Monday, January 23, 2017

Falsehood Cannot Be the Basis for US Foreign Policy
Gideon Rachman
Financial Times

The man from the BBC was laughing as he reported the White House’s false claims about the size of the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration. He should have been crying. What we are witnessing is the destruction of the credibility of the American government.

This spectacle of obvious lies being peddled by the White House is a tragedy for US democracy. But the rest of the world — and, in particular, America’s allies — should also be frightened. A Trump administration that is addicted to the “big lie” has very dangerous implications for global security.

As Robert Moore, the Washington correspondent for ITN, puts it: “If the White House press secretary says things that we know to be demonstrably false, why will we trust him on North Korea, Russia, Iran [and the] war on Isis?” That is not just a good question — it is a vital one.

There are international crises during every US presidency. The Trump administration is likely to be particularly crisis-prone, given the new president’s volatile and aggressive nature. When an international confrontation looms, the US has traditionally looked to its allies for support — at the UN or even on the battlefield. But how will America be able to rally support, in the Trump era, if its allies no longer believe what the US president and his aides have to say?

It is true that faith in America’s word was badly damaged by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But most of America’s friends were still willing to believe that the US had blundered on the basis of false intelligence, rather than deliberately lying to make the case for war. Since the Iraq war, the Obama administration has done a lot to rebuild faith in the credibility of the US government.

Mr Trump is undoing all that good work in days. He is in a different category of dishonesty from the villains of yesteryear, such as Dick Cheney, George W Bush’s vice-president. With Mr Trump, the lies are so frequent and so flagrant that they are undeniable.

Some may argue, desperately, that lying about the size of the crowds at the inauguration, or about disputes with the intelligence services, are just “little” lies that need not affect the Trump administration’s credibility on serious issues of war and peace.

That ignores the fact that Mr Trump’s political career has been soaked in falsehoods from the start. It began on the basis of a lie — that President Barack Obama was not born in America — and proceeded from there.

If the Trump administration now destroys American credibility, it will have handed the Russian and Chinese governments a victory of historic proportions. The cold war was a battle not just about economics or military strength, but also about the truth. The Soviet Union collapsed, in the end, partly because it was too obvious that it was a regime based on lies.

Modern Russia has adopted a more sophisticated form of dishonesty. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin claims, with a knowing wink, that everybody lies and manipulates, and that the White House is no different from the Kremlin. Russia has made some progress with this strategy. But it also has clear limitations. The Kremlin was unable convincingly to deny that Russian weaponry was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014. The result was the imposition of further international economic sanctions on Russia.

But in any future struggle over the true version of events during an international crisis, the rest of the world may be now no more inclined to believe Mr Trump’s America than Mr Putin’s Russia.

Having a liar in the White House is a disaster not just for global security but also for the cause of democracy all over the world. Until now, dissidents in Russia, China or other authoritarian regimes could wage a lonely and dangerous fight for the truth, and point to the west to show that a better way existed. They could argue that lies are not the norm and that “the truth will set us free”. But the word freedom barely figured in Mr Trump’s inaugural address. And the US president is clearly indifferent to the truth.

If the Trump administration cannot be relied upon to stand up for normal standards of honesty in politics, where else can the world turn? The German government, led by Angela Merkel, cannot do it alone. The British may be too desperate to do a trade deal with the US to take any chances with its relationship with Mr Trump. Indeed, there is a real risk that Theresa May, the UK prime minister, will abase herself and her country by embracing Mr Trump too tightly when she visits Washington later this week.

The European democracies could still set an example, by demonstrating that most western countries do not practise the debased discourse of Trumpism. But the biggest role in protecting the truth — and therefore democracy itself — will fall to Americans.

The press will need to be robust and courageous. The legal system, in which the truth still matters, may ultimately determine the fate of this administration.

American institutions from the media to Congress and the courts have demonstrated their independence from the White House in the past. They are about to be tested as never before.

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