The suspicion that politicians are inclined to tell lies is as old as politics itself. Yet when a politician is caught in a lie, the consequences are often dire, at least in democratic countries. Indeed, proving that a politician is a liar is just about the only way to get rid of him or her quickly and terminally, which is why the attempt is so attractive to political opponents.
But what, exactly, is a lie in politics? Few cases are as clear-cut as that of Anneli Jaatteenmaki, whose short-lived stint as Finland's first woman prime minister recently came to an end. She had attacked her predecessor during the election campaign for being fork-tongued about Iraq, saying one thing to US President George W. Bush and another to the Finnish people. Her knowledge was based on Finnish foreign office records. Had she seen them? She began to equivocate and in the end said that she had not. When the opposite was proven and a secret document was found in her possession, she had to go.
Another campaigner under investigation by his parliament for being "economical with the truth" is German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. But his case is very different. The opposition, still smarting from its narrow defeat in last autumn's election, accuses him of not having told the truth about Germany's weak economy and the consequences for the national budget.
Almost a year after the election, a parliamentary committee of inquiry is still interviewing "witnesses." But it does not look as if it can get very far. At most, deputies will be able to offer the public a fresh example of a favorite trick in politics: to tell the truth was told and nothing but the truth, but not exactly the whole truth.
The most serious current case concerns Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In fact, the charges of lying concern only Blair, for Bush has (so far) been absolved of all possible sins in view of the apparent success of the Iraq campaign. But Blair is under heavy fire from his parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee for having overstated the threat posed by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Intelligence dossiers (it is claimed) were "sexed up" by Blair's underlings. More particularly, there was no evidence for the prime minister's claim that the Iraqi dictator could have launched "WMDs," as weapons of mass destruction are now called, "within 45 minutes."
Does it matter whether this claim was strictly true or not? Don't we know from past evidence that Saddam was prepared to develop WMDs and to use them if the occasion presented itself? Are not the reasons for the war overtaken by its reality? In the end, is this really a question of lying?
In the British case, the answer is not so simple. In the middle of his second term, Blair is going through a bad patch. Opponents within his own party are increasingly replacing the ineffectual Tory opposition. Blair is much more vulnerable than he was a year ago, and he must tread softly if he does not want to lose further support.
But there is another point. The reasons given for the war in Iraq were never entirely clear. WMD's in Saddam's possession were but one in a sequence of arguments. There was also, at least in the US, the desire to avenge the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, as well as geopolitical interests.
Blair also expressed moral outrage at the way the Iraqi dictator had behaved toward his own people in making the case for regime change. Supporters of the war -- often reluctant in any case -- had picked up one or the other of these arguments, and if they focused on WMD's, they now feel betrayed. The two British cabinet ministers who resigned over the affair, Robin Cook and Clare Short, want their own revenge and thus continue to attack Blair for his "lies."