Every international crisis generates more than its fair share of insta-experts, charlatans, and Wikipedia summarizers, so it’s probably best for political pundits to try to stick to subjects we’re genuinely knowledgeable about.
For example: President Donald Trump is a deeply dishonest person.
Since long before he was a politician, he’s lied frequently and even written in multiple books about his profound belief in the value of lying as a means to get ahead. And he’s good at it. After his Atlantic City casinos went bust, he successfully duped a bunch of mom-and-pop equity investors out of their money to get out of debt and had them pay him a salary for the privilege. He then got himself elected president and immediately started bullshitting about everything from the size of his inaugural crowds to the way NATO works to Chinese currency manipulation.
When someone has proven over and over again that they are not trustworthy, you can, and in important situations should, stop trusting them.
Unfortunately, in the escalating crisis with Iran, many people seem to have forgotten this basic principle.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on CNN Friday morning to explain that the Trump administration killed a top Iranian general to forestall an “imminent threat” and that the decision to do so “saved American lives.” Those remarks are simply echoed uncritically in the Washington Post’s main write-up of the story, along with the observation that Pompeo “stressed that Washington is committed to de-escalation” — a fairly dubious assertion given the current cycle of escalating hostilities dates to Trump’s unprovoked decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. An ABC News write-up stresses the risks of Iranian retaliation, but simply takes Pompeo’s claim of an imminent threat at face value.
It’s obviously possible that this claim is true. But it’s somewhat at odds with the Department of Defense’s statement Thursday night saying merely that Suleimani was “actively developing plans” for attacks and that the American bombing was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” rather than disrupting an ongoing one. And indeed, David Sanger’s news analysis in the New York Times takes the Pentagon’s deterrence account at face value without noting that the secretary of state actually claims the attack was about something else.
Beyond the contradictions, telling the truth about something would be a strange, new departure for the Trump administration, and it seems unwise to assume that’s something they would do.
Trump lies all the time about everything
All politicians garner fact-checks, but Trump is so dishonest that CNN’s Daniel Dale has a beat composed exclusively of keeping track of all the nonsense the president spouts, routinely generating headlines like “Trump made 96 false claims over the last two weeks” and “Trump makes at least 18 false claims in ranting Fox & Friends interview.”
The sheer range of things Trump lies about — including recently claiming that the prime minister of Canada edited a version of Home Alone 2 to remove a Trump cameo — is mind-boggling and goes way beyond any kind of normal political process.
Part of Trump lying about everything is that he frequently says things specifically about Iran that are not true. Back in July, for example, Trump tweeted about the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal that misstated the amount of money involved, misstated the duration of the deal, and fabricated secret Iranian violations of the agreement. It was not particularly clear at the time why Trump was lying about this stuff. But he lies so routinely about everything that people scarcely bother to inquire about what might be driving those specific lies.
Iran has long been secretly “enriching,” in total violation of the terrible 150 Billion Dollar deal made by John Kerry and the Obama Administration. Remember, that deal was to expire in a short number of years. Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2019
Trump, from time to time, even lies about his own past statements on Iran, spending one day in September complaining that the media reported he’d said he was willing to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions when he clearly said in both an interview with Chuck Todd and a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he was willing to meet without preconditions.
The point is that the probative value of a Trump statement about Iran is, to be generous, roughly zero. And Pompeo is no better.
Mike Pompeo lies a lot (albeit not as much as Trump)
In the early Trump years, false things Pompeo said would often be contradicted by members of his team who valued their standing in polite society over loyalty to Trump.
Over time, people like former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats who were in the habit of doing that have been pushed out in favor of people like Pompeo. As the former CIA director, Pompeo distorted intelligence about Russia to fit Trump’s preferred narratives. Then, as secretary of state, he misled the public about his role in the Ukrainian aid holdup that led to Trump’s impeachment.
Pompeo, too, engages in routine misstatements about Iran specifically, including lies about Iranian nuclear research.
This is important because Pompeo has become the public face of the administration on this issue. Although Pompeo does not engage in the range of dishonest statements that Trump does, his more focused dishonesty does include statements on Iran.
Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless
I vividly recall spending much of the winter of 2002-2003 arguing with other college students about the then-looming US invasion of Iraq.
In the strongly anti-Bush climate on campus, one popular view was that the administration was simply lying about the strength of its intelligence on Iraqi WMD programs. I felt this was naive; the Bush team not only had direct access to the intelligence, but they were the ones pushing for an invasion that would, if it happened, end up exposing exactly what the state of those programs was. It was preposterous to believe, as my anti-war friends did, that Bush’s team was deliberately engineering a series of events that would simply lead to them being utterly discredited.
This was, needless to say, flawed logic on my part that was really driven home last night as Bush administration officials Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer appeared on Sean Hannity’s program to advocate for hawkish policy toward Iran.
Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer currently on Fox News breaking everything down pic.twitter.com/Xm3DwyCF3u— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) January 3, 2020
It’s scary to contemplate the possibility that the president would approach matters of war and peace with roughly the level of honesty and forethought that he brings to vital issues like Canadian edits of Home Alone 2.
Consequently, I understand the psychological impulse to set aside years’ worth of Trump fact-checking and put men with suits on television to explain what’s happening with their secret intelligence. But this is a poor forecasting principle. Back in May, there was a sudden outburst of enthusiasm about Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, complete with media scolding of churlish liberals who refused to give credit where due for a breakthrough. I was skeptical, based on the principle that you shouldn’t trust liars, and I was right. Now the latest is that Trump’s Korean diplomacy has completely collapsed, but it’s being overshadowed by Iran news.
The sad fact of the matter is that the world is a scary place. Powerful people lie, including about important matters. They sometimes don’t get caught, and even when they do, they don’t always suffer for it. I hope there was some kind of good reason to bomb that Baghdad airport and some kind of plan to deal with the aftermath. But all we really know is that the people in charge of explaining to us what happened and why aren’t worthy of our trust.