Voices from the street speak the truth it's leaders that lie

The Age

Monday February 21, 2011

WARWICK McFADYEN - Warwick McFadyen is a senior writer.

We tend to believe those in power, but as the Iraq war shows, we shouldn't. EIGHT years ago, millions of people worldwide marched in protest against the looming war in Iraq. It was a pre-emptive strike, but to little avail. Their words fell on deaf ears. A month later, the "coalition of the willing", led by the US, attacked Baghdad.Announcing the 2003 invasion, US president George Bush declared: "The dangers to our country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others."It is very easy to view this speechifying as the words of a leader of a nation trying to rouse his people to not only accept what is done in their name, but to defend it and die for it. But we should pass judgment. Words matter, and lies can kill. Bush's words were vague and hollow. They were woven into the flag, and they carried the grief-laced memory of 9/11. Saddam Hussein may have had nothing to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001, nor have possessed weapons of mass destruction that could imperil the world, but Iraq was the target almost from the moment the twin towers fell. It was a massive deception, a global deception, to be rid of one man, albeit one who was a dictator and tyrant to his own people.Bush was as good as his word. By year's end, Saddam was found hiding in a hole in the ground and was executed not long after for crimes against humanity. Did the deceit matter if the goal was achieved?Last week, the Iraqi defector known as "Curveball" admitted he had lied about the information he gave to the West about WMDs. Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi told The Guardian: "I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that." Colin Powell is furious. It was he, after all, who went before the United Nations to demonstrate Iraq's alleged WMD capability.In his latest book, Why Leaders Lie, University of Chicago academic John Mearsheimer examined the cause and effect of lying. In a recent interview with The Boston Globe Mearsheimer said he believed the words of then US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld ahead of those of weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who believed there were likely to be no WMDs. Mearsheimer believed Rumsfeld because, as defence secretary, "I just trusted" him.He later said: "The public by and large trusts its leaders not only to tell the truth, but to get the job done. When they don't get the job done, they get punished, and when they don't get the job done and it comes out they lied, they're in serious trouble. If you're going to tell a lie, make sure the policy works out."Or, as Hitler stated: "In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie."In Egypt these past weeks, words have mattered. But this time the ones that mattered have arisen from the people on the streets. They carried a generation's suppressed anger, repression and frustration into the air. They have given form to an idea whose time had come.The uprising of the Egyptian people was exactly that: a rising up. Hosni Mubarak had tried to ignore the tide, but the torrent was too great.A New York Times report of the demonstrations said: "One young girl was wearing a sign urging Mubarak to leave quickly. It said: 'Make it short. This is history, and we will have to memorise it at school.' "Perhaps I'm being too wide-eyed, perhaps it was pressure from above from other world leaders that forced Mubarak to leave. However, if that were the case then they would have only felt the need to act because of what was happening in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt. When words were spoken by thousands, no one could pretend not to hear them. It must be said also that a crucial factor in the revolt's success was the role of the army. It's a stark contrast to China; 20 years ago in Tiananmen Square, the voices of protest were silenced by the violence of the bullet.Rumsfeld had a saying that he used at least twice in public in 2002. It was this: "There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns the ones we don't know we don't know."If you didn't know the author you could be forgiven for thinking it was from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke or a mystic contemplating the meaning of life in a cave in the Himalayas.Rumsfeld has recently released Known Unknown: A Memoir in which he basically says that everything he did was right, (except for the odd "mis-statement"). The "unknown knowns" was in defence of a paucity of data about weapons of mass destruction, Iraq and terrorist groups.Rumsfeld believed his oration of knowingness. That's the scary thing. As did Bush. One notable exception in modern American history is the example of Robert McNamara, government hawk during the Vietnam War. In his twilight years, he came to an epiphany. It was simple enough: he was wrong.The mistake leaders make, however, is in not believing what the people on the street are saying.

© 2011 The Age

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