Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Americans Can Handle the Truth About the Islamic State — but Can the White House?

Contrary to popular myth, neither presidents nor the staffs that serve them are prone to telling untruths. All White Houses, even this one, have elaborate fact-checking systems in place to make sure that when the president claims something, there is an empirical basis for doing so. Even a team like President Obama’s, which has relied ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Contrary to popular myth, neither presidents nor the staffs that serve them are prone to telling untruths. All White Houses, even this one, have elaborate fact-checking systems in place to make sure that when the president claims something, there is an empirical basis for doing so. Even a team like President Obama's, which has relied so heavily on a sympathetic press to insulate it from criticism, knows that blatant lies will eventually catch up with it and so, I am sure, the administration tells the truth as it sees it more often than not.

Of course, sometimes White House officials will say something that turns out to be untrue, but usually they believe it at the time so it is not properly considered a lie. From what I have seen, there tend to be more false claims of lying than actual claims of lying.

When an administration does say something it knows to be untrue, usually there is a good operational reason for it. For instance, FDR went to extraordinary lengths to mislead Nazi Germany about the time and place of the D-Day landing.

Contrary to popular myth, neither presidents nor the staffs that serve them are prone to telling untruths. All White Houses, even this one, have elaborate fact-checking systems in place to make sure that when the president claims something, there is an empirical basis for doing so. Even a team like President Obama’s, which has relied so heavily on a sympathetic press to insulate it from criticism, knows that blatant lies will eventually catch up with it and so, I am sure, the administration tells the truth as it sees it more often than not.

Of course, sometimes White House officials will say something that turns out to be untrue, but usually they believe it at the time so it is not properly considered a lie. From what I have seen, there tend to be more false claims of lying than actual claims of lying.

When an administration does say something it knows to be untrue, usually there is a good operational reason for it. For instance, FDR went to extraordinary lengths to mislead Nazi Germany about the time and place of the D-Day landing.

Nevertheless, there is a special category of untruth that is rare but revealing, and it is one that the Obama administration has been resorting to with alarming frequency: the untruth designed to protect the president from valid criticism. This is an especially dangerous form of deception, because, in the end, it involves misleading oneself. Once begun, it gets harder and harder for administration’s to dig itself out of policy holes.

That, I fear, is what the Obama administration is slipping into now. Consider two egregious examples.

First, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, went out and told a blatant untruth about the president’s unfortunate "jayvee" comment dismissing the Islamic State (IS) threat. Earnest claimed that the president was not referring to IS when he made the dismissive remark, whereas the transcript makes it obvious beyond dispute that he was. Glenn Kessler, the independent Washington Post "Fact Checker," awarded this "Four Pinnochios," his rating for worst whopper.

To his credit, Earnest did not give in to the temptation to deflect blame onto the intelligence community, for instance, by claiming it misinformed the president; given other reports about what the intelligence community was telling the president, that spin would have been exposed within minutes.

Yet Earnest apparently believed that misleading the public about the president’s earlier remarks was preferable to the other three options. Option 1: saying the president was right then and right now, that the Islamic State was still "jayvee." This is obviously a hard sell given the administration’s own apocalyptic rhetoric (including from President Obama himself and, of course, the additional awkwardness of the intelligence community warnings). Option 2: saying the president was simply wrong about the Islamic State in January. This is a painful concession because it underscores that the administration’s dereliction in not confronting the IS threat earlier was due to the president’s own misreading of the threat (and, more painfully, ignoring "granular" warnings from the intelligence community). Option 3: saying the president was right about IS in January but that the Islamic State threat has grown exponentially since then. Even if the intelligence community warnings would support this course, it, too, involves a very painful concession: It means admitting that the IS threat grew to dangerous levels entirely on Obama’s watch, underscoring the significant costs of Obama’s failure to act sooner.

In other words, the White House told what it knew to be an untruth because the truth would validate a criticism of the president.

A similar dynamic is in play in another, less well-publicized bit of misleading White House spin. The administration has tried to rebut a report in London’s Sunday Times that Obama delayed an attempt to rescue James Foley, the reporter who was subsequently beheaded. The Times story about President Obama’s hesitation was confirmed by a senior Pentagon official, but the White House insists that the president did not hesitate and instead ordered action as soon as the president and his advisors "were confident it could be carried out successfully."

To be fair, this involves a slightly different form of untruth: Instead of an easily disproven factual claim, this is more of a semantic shuffle. Sources say the president hesitated. The White House says the president did not hesitate; he was just not yet confident the operation would be successful. What is the proper term for "not acting because you are not confident the operation would be successful"? Isn’t it "hesitating"?

Of course the president "hesitated." The rescue mission was very risky and involved a substantial escalation of U.S. military action — boots on the ground, however briefly, in Syria. A president who bragged about his deliberateness and thoroughness in reviewing an operation with a much bigger potential upside — the raid that killed Bin Laden — would naturally "hesitate" for some time in the face of a venture with a much higher cost and more uncertain payoff.

But rather than admit the obvious, the White House is trying to spin the story that there was no hesitation. Why? Because otherwise it would have to concede that there was a cost to delay: James Foley was beheaded when earlier (albeit, riskier and more uncertain) action might have saved him.

This is the crucial common denominator in these untruths. The president is wedded to a worldview that says there are costs to haste and action but not to delay and inaction. Rather than admit that there are costs on both sides, he and his staff vigorously deny — to the point of telling demonstrable untruths — any discussion of the costs of their delay and inaction.

This kind of misleading argumentation is unnecessary. I think the president could defend a more reasonable position: Yes, there are huge costs to delay and inaction but I judge the costs of action to be higher. That position gets harder and harder to defend as the costs of the president’s policies mount, but it at least is an honest position.

Yet the administration goes to extraordinary lengths to deny the simple truth that delay and inaction can sometimes have great costs.

Until the administration acknowledges that part of reality, it will not be able to lead an honest debate about its policies. And if can’t do that, another needless cost will be added to the ledger book: the credibility of the president.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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