Lying in Politics Revisited: The Iraq War in the Age of the Internet

Presented to the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy Conference, Auckland, December 2008.


Hannah Arendt's "Lying in Politics" is a pithy essay which not only documents the extent of public deception and personal self-deception by the U.S. administration during their military intervention in Indochina, but also acts as a commentary on her argument for liberty and freedom ensured through constitutional protections and the human motivation to protect those principles.

Forty years later somewhat similar circumstances have arisen. Based on false assertions of the presence of weapons of mass destruction and collaboration with Al-Qaeda (along with other justifications), the world's greatest superpower finds itself embroiled in a war that appears to have no conclusion, suffers a lack of support on the domestic front, and is under profound international criticism.

In addition to revisiting the replication of deception by political administrations to their population contrary to known reality, there are also the issue of significant changes to the acquisition of popular knowledge of popular knowledge that deviates from the official line. The internationalisation of media and the establishment of mass communication systems have profoundly altered the human condition of consciousness generation, but also has different effects in matters of civil disobedience.


Is "Lying in Politics" a topic that is too trivial with far too many examples? Do not most people not react to the possibility of truthfulness in politics with well-grounded and oft-verified cynicism? Yet it is this supposed triviality and the well-established cynicism that engages the political theory that follows. The 'accepted fact' of lying in poltics, this arcana imperii, is deserving of rigorous attention. This this paper will make particular use of some of the shorter, but highly relevant, works of Hannah Arendt and Jurgen Habermas specifically the essays in 'Crises of the Republic' [1] from the former (from which the the title of this presentation derives) and 'Legitimation Crisis' [2] and 'The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere' [3] from the latter. Strictly speaking, this is not a paper of philosophy whose core interests can be described as logic, ontology and epistemology exclusively, but rather social theory, that horizonal instance where philosophy and social inquiry meet.

The origins of this paper were from reading 'Crises of the Republic' in the early months of 2003 whilst working in Timor-Leste. As the various media reports came in it was clear, as will illustrate, that there was never any intent whatsoever other than a military engagement by the United States government and its allies. The immediate reaction from this reading was that history was indeed repeating itself, this time both as tragedy and farce, as it clearly evident that facts (whether the Iraqi government had weapons of mass destruction or links with Al Qaeda et al) had no relationship whatsoever with the unstated, bit quite obvious, economic agenda. The circumstances of immersing oneself in this nascent country as the prospect of the invasion loomed took a disappointing turn when the foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, came out strongly in favour of a military invasion [4].

Arendt's "Lying in Politics" is subtitled "Reflection on the Pentagon Papers", which received open publication due to the tireless efforts of the Alaskan senator, Mike Gravel, who in the most recent U.S. Presidential sought nomination from the Democrat and Libertarian Parties. One is struck increasingly throughout the volumes how political effort was overwhelmingly an excersise in public relations, correctly described as a form of advertising, and perplexingly, often presented in such a manner that it seemed that management of image could change the reality of the war itself. Now Arendt does note that the historical record can be altered, especially by totalitarian governments, as historians well know, but as long as events have a factual contingency, no amount of blunt alteration of records or presentation of image, can change reality. Arendt is particularly concerned on how lying became a normal and indeed a professional obligation; she does not ascribe the behavior to some inherent sinfulness in man, but rather as a result of a political system where popular sovereignity no longer has the right of disclosure. Attention is also drawn to the existentence of professional, erudite, public relations 'trouble shooters' employed at the most strategic levels of government, who are also caught in the apparatus of a systemic distortion of truth thus creating a situation where concealment, falsehood and deception rather than illusion, error and miscalculation is the problem. Indeed, the intelligence reports received by the government were outstandingly accurate and noted the improbability of winning the war from an early stage, or of the disposition of Viet Cong forces. It was in Arendt's words "A defactualized world".

