Reminder: American Officials Lie About War

January 4, 2020

A humble and prudent foreign policy begins with recognizing the fog of war—and rejecting the dangerous paths of obedient belief and premature omniscience.

“Don’t trust liars—especially about matters of war and peace,” writes Vox’s Matthew Yglesias. “Today’s a day,” The Atlantic’s David Frum posits, “when the most untruthful administration in US history will wish its statements could be believed.”

It is appropriate, necessary, yet insufficient to remember that government lying is bad, that government lying about war is particularly bad, and that Donald Trump is one of the most bizarrely promiscuous liars ever seen in American political life. Insufficient, because laying the blame on one particular administration, or even one major political party, too often becomes a de facto credulousness about the war-related veracity of other administrations.

The truth, which literally hurts, is that every administration lies about war, particularly (though not only) about its reasons for initiating deadly force. It was literally only last month that The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” project detailed how America’s longest war has been a nearly two-decade festival of deadly bullshit. How many times are we going to accept on-the-record U.S. military quotes like “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible”?

Too many times, I’m afraid. We enable the machinery of our own bamboozlement with our often partisan-based trust in the protectors of the flag.

Readers with long memories will surely note that David Frum wrote President George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” State of the Union Address in January 2002, linking Iran, North Korea, and especially Iraq in a rhetorical if not quite actual network of bad-guy regimes threatening to do the U.S. harm. “I was to provide a justification for war,” Frum recalled in his memoir. The justification was…misleading.

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