some public policy that they support. Particularly when a President lies, the only citizens who get angry are those who disagree with the policy—the policy whose actual necessity, rationale or purpose the lies are intended to keep hidden. Citizens, and especially political elites, who agree with the policy implicitly endorse the President’s lies as necessary to convince an unsophisticated, insufficiently farsighted, or selfish public.

Two examples:

  • Bush: “Saddam Hussein has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”
  • Obama: “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

Elite supporters of the Iraq invasion and Obamacare, respectively, knew that the President was lying, but cared more about getting the policy enacted than they cared about the truth. This was because the necessity, rationale or purpose of the policy, from the elite supporters’ perspective, was fundamentally not a necessity, rationale or purpose that could be sold to the American public. Citizens, by and large, were uninterested in sending our troops to the Middle East to eliminate a potentially threatening (but for the moment purely local) tyrant, just as they were uninterested in sacrificing their own privileges in order to provide all Americans with universal health insurance coverage. In both cases, the President’s elite supporters had a more “enlightened” view, but one that dared not speak its name.

A President tells whoppers because political elites want him to tell whoppers, as a means of enacting a policy they support. And this drives opponents of the President’s policy crazy, not least because the lies do the job of convincing the public and, instead of the President being punished for lying, the lies only make him appear more successful. The President’s policy may ultimately fail, but usually not because the President lied about its necessity, rationale or purpose. More often, it’s because the policy’s actual, hidden necessity, rationale or purpose—the perspective of the President’s elite supporters—itself turns out to be wrong or unachievable in practice.

The Iraq invasion failed because we were not, in fact, greeted as liberators. It didn’t matter that Saddam wasn’t really trying to produce nuclear weapons. If Obamacare fails, it will be because large numbers of disadvantaged Americans continue to have inadequate health insurance coverage. It won’t matter that those insured prior to Obamacare really weren’t able to keep their plan of choice.

My conclusion: political lying—at least at the Presidential level—is not only costless, but greatly enhances a President’s rhetorical and persuasive powers in a deeply divided country. It also works to the manifest advantage of political elites. But then again, what doesn’t?

Was Bush lying or was he stupid? Yes.

At least Silberman acknowledges that the WMDs didn’t exist, and that our war aims depended on the existence of WMDs.  And by doing so, Silberman implicitly accepts that the invasion of Iraq – and not merely the intelligence failures leading up to it – was a colossal foreign policy and military blunder with enormous costs in blood, treasure and prestige.  Quibbling about whether President Bush (as opposed to the Bush Administration) lied (as opposed to being merely prone to confirmation bias) is, to me, a distraction from what might be learned from a tragic failure of governance and leadership.

Which leads me to say, okay, President Bush (the person) didn’t (knowingly, willfully) lie.  So what?  What, exactly, does that prove about the stupidity and fecklessness of government in the 21st century – just a few years following the end of a long cold war during which, through a combination of smarts, moral courage, rigorous analysis, skepticism and, yes, basic humanity did we (and the Soviets), our immense nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert, still manage not to wipe out civilization?  If intelligence failures up the US chain of command had resulted in our launching a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union and their launching a retaliatory strike against the United States, would the fact that the President’s own personal conduct wasn’t to blame have helped one God-damned thing?  Have we really defined Presidential leadership down to this extent?

Another way that Silberman’s analysis oversimplifies and distracts is by setting up the “intelligence community” and the “Bush Administration” as separate entities operating at arm’s length.  I think anyone who understands how government institutions operate, especially at the executive policy-making level, knows that individuals from different offices, agencies and even branches of government tend to create informal alliances and networks that share information and access and pursue common policy agendas.  Nothing especially nefarious about this – but these alliances and networks do tend to obscure whether someone is “pressuring” someone else to make a particular finding.  In other words, the fact that elements of the intelligence community and the Bush Administration were working together with the shared goal of invading Iraq (apparently on the basis of any plausible pretext) makes it next to impossible to find the smoking gun evidence that Silberman seems think is necessary to conclude that any arm-twisting took place.

Look.  As I am forever reminding you, this is the government we’re talking about.  Government agencies and their agenda-setters come up with ideologically motivated, poorly reasoned findings as a matter of utmost routine.  Want the CIA to say that Saddam has WMDs?  The neoconservative alliance says:  here you go.  Want the Treasury Department to say that asset management firms can threaten financial stability?  The market risk hysteria network says:  coming right up.  There is no difference between the two except in terms of their potential for death and destruction.  Anyone who automatically gives more deference to police/military/intelligence agencies just isn’t thinking clearly.

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DiFi tortures the CIA

Here’s an email I just sent to everyone in my firm:

The report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was released a few minutes ago.  It can be downloaded here.  Everyone should read as much of it as they can bear.
Barest summary of the report:  In the years after 9/11, the CIA systematically tortured terror suspects and other detainees pursuant to orders from the Executive branch.  Senior members of the Bush Administration (presumably including Vice President Cheney) committed war crimes, in knowing violation of both international and US law, under cover of deliberately shoddy and misleading legal advice from, among others, a sitting Federal judge.  No one will be prosecuted.
 The report’s most important conclusion:  The torture yielded no actionable intelligence, a fact that should finally put an end to the specious arguments about ends and means.  That torture doesn’t “work” is not a surprise.  Torture isn’t, and wasn’t, about extracting information.  It is, and was, about power, revenge, rage and cruelty.  Certainly, torture isn’t a sign of strength, or moral clarity in the face of existential danger.  It’s a sign of fear and, ultimately, weakness.
 Justification for this email:  If a meaningful distinction can be made between “law” and “politics” – and, by extension, between what is and what is not appropriate for workplace discussion – my considered judgment is that the attached Senate report is concerned with issues of law.  At the very least, the report (in its discussions of the Yoo and Bybee memos) highlights the ethical lapses lawyers can commit when pressured by important clients to reach a favorable conclusion.

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Dismantling the torture state

From yesterday’s executive order on interrogations:

From this day forward, unless the Attorney General with appropriate consultation provides further guidance, officers, employees, and other agents of the United States Government may, in conducting interrogations, act in reliance upon Army Field Manual 2-22.3, but may not, in conducting interrogations, rely upon any interpretation of the law governing interrogation — including interpretations of Federal criminal laws, the Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3, Army Field Manual 2-22.3, and its predecessor document, Army Field Manual 34-52 — issued by the Department of Justice between September 11, 2001, and January 20, 2009.

With a stroke of the pen (and a whole lotta commas), Obama knocks down the Federalist Society’s entire pseudo-scholarly edifice, and fixes the beginning and end of the 2,688-day Lawless Interregnum.

Now. Go. Away.

Bush leaves us, finally, with a riddle:

The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems. Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience, and marks unbelievers for murder. The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God and that liberty and justice light the path to peace.


Okay, I give up.