It is obviously not just governments which are prone to such behaviour. Indeed, being somewhat lacking in democratic input, the corporate world also engages in both attempts to concentrate on public relations rather than reality with demonstrable results. It is fitting as the location of this conference the example of the Auckland power blackouts can be used where much of the city was without power for five weeks [5]. The real problem was the electricity grid was carrying 150 MW of load on four main cables that could manage 110 MW. Network engineers had been aware of the problem for some time and even in the 1980s recommendations were made to make contingent upgrades. But management decided against informing the public of the need to engage in load reduction as it was deemed that this would cause bad publicity. So then a cable failed, increasing the load to 150MW on 85MW; then another to 150MW on 65MW and still nothing was done - except for maitaining an image that the situation was normal. Not surprisingly all cables eventually failed and when confronted with the reality of the situation, the electricity company's official response - contrary to the truth which they knew - was that El Nino was to blame.

Now it is well known that the provision of information itself can reframe the interpretation of facts. It is well known from experiments in the phenomeology of perception where, for example, in a darkened room subjects are told thaht a point of light will be moved and asked how far they think it has moved; most people provide a figure when in reality it hasn't moved a all. There is also the extensive use of deep memory modification used in guided hypnosis which, in a special form of evil, was used for most mercenary purposes in the 1980s [6]. In addition it is well recognised that perception is associated with pre-existing meanings and associations which can enframe an observation. However it is a grave error to mistake perception with judgement, presentation with reality, and even more so when the facts are known for honest judgement and evaluation.

"Lying in Politics" is the first essay ofthe "Crises of the Republic" and it seems apparent that the sequential essays provide a likely political trajectory which Arendt espouses her theory and advice. The lies of politicians and the state lead to a loss of legitimacy, which leads to civil disobedience by the informed and engaged citizens which leads to either capitulation by the state and its agents or to a violent response and possibly - after the period of violence in Arendt's theory - revolution and specifically the creation of "lasting institutions" which embody the spirit of political action and political freedom, the vita activa. The closing words of "Lying in Politics" appeals to those who make use of existing constitutional guarantees and speaks in glowing terms of those who cannot be intimidated by government because they have decided they will not be intimidated and that they would prefer to be jailed that see their liberties nibbled away. Thus Arendt describes civil disobedients as a voluntary association which is part of, rather than in opposition to, the principles of American democracy (indeed it was the political establishment, the liars, that representated the antithesis of that tradition) and certainly the appeal to individual moral conscience against unjust laws.

It is a worthwhile project to bring Arendt and the "young Habermas" together, and specifically in this context Habermas' work expresses in "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere" and "Legtimation Crisis". The young Habermas was a Marxist-informed modern rationalist who was concerned with the structural problems of late capitalism, the formation of normative positions through unfettered discourse and communicative action [7]. These earlier works are concerned with the distortion of the public sphere, or what Arendt would call "The polis", and "res publica" and the competing tendencies in human nature faced with governance that is contrary to the moral values of the population. Arendt and the young Habermas both recognised activist and retreatist orientations, and there is understanding the retreatist orientation but with explicit support for the activist, citizen-orientated approach.

In "Legitimation Crisis" Habermas differentiates problems of mass loyalty to a government to other potential crises such as those caused by natural events, political crises (such as conflict between and within states and their apparatus), economic system or bureaucratic procedural crises. The linchpin of this problem relies on the reality that the grounding of legitimacy is derived not from the state or government itself, but rather on the consent of the ruled. "As long as motivations remain tied to norms requiring justification, the introduction of legitimate power into the reproduction process means that the 'fundamental contradiction' can break out in a questioning, rich in practical consequences, of the norms that still underlie administrative action". This is, of course, related to Habermas' earlier discussions of the counterfactual public sphere, and attempts by those with institutional and systematic vested interests to shore up their credibility and motivation among the masses. There is a correlation here with Arendt's, noting thing the misuse of publicity which undermines public opinion formation and, when revealed, does long term damage to legitimacy. "Manipulative publicity" becomes common: "Even arguments are translated into symbols to which again one cannot respond by arguing but only by identifying with them".

Similarities between the Viet Nam and Iraq war can be drawn in the use of political lies from vested interest. From the Tonkin Gulf incident ("where the enemy knew all the facts and the Senate knew none"), to the extensive military intelligence that said that the war was unwinnable etc. The use of deception well known in relation to Iraq and political allegiances can be modified - consider the support of "The Australian" newspaper for Hussein's regime in the 1980s that denied the use of mustard gas against the Kurds citing that hordes of Asian Honey Bees were defecating over Kurdish villages producing something which appeared to be mustard gas, but really wasn't [8].

