The Tradition of Lying About War

Donald Trump’s administration has been a fountain of lies from his first day in office. But the U.S. attack that killed a top Iranian commander promises to turn that fountain into a tsunami.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed the drone strike on the Baghdad airport was urgent because intelligence indicated Qassem Soleimani presented “imminent threats to American lives.” But Pompeo was curiously unwilling to supply evidence.

The New York Times reported, “According to one United States official, the new intelligence indicated ‘a normal Monday in the Middle East’ — Dec. 30 — and General Soleimani’s travels amounted to ‘business as usual.'” The Washington Post divulged that Pompeo had been pressing Trump to kill Soleimani for months.

Why should anyone believe anything the secretary of state says? He was deliberately misleading Sunday when he scoffed at the idea that Trump might order the destruction of Iranian cultural sites — something the president had threatened before and reiterated even after Pompeo denied it.

Trump himself has been a paragon of dishonesty on Iran, even more than on most subjects. He pulled out of the nuclear deal, which he falsely said Iran was violating. Under the agreement, he said, Iran would “free to go ahead and create nuclear weapons” after seven years. In fact, it stipulated “that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”

He tweeted that Barack Obama “gave Iran 150 Billion Dollars and got nothing.” Obama agreed to unfreeze Iran’s own assets, which amounted to a fraction of that amount, in exchange for the effective dismantling of its nuclear program.

Americans should know by now that when our leaders take us into wars, they will do it on the basis of disinformation. President Lyndon Johnson got the authority to escalate in Vietnam by exploiting a minor 1964 naval incident in the Tonkin Gulf to accuse North Vietnam of “open aggression on the high seas” — which was false.

Johnson campaigned that year on a promise not to “send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” In 1965, he did exactly that. His successor, Richard Nixon, expanded the war with a lengthy bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia, undertaken in secrecy.

Like Johnson and Nixon, this president and his subordinates believe that deceit is the best way to gain support for military action. Mike Pence said Soleimani’s killing was justified because his Quds Force assisted al-Qaida in the 9/11 attacks — a conclusion firmly rejected by the 9/11 Commission, appointed by George W. Bush.

But Pence took a lesson from the Bush administration, which justified the Iraq War on the spurious claim that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Repetition of the charge soon convinced most Americans, though Bush himself later had to admit it was baseless.

Obama felt no compulsion to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan, which he promised to end in his first 16 months but never did. A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction quoted an Obama National Security Council official on the administration’s repeated claims of progress: “The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

Obama justified his intervention in the Libyan civil war as a way to prevent the slaughter of civilians, but eventually — without saying so — expanded the mission to regime change.
During World War I, the leftist writer Randolph Bourne argued that “war is the health of the state.” What has become clear since then is that war depends on deception – about the reasons for committing to combat, the reasons for continuing to fight when it goes badly and the reasons the effort was necessary despite its ultimate failure.

Politicians realize that if citizens are to be mobilized in support of wars of choice, they must be fed a diet of lies. Even that may not work: Last summer, a Gallup Poll found that only 18% of Americans favored military action against Iran. A HuffPost/YouGov survey found that only 43% approved of the strike against Soleimani.

But if public support doesn’t materialize, we can be sure the administration will concoct more fictions. There is a long history of presidential mendacity when it comes to matters of war. No one is better suited to uphold that tradition than Trump.

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Steve Chapman
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.