Voice

The 14 Biggest Lies of 2011

The big fibs that defined our year.

I live in Washington where lying is an art form. Actually, that suggests an artist's intent and here in D.C., lying is more reflexive, like breathing or taking cash from fat cats.

But when you live in a place like this -- if you can call it living -- where somehow we have managed to train moral mice to produce the shit of bulls, you really get an appreciation for a fine lie. Some stand out for their subtlety -- they almost feel true. (President Obama wants to get special interests out of American politics.) Some are noteworthy because of their audacity (Newt Gingrich brought down communism.) Some capture our attention because of the ability of their authors to deliver them with a straight face (Mitt Romney says he has deeply held political convictions).

But every year there are a select few lies offered here and out on the world stage that stand out. They are the big lies that have defined our times.

Let me offer a few examples from just the world of U.S. foreign policy and then, if you have more suggestions, please, send them in. Someday soon we plan to build a Museum of Lying right out on the Mall so there is finally a monument that captures the essence of this festering swamp.

1. “This next summit of European leaders will be decisive …”

We’ve heard this one every few weeks for months now. And every time our supposedly sophisticated financial markets fall for it again. It’s like Lucy with Charlie Brown’s football. When will we learn?

 

 

2. “The war in Iraq is finally over after 9 years.”

Much celebration today due to this “fact.” Seems pretty straightforward. But of course, we’ve been militarily engaged one way or another with Iraq since the early 1990s. This is just the end of one of a series of wars in the region. My bet is it’s not the last one.

 

 

3. “America’s mission in Iraq was a success.”

See previous lie. The place is divided, undemocratic, heavily influenced by Iran, corrupt, and our invasion cost $1 trillion, thousands of U.S. lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and our national reputation. Look in the dictionary next to fiasco. There’s a little picture of a dude in a flight jacket standing on a carrier deck in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

 

4. “We are winning in Afghanistan.”

Latest version of this howler came just today from Secretary of Defense Panetta in Afghanistan. If winning were narrowly defined as beating al Qaeda, it’d be true. But, if we leave and the place is more dangerous, the Taliban is back in charge, we’re associated with corruption and departure, we’ve strengthened the region’s extremists and the threat of instability in nuclear Pakistan is now actually higher than it was when we went in, it’s hard to see how we can call it “winning” unless by “we” we mean Charlie Sheen.

5. Tie: “Pakistan is America’s ally” and “Afghanistan is America’s partner.”

I know, I know, you say “it’s a lie,” I say, “it’s diplomacy,” potato, potahto. But there is actually no credible definition by which the government of Pakistan could be called an ally of the U.S. unless you are willing to overlook all their enemy-like behavior. Same re: our pal Karzai in Kabul. He’s only a partner in the sense that he’s got his hand in our pocket, even as he is talks smack about us to the world.

 

6. “America is unthreatened by China’s growth.”

Secretary Clinton was the latest to utter this little prayer. And I’m sure she meant it. And it should be true. But it’s not.

 

 

 

7. “We believe diplomatic pressure may stop Iran’s nuclear program.”

If we believed that would we be waging a secret war there? Which brings us to another lie, “America will never attack Iran.” This is a lie -- because we already have.

 

 

8. Tie: “Republicans are the problem” and “Democrats are the problem.”

This is the great lie of American politics. It’s not the parties that are the problems. It’s not even the parade of snake oil salesmen and the idle rich who make up our political leadership class. It’s the money. The system is so resolutely corrupt that recent scandals have only resulted in more money flowing into the system and past reforms being undone.

 

9. “Cutting the taxes of millionaires helps creates U.S. jobs.”

This one wins in the audacity category. It is said with a straight face without one shred of evidence to support it. You know why there’s not one shred of evidence, right? ‘Cause it’s an idiotic, insupportable idea.

 

 

10. “The U.S. might default on its debt.”

Wasn’t close to happening. Will never happen. This is still the country that owns the printing presses that produces what is unchallenged as the world’s reserve currency. No president or congress of either party would ever let it happen. The “scare” in August was half hysterical, half fabrication and, in keeping with the way we do math here in D.C., half about trying to jolt the inert denizens of the U.S. Capitol into actually doing something to fix the U.S. deficit.

11. “The Obama administration is committed to serious financial services reform.”

Ha. Dodd-Frank was a palliative. Creating oversight responsibilities without funding the overseers is kabuki theater. Virtually all the serious threats to the financial system that caused 2008 remain. (Even if U.S. banks have made some progress on the capital requirements side, that’s offset by the fact they’re connected to even more reckless eurobanks. And there are more “too big to fail” financial institutions today than there were before the crisis. Derivatives? Only a bigger problem than before. Global regulation? Not an inch of progress.)

12. “Only 9 percent of Americans approve of Congress.”

This can’t possibly be true. There can’t possibly be that many.

 

 

 

 

13. “The operation in Libya will be over in a matter of days or weeks.”

The operation was a success. But this was wrong and then wrong and then wrong again for months.

 

 

 

14. “I love Israel.”

Everybody in U.S. politics says it. Most of those who say it however, mean, “I want American Jews to think I love Israel enough to vote for me and give me money.” Think we will move the embassy? That they’ll make their first trip there? That the U.S. will stand loyally by Israel under any circumstances, even if Israel continues to complicate matters with its settlements policy and the rest of the region creeps toward something like democracy? Ha. This is right up there with “the check is in the mail,” “I’ll respect you in the morning” and that other one.