In the most recent invasion, George Bush, in October 2002, said that satisfaction of the UN conditions would constitute regime change. In September 2002, and Feb 2003 Tony Blair stated the purpose was to remove weapons of mass destruction, not to remove the Hussein government. It seem incredulous to suggest that the pubic statements of the Bush administration and its supporters in the Blair and Howard government concerning the presence of weapons of mass destruction reflected the intelligence they had received on the matter. An independent assessment by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that Bush Administration officials did misuse intelligence in their public communications. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney's September 2002 statement on Meet the Press that "we do know, with absolute certainty, that he [Saddam] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon" did not concur with published intelligence reports. A study coauthored by Center for Public Integrity [9] found that in the two years after September 11, 2001 the president and top administration officials had made 935 false statements and that the press was largely complicit in its uncritical coverage of the reasons adduced for going to war.

Critics have also questioned the validity of a range of the war's stated objectives, such as a suggested relationship between Iraq's government and the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Kelly Affair highlighted a possible attempt by the British government to cover-up fabrications in British intelligence, the exposure of which would have undermined the Prime Minister's original rationale for involvement in the war. In the Downing Street Memo, written in July 2002, the former head of British Military Intelligence wrote that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of overthrowing the Hussein reghime [10]. So what was the war about? The invasion was initially called Operation Iraqi Liberation until honest acronym OIL was noticed and it was changed to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tony Blair stated the theory the Iraq invasion was primarily about oil to be a "conspiracy theory"; and yes it does seem that way.. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has dismissed on multiple occasions the role of oil in the Iraq Invasion: "No criticism is more outrageous than the claim that United States behaviour is driven by a wish to take control of Iraq's oil reserves." [11]

Yet many critics have focused upon administration officials past relationship with energy sector corporations. Both the President and Vice President were formerly CEOs of oil and oil-related companies such as Arbusto, Harken Energy, Spectrum 7, and Halliburton. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq and even before the War on Terror, the administration had prompted anxiety over whether the private sector ties of cabinet members (including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, former director of Chevron, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, former head of Tom Brown Inc.) would affect their judgment on energy policy. Without a doubt Iraq, holding the second largest known quantity of oil reserves, certainly constitutes an agreeable military target, assuming such a disposition, given these vest interests.

Most critics of the invasion claimed that it would lead to more casualties than it would prevent and thus fell into the criteria of being an "unjust war". There were concerns of that war represented a breach of the Westphalian concept that foreign governments should not intervene in another sovereign nation's internal affairs, especially given that the invasion was conducted without United Nations' approval and was hence a violation of international law. Benjamin B. Ferencz, who served as the U.S.'s Chief Prosecutor of Nazi war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials denounced the Iraq War as "an aggressive war" (named at Nuremberg as "the supreme international crime") and stated his belief that George W. Bush, should be tried for war crimes [12].

The degree of mass opposition to the war was reflected by over ten million people across six hundred cities worldwide protesting on February 15, 2003 - the largst protest in history. The Internet undoubtably helped galvinise public expression in this manner; even the most casual review of online material at the time indicates how the decentralised communication networks, backed by a (to invert Arendt's phrase) a "refactualisation of public life", helped this massive - and continuing process. However, the responsive regimes became less concerned with public protest qua protest. Unlike the Eastern European regimes of ten years prior they did not capitulate simply because of mass crowds. As Clinton Fernandes points out in "Reluctant Saviour" [13], protests mean nothing to today's ruling class if people remain compliant workers the day after the protest. Only when they engage in mass civil disobedience (and Fernandes illustrates this through the industrial action for East Timor carried out by Australian workers and unions), does the contemporary ruling class care about a loss of legitimation; that is, legitimation concerns must be backed by political challenges to authority.

According to Arendt, when people lose faith in their governing authorities they have the capacity to create their own instituitions, ex nihilo, with the typical historical manifestation of local organisations with the potential of revolutionary change. Circumstances today however are different, as the primary form of "public space", for probably the majority of individuals in advanced countries, is computer mediated communication. This has distinct differences in the phenomenology of community and communication. To address the theme social organisation in the age of the Internet is most certainly a post-human experience (this is, of course, not to imply that the participants are not human or that they have necessarily lost their humanity although certainly some certainly do act that way). Early examples of these phenomenological differenced were explored by social psychologists as early as the 1980s and were documented in detail by the research of Elizabeth Reid in the early 1990s and more recently by Walther and in a collection of material edited by Jayne Gackenback [14].

