Betrayal of Trust

The question of the L-word keeps coming up. Did the president and his chief advisors lie? I think this is the wrong question to be asking. The real issue is betrayal of trust.

The president has been criticized for using the following as justifications for the Iraq war. We went to war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened us. He was reconstituting his nuclear weapons programs (the aluminum tubes, the uranium from Africa). He had huge stocks of chemical and biological weapons that could be launched quickly in aerial vehicles that threatened the US. Saddam was working with Al Qaeda. Iraqis had "trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases."

It appears these were all falsehoods. The tubes couldn't be used for enriching uranium, there was no uranium anyway, and no reconstituted nuclear weapons programs. The vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons have not been found, and would be well past their use-date anyway. The aerial delivery vehicles could not go more that a few hundred miles and could not threaten the US. There is no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with the Al Qaeda attack on the US, or that there was any cooperation between Saddam and Al Qaeda, although seventy percent of Americans believe it, according to a recent Washington Post poll, and perhaps a higher percentage of men and women in the military.

President Bush's speech on September 7 used language that had the same implications. [We] "acted first in Afghanistan, by destroying training camps of terror, and removing the regime that harbored Al Qaeda. ... And we acted in Iraq, where the former regime sponsored terror, possessed and used weapons of mass destruction ... Two years ago, I told the Congress and the country that the war on terror would be a lengthy war, a different kind of war, fought on many fronts in many places. Iraq is now the central front."

Here is the impression that a great many Americans have been left with, especially our men and women in the military and their families: We went to war in Iraq, first, to defend our country against terrorists, second, to liberate that country -- selflessly, at great sacrifice, not out of self-interest.

These are false impressions, and the president continues to create and reinforce them.

Are they lies -- or are they merely exaggerations, misleading statements, mistakes, rhetorical excesses and so on. Linguists study such matters. The most startling finding is that, in considering whether a statement is a lie, the least important consideration for most people is whether it is true!

The more important considerations are, Did he believe it? Did he intend to deceive? Was he trying to gain some advantage or to harm someone else? Is it a serious matter, or a trivial one? Is it "just" a matter of political rhetoric? Most people will grant that, even if the statement happened to be false, if he believed it, wasn't trying to deceive, and was not trying to gain advantage or harm any one, then there was no lie. If it was a lie in the service of a good cause, then it was a white lie. If it was based on faulty information, then it was an honest mistake. If it was just there for emphasis, then it was an exaggeration.

These have been among the administration's defenses. The good cause: liberating Iraq. The faulty information: from the CIA. The emphasis: enthusiasm for a great cause. Even though there is evidence that the President and his advisers knew the information was false, they can deflect the use of the L-word. The falsehoods have been revealed and they, in themselves, do not matter much to most people.

But lying, in itself, is not and should not be the issue. The real issue is a betrayal of trust. Our democratic institutions require trust. When the president asks Congress to consent to war -- the most difficult moral judgment it can make -- Congress must be able to trust the information provided by the administration. When the President asks our fighting men and women to put their lives on the line for a reason, they must be able to trust that the reason he has given is true. It is a betrayal of trust for the president to ask our soldiers to risk their lives under false pretenses. And when the president asks the American people to put their sons and daughters in harm's way and to spend money that could be used for schools, for health care, for helping desperate people, for rebuilding decaying infrastructure, and for economic stimulation in hard times, it is a betrayal of trust for the president to give false impressions.

It is telling what was not in the President's September 7 speech. He sought help from other nations, but he refused to relinquish control over the shaping of Iraq's military, political, and economic future. It was to a large extent the issue of such control that lay behind the UN Security Council's refusal to participate in the American attack and occupation. The reason for the resentment against the US, both in Europe and elsewhere, stemmed from a widespread perception that American interests really lay behind the invasion of Iraq. Those interests are: control over the Iraqi economy by American corporations, the political shaping of Iraq to suit US economic and strategic interests, military bases to enhance US power in the Middle East, reconstruction profits to US corporations, control over the future of the second largest oil supply in the world, and refining and marketing profits for US and British oil companies. The 'Iraqi people' would get profits only from the sale of crude, and those profits would go substantially to pay American companies like Halliburton for reconstruction.

In other words, it looks like the war was a war for the long-term US control of the Middle East and for the self-interest of American corporations, and not a selfless war of liberation. We see this in the administration arguments that, since the US has shed the blood of its soldiers and spent billions, it is entitled to such spoils of war. The argument is an investment argument: The war was an expensive investment and the US deserves the return on the investment of lives and money. Such arguments make the war look like much more than mere self-defense and a selfless war of liberation.

If the real rationale for the Iraq War has been self-interested control -- over oil resources, the regional economy, political influence, and military bases -- if it was not self-defense and not selfless liberation, then President Bush betrayed the trust of our soldiers, the Congress, and the American people. Mere lying is a minor matter when betrayal is the issue.

George Lakoff is the author of Moral Politics, Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, and Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.


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