Those are just a few of a bumper year for duplicity, mendacity, and craven mistatements. Got more? We can’t wait.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The List

Iraq's War Stories

As the United States leaves Mesopotamia, these are the articles that defined the conflict.

From a concrete courtyard in Baghdad's international airport, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared the official end of the U.S. war in Iraq today. And while the final troops won't be out of country until later this month, the occasion doesn't mean the end of war in Iraq: The struggle for control of the country will no doubt continue, largely beyond Washington's ability to control. But it does mark a milestone in the U.S. relationship with Iraq, where over one million Americans served, tens of thousands were injured, and 4,487 died.

Tracking the war has also occupied American journalism for the past nine years, at extraordinary cost -- both physical and financial. The war has claimed the lives of 145 journalists, including U.S. journalists such as The Atlantic's Michael Kelly, NBC News's David Bloom, and freelancer Steven Vincent. But it was also the sheer cost of protecting reporters and moving about the country that drove many media organizations out of the country: At the peak of the war, for example, the New York Times bureau in Baghdad cost an estimated $3 million a year to maintain and featured 45 armed guards, three armored cars, and a blast wall.

As the last U.S. soldiers depart, here are five articles that -- against all odds -- told the story of the Iraq war.

A Tale of Two Baghdads: One sunny day in June 2003, just two months after President George W. Bush had delivered what became known as his "Mission Accomplished" speech, The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid and Tom Ricks joined a U.S. patrol as it moved through a Baghdad neighborhood. Ricks marched with the soldiers, while Shadid followed behind -- talking to the Iraqis who the patrol had passed by. What emerged was one of the first inklings that the U.S. forces would not be greeted as the liberators they evidently perceived themselves to be.

""Everybody likes us," a U.S. soldier told Ricks, assessing that the neighborhood was 95 percent friendly.

"We're against the occupation, we refuse the occupation -- not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent," an Iraqi watching the patrol told Shadid. "They're walking over my heart. I feel like they're crushing my heart."

Mario Tama/Getty Images 

Hells Bells: The Nov. 2004 battle of Fallujah drove home the brutality of the Iraq war, and nobody told the story better than New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins. The book that emerged from his reporting, The Forever War, opens with an account of the beginning of the invasion -- a screeching cacophony where loudspeakers on Fallujah's mosques directed residents to come out and fight the Americans, and the Marines' attempted to drown out the sound by blasting the heavy metal band AC/DC.

"Four men stepped from the darkness," Filkins wrote at the height of the battle, describing a small group of U.S. solders. "They wore flight suits that shimmered in the night and tennis shoes and hoods that made them look like executioners. The four men wore goggles that shrouded their eyes and gave off lime-green penumbras that lightened their faces...I couldn't see their eyes through the green glowing but one of them was on the balls of his feet, bouncing, like a football player on the sidelines. Coach, he seemed to be saying, put me in the game."

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Versailles on the Tigris: The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran described better than anyone else the self-contained bubble that was Baghdad's Green Zone in his Imperial Life in the Emerald City. In meticulous detail, he painted a portrait of a war effort guided by those who had previously enjoyed connections to GOP powerbrokers or the conservative Heritage Foundation -- but who lacked a rudimentary understanding of what was occurring outside of the blast walls.

"It was the ideal place for the Americans to pitch their tents," he wrote. "Saddam had surrounded the area with a tall brick wall. There were only three points of entry. All the military had to do was park tanks at the gates."

John Moore/Getty Images

Abu Ghraib: The torture scandal at the U.S.-run prison west of Baghdad was first revealed by 60 Minutes, but it was Seymour Hersh's May 2004 New Yorker article that exposed the true horror of Abu Ghraib. Hersh obtained a secret 53-page report written by U.S. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that described the "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" committed at the prison complex, and quoted from the document liberally -- in the process, shocking America's conscience.

Hersh would return to the story in 2007, when he described how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld punished Taguba for revealing the truth about Abu Ghraib - and suggested that the ultimate responsibility for the abuse laid higher than the handful of military police who were punished.

JIHAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images 

Iraq's worst picture: In 2005, photographer Chris Hondros was embedded with a U.S. military unit in the northern town of Tal Afar when American soldiers opened fire on a car carrying the family of 5-year-old Samar Hassan. Her mother and father were killed instantly. Hondros -- who was killed this year reporting from the front lines of the Libyan city of Misrata -- took this picture of Hassan, splattered with blood, shrouded in darkness, an American soldier looming out of focus in the background.

After Hondros's death, the New York Times found Hassan outside the city of Mosul and showed her the famous image for the first time. "He was taking pictures of me, I remember," she said. "Then he stopped, and they brought me a jacket and put me in the truck and treated the wound on my hand. And they gave me some toys."

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Foreign Policy on Iraq

The Man Who Would Be King: Ben Van Heuvelen charts Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's consolidation of power, and asks whether he can shake the old habits of secrecy and machination he learned during Saddam's era.

Think Again: Mercenaries: Though not exclusively focused on the use of private security firms in Iraq, Deborah Avent's article explained how everything you know about military contractors is wrong.

Left Behind In Iraq: Kirk Johnson described the horrible fate that may await the Iraqis who helped the U.S. military, and implored the White House to do more to ensure their safety.

Jet-Skiing in the Triangle of Death: After leaving her influential post as an advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno, Emma Sky returns to Iraq nine months later as a tourist.

Checkbook Diplomacy: Peter Van Buren, a State Department employee who led a Provincial Reconstruction Team, catalogued the ridiculous things that the United States wasted taxpayers' money on in Iraq.