The difference in phenomology leads to two effects; one positive and one negative. The positive is the availability of information that would otherwise be difficult to attain. It is worthy of recalling the difficulty in accessing information prior to the Internet. This availability of information, the relatively low capital cost, the capacity to seek multiple references to back up a point of view etc was incredibly successful in the debate over the Iraq war witnessed by a wide-ranging opposition sites such as "Guerra da Tiempo", Professor Juan Cole's "Informed Comment", and the Libertarian orientated "" as three prominent examples. The negative is the loss of social cues and the resulting "trolling" and poor netiquette which actually drives people away. If you have an open Internet forum with a modicum of popularity and there is no moderator in a short time the forum will degenerate into a small group of individuals feeding off abusive and argumentative language and driving other potential participants away.

The current reality is that despite all the talk of the establishment of user-created content, the "virtual community" of what is called "Web 2.0", the various 'blogs, facebook-like sites, twitter and so forth, only a small percentage are engaging in this community and arguably this is due to the presence of 'trolls', time-wasting individuals who exist soley for argument, rather than a cooperative search for the truth and mutual understanding [15]. In other words, they breach the first requirement expressed by Habermas as a foundation of a public sphere and formation of public opinion; intentional semantics. A number of tools have been developed to reduce the destructive power and prevalence of such expressions. Tech-savvy sites like Kuro5hin and SlashDot use a mechanism by which the community moderates itself by other members rating communities; this strategy is also used by YouTube and to a lesser extent Amazon, although less successfully there, due to political polling regardless of content. A more sophiticated method provides community members voting strength that varies according to how other users have rated their past behaviour. Paid memberships, persistant identities across multiple sites, and the old-fashioned method of human moderation are other strategies [16].

The specific concern of the Internet to future directions of society, is whether or not this 'virtual community' can perform the functions of an technically mediated and enhanced 'public sphere'. This would be an environment where parties may engage with equal discourse chances and in an undistorted setting, for the general good. If this is so, the benefits of such a public sphere suggest mediation by external social systems. The critical question, as Anita Thorton put it quite bluntly, is "Does The Internet Create Democracy?" [17] The idea of a public sphere in Habermas is a part of society, independent of political institutions and the economy sub-system, where participants can engage in discursive will formation. That is, through free and open debate, with equal rights for all participants and an intent for a co-operative search for the truth, individuals can overcome their own subjective prejudice and instead form considered convictions. In contrast the mass media, certainly linked with the economic subsystem, is a body that is less interested in analyzing political controversy with a view to the public good, to the control, determination, commodification and sensationalist news.

The advantage of the Internet is that everybody is a pubisher and everyone is an editor; but with the prior caveat concerning intent applying. Within the limitations of the particular setting of the Internet, the perspective taken is one of the role of the Internet as a location where the public sphere (Habermas) or public space (Arendt) can be regenerated as a place of discourse and in the interest of freedom which includes ensuring truth in our public institutions, engaging in civil disobedience and revolutionary change. Furthermore, the orientation and critical tasks that lie ahead for the future of the Internet will be the institutional and systematic embodiment of those features of positive and negative freedom, for a public space in life and public discourse where people as equals may to come together to determine matters of a common interest.

The replication of deception by government for the purpose of unjust war is evident in both Viet Nam and Iraq. The alternative is an involvement in politics, starting with the recreation of a new public sphere, a new polis, when the official, state-sanctioned means of involvement have systematically divested citizens from their capacity to participate. The new forms however can be both orientated towards local "town hall" formations (such as advocated by Arendt, following Jefferson) and also driven towards those lasting institutions of institutional democracy which can prevent a contination of unjust violence. However this post-human means of meeting "The Internet" does bring new challenges which refer very specifically to ability to turn informed online activism into offline activism and the capacity to ensure that the most transhuman element of Habermas' ideal speech situation - the intent to reach mutual understanding beyond subjective desires and vested interests - is ensured.

