My colleague here at the Security Studies Group, Jim Hanson, frequently refers to diplomacy as “formalized lying in formal wear.” The best diplomacy, though, is often the most honest. Most important of all is for us to be honest with ourselves. In 1950, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a public speech in which he defined America’s defensive perimeter in Asia as excluding South Korea and Taiwan. About six months later, North Korea launched its attempt to conquer the South that started the Korean War. The war, and all the subsequent trouble, might have been avoided if Acheson had been more honest with himself and others about what America’s interests were, and what she was prepared to defend.
Likewise, in 2012 then-President Barack Obama declared that he had a “red line” in Syria over the use of chemical weapons by the regime. In 2013, with that red line very publicly crossed by Syria’s Bashar Assad, Obama backed off. As a consequence the Assad regime doubled down on its use of terrible weapons against civilian populations. The resulting atrocities against civilians were not the only negative result, although they were the worst result. In addition, Assad’s terrorism towards his population set off a massive refugee crisis that continues to destabilize European politics.
During the same period, the Obama administration was negotiating its nuclear agreement with Iran. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but that was not the case. In fact, from the beginning the Obama administration was pursuing any deal the Iranians would accept, making major concessions early and continuing to make more concessions throughout the process. Not only were they dishonest about their intentions, the President had his adviser Ben Rhodes — an aspiring novelist before joining the administration — invent an “echo chamber” in order to sell an intentionally deceptive “narrative” to journalists. Those journalists passed the echoing narrative on to the American people. The result? Iran’s government testing new ballistic missiles, having vastly increased resources to devote to dominating the Middle East through proxy forces, and regular violations of what little agreement there turned out to be.
It is not difficult to add to this list. Readers can doubtless think of numerous other examples of American diplomacy going wrong by not being honest. Sometimes it is not honest about what it is prepared to defend. Sometimes it goes wrong by insisting on seeing what it wants to see instead of what is really there — perhaps that was true of Obama’s team in Iran, and perhaps it was true of Bush’s team in Iraq.
These failures are failures of the sort that Sun Tzu warns against: failures to know your enemy, and to know yourself. Failing in these matters courts disaster. Failing at both can mean defeat and destruction.
Jerusalem is another area on which American diplomats and political leaders have spoken frequently. It is also another matter on which they have lied. They have lied to get elected, they have lied to obtain campaign contributions, and they have lied because they think that the Palestinians or ‘the Arab world’ cannot handle the truth. The truth is that Israel has held the Old City for fifty years, and will not be giving it up in any imaginable set of negotiations. The truth is that a capital city is the city where your government resides, and Jerusalem is where Israel’s government resides. Jerusalem is Israel’s capital city, and if we are honest with ourselves about Israel we will admit that we know that Israel will defend Jerusalem if it can defend any scrap of land.
Pretending things are otherwise does not change how things really are. It only sets you up for failure. Whatever other virtues yesterday’s declaration has, it was honest. It brings America’s actions in line with its law, with its long promises, and with the facts on the ground. It opens a path to talk about things that might really change instead of things that will not.
Much more honesty is needed. Those of you who follow me on Twitter have seen a lot of negative stories about American military readiness lately. It is not that I wish to run down the American military, or that I think it is to be celebrated that our military is breaking. Rather, it is that we need to recognize the truth about how strained our force has become. When 90% of amphibious warfare training requests by the Marine Corps have to go unfilled by the Navy, that is a problem we need to be honest with ourselves about. When Naval officers need remedial training on surface warfare systems after they have commanded ships at sea that field those systems, that is a problem we need to be honest about. When military officials point out that technologies meant to deter North Korea from developing nuclear missiles won’t be ready to field until after North Korea already has those missiles, we need to ask honestly what has gone wrong. Our national security needs to take stock of these realities and grapple with them.
Taking a realist view is the key to our national security, but the power of honesty does not stop there. There are a great many areas beyond national security in which this propensity in American culture to tell ourselves lies has grown strong. The Security Studies Group is focused on security, so I will not go into the other areas in this space. I will simply state that, in all our areas of national life, we should focus on seeing the truth and then speaking it. We should know ourselves, and admit the truth about what makes us strong and what makes us weak. To continue to do otherwise is to court ruin.