Why Leaders Lie

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago discusses his new book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics.

John Mearsheimer dug up all the lies by leaders he could find (good and bad) and picked them apart. He says, there's a big and important difference between lying and "spinning," both of which we see in political rhetoric and strategy.

Lying is where you say something that you actually know is not true. Spinning is where you exaggerate the positive aspects of a situation and down play the negative aspects. If you were to ask President Obama, what's the state of the American economy, he would spin like crazy. He would tell you all the good things that are happening and he'd downplay the negative things, but he would not lie to us because if he did the consequences would be very great if he was found out.

Lying for selfish reasons is obvious, but lying in the name of national interest was an interesting discovery, he said. He gave an example from the last administration during the run-up to the Iraq war.

I think they told a few lies in the process of trying to take us to war, but I don't think they were doing that for selfish purposes. I think they believed that it was in the American national interest to go to war against Iraq...and they were willing to do almost anything to get us into that war.

According to Mearsheimer, George W. Bush isn't the only President who's lied to get us into war. FDR did it during World War II.

I would argue that Roosevelt was doing the right thing. He was faced with a country that was incredibly isolationist at the time and yet it was necessary for the United States to get in that war against Nazi Germany.

During his research, Mearsheimer found that leaders lie more to their public than they lie to each other.

Great powers just don't trust each other very much, so it's hard to lie because there's not a lot of trust. When it comes to leaders and their own publics, most publics trust their leaders. I think that's certainly true in the United States.

He remembered his own trust in American leadership when Donald Rumsfeld announced there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the U.S. had located them.

So, I trusted Rumsfeld. That may sound foolish now, but I did. My basic gut instinct was that the administration wouldn't lie to us like that. One could argue I was foolish given what I've written in the book, but I think that explains in good part why you get more lying to a leader's public than you do to other countries.

And, even though some lies have been to a positive end, if leaders lie too much to their public they could get themselves into trouble. He calls this "blowback."

If leaders lie a lot to their own publics about foreign policy issues, it's not long before they're lying to their own publics about other kinds of issues as well, and I think for a society to function, it's impossible to have a culture of deceit... I think the less lying that you have in society, the fewer Bernie Madoffs that you have, the better off the society is. I think you have to be very careful not to go overboard in appreciating the stategic virtues of lying.