1] Hannah Arendt "Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution", Harvest Books, 1972

2] Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, Beacon Press , 1975, FP 1973

3] Jürgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, MIT Press, 1991 FP 1962

4] José Ramos-Horta, "Why Freedom's Cost May Be War", The Age, February 27, 2003

5] Paul Fenwick, "An Illustrated History of Failure", O'Reilly Open Source Convention ("OsCon"), Portland, USA, July 25, 2008

6] Australian Health Services Commissioner, "Inquiry into the practice of recovered memory therapy", Government of Australia, 2005

7] This is contrasted with the "old Habermas", who has recently taken a pro-religious line to the extent of claiming that Christianity is the sole source of egalitarianism, freedom, social solidarity, and individual conscience. cf., Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, MIT Press, 2002 (FP 1998), p 149.

8] "It"s honey-bees; not yellow rain", The Australian, 30 March 1984, page 7. The Australian quotes "a Harvard University biologist", Professor Matthew Meselson, who "discovered that wild colonies of South-East Asian honey-bees perform massive defecation flights which can cover a swath thousands of square metres in area, with 100 or more spots of yellowish faeces per square metre."

9] Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith, "Iraq, The War Card: Orchestrated Deception On The Path To War", The Center for Public Integrity, 2008

10] David Manning, "The Secret Downing Street Memo", The Sunday Times, May 1, 2005

11] Both the original comment from 2003 and a sudden change are available in the transcript from the Australian Broadcasting Commission for "The World Today", July 5, 2007, entitled "Australia must protect oil supply: Howard"

12] Aaron Glantz, "Bush and Saddam Should Both Stand Trial, Says Nuremberg Prosecutor", OneWorld U.S., August 25, 2006.

13] Clinton Fernandes, "Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor", Scribe Publications, 2004

14] Sarah Kiesler, Jane Siegel, Timothy W. McGuire,"Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication", American Psychologist, 39, 10, 1123-1134, 1984. Elizabeth Reid, "Electropolis: Communication and Community on Internet Relay Chat", Honours Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1991. Jason B. Walther, "Computer-Mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction", Communication Research, 23, 1, p 3-43, 1996. Jayne Gackenbach (ed), "Psychology and the Internet : Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications", Academic Press, 1998.

15] John B. Horrigan, "A Typology of Information and Communication Technology Users", Pew Internet & American Life Project, May 7, 2007

16] Cory Doctorow, "How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community", InformationWeek, May 14, 2007

17] Alinta Thorton, "Does The Internet Create Democracy?", Masters Thesis, University of Technology Sydney, 1996

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Government must release cabinet minutes on lead-up to Iraq war

Iraq war motives must remain a secret

How would you see America's war on Iraq? Is it a war for oil? America's global war on terror which started immediately after the 9/11 WTO bombings by the Al Qaeda over seven years ago continues. Afghanistan seems to have been stabilized or rather at least there is no news about what's happening there. But Iraq is constantly in the news both within the US and outside.

What a wonderful blog, I will take my spare time to visit your blog.

How do you notice This country's fight against Irak? Can it be the battle regarding essential oil? This country's worldwide fight against fear which usually started out just after the particular 9/11 WTO bombings from the 's Qaeda above 7 years back carries on. Afghanistan has recently been stable in other words a minimum of there isn't any media concerning what is taking place presently there. Yet Irak is continually in news reports equally inside the Us all and also exterior.

at some point in my life, I realized there's no point in trying to expose all the lying that goes on in politics... America will never trust the government. At the end of the day, you need to just worry about making sure you and your family is doing well, and not focus on politics.

Avoidance should not be considered an option. All it means is those who engage in it will be encouraged. Active exposure of lies through political participation is both effective and preventative.

If one really wants to help their family - and the families of others - keeping politicians "on their toes" is a remarkably effective means.

thanks for post

Thanks for the nice blog.
It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for and I am glad to come here! Thanks for sharing such a valuable information with us.

Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely believe that this site needs far more attention. I'll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the information!


I had fun reading your article and cannot imagine what happened to iraq before. I tried to collect some photo's during the iraqi war and tried to make it as an essay.

Well, I have gathered some photos but it is not enough.