Delusion is worse than lies

Next Tuesday, March 19, marks the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq; a war propelled by the assertion that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened the U.S.

In the memorable words of then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Later, when Iraq descended into chaos and quagmire and those weapons of mass destruction turned out to be non-existent, opponents of the war had a simple explanation: “Bush lied, people died.”

For the elders among us, it was reminiscent of the assertion a generation ago that President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors had lied the country into a massive escalation in Vietnam; by using two 1964 incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin, they were able to win a congressional resolution more or less enabling Johnson to use whatever force he deemed necessary in Southeast Asia. (Later evidence showed that one of the alleged “attacks” on US Naval vessels almost certainly did not happen).

If you’re looking for false information flowing from the highest levels of government about Iraq, there’s certainly no shortage of examples. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld repeatedly asserted that there was “no doubt” Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction; Rumsfeld went so far as to suggest where the weapons were.

But I’m not sure that “lying” is the most dangerous attribute of leadership. When it comes to genuinely awful consequences, my vote is squarely with “delusion”—an honestly held belief based on misapprehension, ignorance, or willful blindness.

The men who led us into war in Vietnam, for instance, genuinely believed in the “domino” theory—the idea that the fall of one nation into Communist hands would lead to the fall of an entire region. (They made little or no distinction among different kinds of Communists.)

In early 1961 a new president, John F. Kennedy, was told by military leaders and civilian officials that the Kingdom of Laos -- of no conceivable strategic importance to the U.S. -- required the presence of American troops and perhaps even tactical nuclear weapons. Why? Because if Laos fell, Asia would go red from Thailand to Indonesia.

When Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in 1965 with the bombing of North Vietnam and the introduction of 175,000 ground troops, he knew the possibility of disaster. Months earlier (as White House tapes show), he and Georgia Senator Richard Russell had been despairing over the poor prospects for success.

“It's the damn worse mess that I ever saw," Russell said. “And I don't see how we're ever going to get out of it without fighting a major war."

“Well,” Johnson replied, “that's the way I have been feeling for six months.”

But Johnson was convinced the loss of South Vietnam would not only be politically disastrous, but could produce conditions that would lead to a third World War. The president and his advisers could not see a circumstance in which a unified Vietnam, under an authoritarian Communist regime, would not pose a clear and present danger to the U.S.

The men and women who led us into Iraq had their own domino theory—a “benign” domino theory, to be sure. A free Iraq would encourage a democracy movement in Iran, which could lead to the removal of the mullahs, which would drain resources from Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah, which would push the Palestinians to a peace accord with Israel, which would spur reform in Saudi Arabia, which…

Out of such delusions, it was easy to see how Vice President Cheney and others could promise that we would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq, or why so many lawmakers would see Saddam Hussein’s posturing as proof that he had WMDs, rather than as a dictator’s effort to fool his enemies into passivity.

Delusions, then, can pull decision-makers into steps with a force more powerful than deceit; indeed, they can lead those in power to offer false and misleading assertions in pursuit of a “greater truth”—a “truth” that itself cannot withstand tough scrutiny.

Of course we must shield pedophiles in our church, because our church proclaims ultimate truths, and must not be weakened by such revelations. (Of course we must give high ratings to suspect financial products, because without confidence in these products, the whole enterprise might collapse.)

To be clear, I hold no brief for mendacity. I just fear a devoutly held delusion more.

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