War and the Perfection of Lying
by David E. DeCosse
From the idea of preventive war to the question of torture, the Iraq war has prompted renewed scrutiny of some key ethical principles in the just war tradition, including its requirement that war must be undertaken by appropriate political authorities. But as the government's deceptions leading up to the Iraq war have demonstrated, this aspect of just war reasoning, and its traditionally great degree of deference to political authority in time of war, needs to be updated in a more democratic direction.
By now the intelligence failures in the run-up to the war are broadly familiar: the absence of weapons of mass destruction; the lack of any substantial connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; the significant dissent within the United States intelligence community and the doubts among weapons experts about Iraq's nuclear purposes, all expressed in advance of the Bush administration's repeated claims that Iraq was rebuilding a nuclear weapons program. As former American diplomat Joseph C. Wilson famously wrote in the summer of 2003, he "had little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." In a similar vein, according to the so-called Downing Street memo leaked in May 2005 by a British government insider, "intelligence and facts were being fixed around policy." The decision to go to war, says former CIA official Paul Pillar, was undertaken with "intelligence…misused publicly to justify decisions already made."
Policymakers intentionally manipulated the presentation of intelligence data in order to make a more persuasive case for going to war with Iraq. There are simply too many indications that U.S. government officials made statements not justified by data existing at the time of their statements, and they had reason to know of the data contradicting or crucially qualifying their statements. In turn, these knowingly false statements were made with the apparent intention to deceive the American people into supporting a war they might not otherwise have sanctioned.
In both their knowing falsity and their purpose to deceive, these government statements conform to what St. Augustine called the "manifest lie" and St. Thomas Aquinas called the "perfection of lying." They contain both the essence of what constitutes a lie -- a "duplicitous utterance" -- and the de facto thing that usually completes it: the intention to deceive. Augustine and Aquinas, whose writings on war continue to be enormously influential in the Christian tradition, likewise forbid specifically political lies, finding no reason in the great affairs of state for the duplicitous utterance of kings.
Moral philosopher Sissela Bok provides a way of understanding the democratic implications of the deceptions that launched the Iraq war. She has argued that it is a common mistake to evaluate a lie from the perspective of the deceivers, rather than from the perspective of the deceived.
It is not difficult to imagine the motives behind those who may deceive out of a desire to advance the public good. But to consider any such explanations, as relevant as they may be, is to view the situation from the perspective of the deceivers. It risks, among other things, underestimating the anti-democratic pretension that accompanies political lying in a democratic country like the United States.