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An Orwellian Pitch 

The inner workings of the war-propaganda machine

Thursday, Mar 20 2003
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Photos by C.R. Stecyk

The first time that a President Bush sold a war against Saddam Hussein, the PR package came wrapped in the flesh and blood of babies torn from incubators. On the second go-round, you might say that the media kit lacks what salesmen call the "touchie-feelie" dimension — for this year's propaganda season has been sponsored mainly by the cold alloy of 81mm high-grade aluminum tubes.

Comparing the advertising techniques of 1990-91 and 2002-3, I can't point to anything as dramatic as the White House/Kuwaiti/Hill & Knowlton fabrication of the great baby-incubator atrocity, allegedly committed by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwaiti hospitals. But I can cite numerous fraudulent assertions — aluminum tubes, in particular — by a Bush PR team that scatters Enlightenment notions of reason and logic (to paraphrase Bush the First's baby-killing metaphor) like so much firewood across the U.S. Capitol's floor.

Government manipulation of public opinion is an old story, of course, but the two Presidents Bush seem especially gifted in the black arts of publicity and sloganeering. In 1990, Bush the First — with brilliant support from a Kuwaiti "witness" named Nayirah — harnessed the fake baby-killing atrocity to help drive a reluctant Senate and public into rescuing the Kuwaiti royal family (and, as Bush the First's U.S. trade representative, Carla Hills, told me, "to guarantee the right to import oil"). The "liberation" of a tiny emirate that had never known liberty remains one of the great propaganda coups of recent times, and its lessons were not lost on Bush the Second. But in seeking to "liberate" Iraq itself from Saddam Hussein, the younger Bush and his counselors have shown themselves every bit the equals of the father.

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Twelve years ago the case for war was easier to make — Saddam had, in fact, invaded Kuwait. More recently, George W. Bush possessed no such advantage. Except for the far-fetched (now refuted) connection between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and the Iraqi government, George W.'s team began its race for congressional war authorization from a standing start. But beginning on September 7, they accelerated quickly, launching their campaign with a near total fabrication that was nothing more than a calculated scare story.

It was then that the president and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had issued a "new" report describing a revived nuclear-weapons project in Iraq, built on the foundations of the old. Inarticulate to a fault, Bush backtracked a bit from "new" and stated that "when inspectors first went into Iraq and were . . . finally denied access, a report came out of . . . the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."

Effective propaganda relies on half-truths and the conflation of disparate "facts" (like Saddam's genuine human-rights violations), so the notion of new IAEA evidence at least sounded plausible. Saddam almost certainly harbored ambitions to build an A-bomb — it was this that caused Israel to bomb Iraq's first and only nuclear reactor in 1981 (a pre-emptive act of war that drew unanimous condemnation from the U.N. Security Council). The trouble was that no such "new" report existed. Nor had there ever been an IAEA report containing the "six months away" assertion — not in 1991 after the war; not in December 1998 when the U.S. weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq; not in September 2001.

More than three weeks elapsed before The Washington Times (not the "liberal" media) took the trouble to straighten out the story, but by then the administration was well on its way to panicking the Congress into authorizing war. The day after the Bush-Blair confidence trick, the newspapers and talk shows were flooded (through the good offices of Michael Gordon and Judith Miller of The New York Times) with an administration leak about Iraq's attempt to buy special aluminum tubes, supposedly destined for its "six months away" nuclear program. Suddenly (along with the phantom IAEA report), aluminum tubes had brought the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon.

Not until December 8, when 60 Minutes broadcast an interview with former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, did any expert point out publicly that the aluminum tubes were probably meant for conventional weapons. Not until January 9 did Mohammed El Baradei, head of the IAEA, essentially bury the aluminum tubes (and the Iraqi nuclear weapons program) by confirming Albright's supposition. But it was too late; Congress had long ago given Bush carte blanche to attack Iraq with its open-ended war resolution of October 11.

Propaganda success breeds contempt for the old-fashioned notion that politicians require the informed consent of the people before they go to war. The media bears much of the blame; it has been so painfully slow in refuting administration double talk that Karl Rove and Andrew Card can count on a fairly long interval between propaganda declaration and contradiction; or they can bet that the contradiction will be so muted as to be insignificant. Thus could the president brazenly include the discredited aluminum tubes in his State of the Union address.

Meanwhile, stories designed to frighten the public onto a war footing proliferate. Colin Powell tells the Security Council of a "poison factory" linked to al Qaeda in northern Iraq. Reporters visit a compound of crude structures and find nothing of the kind, so an unidentified State Department official responds by saying that "a 'poison factory' is a term of art."

Powell cites new "British intelligence" on Saddam's "spying" capabilities; British Channel 4 reveals that this new dossier is plagiarized from a journal article by a graduate student in California.

The administration raises its terrorist threat level to orange, causing widespread anxiety and duct-tape purchases (a handy placebo for a faltering economy); ABC News reports (at last, a rapid response) that the latest terror alert was largely based on "fabricated" information provided by a captured al Qaeda informant who subsequently failed a lie-detector test.

Powell announces a new threat from an Iraqi airborne "drone"; the drone, patched together with tape and powered by a small engine with a wooden propeller, turns out to have a maximum range of five miles.

The administration trumpets alleged attempts by Iraq to purchase uranium from Niger; the IAEA concludes that the incriminating documents were forged.

On March 7, Powell is back in the Security Council brandishing . . . aluminum tubes!: "There is new information . . . available to us . . . and the IAEA about a European country where Iraq was found shopping for these kinds of tubes . . . [tubes] more exact by a factor of 50 percent or more than those usually specified for rocket-motor casings." When I ask the State Department the name of the European country, I am informed that said country wishes to remain anonymous. (So did Nayirah al-Sabah.) When I inquire with the IAEA about the "new evidence," I am told that El Baradei's analysis, presented before Powell's declaration, is unchanged: "Extensive field investigation and document analysis have failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these 81mm tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets."

 

The question is, why do they get away with it?

George Orwell blamed "slovenliness" in the language, like the phrase "weapons of mass destruction." Most people think it means nuclear weapons, sure to kill hundreds of thousands. With no A-bombs in sight in Iraq, Bush can still shout about nerve gas and poison gas — also "weapons of mass destruction" — and unsophisticated folks think he's still talking about A-bombs. Bad as they are, chemical and biological weapons are very unlikely to kill in the same quantities as nuclear weapons, but Bush gets a free ride on sloppy English.

PR practitioners say it's easy for politicians to have their way. Peter Teeley, Bush the First's press secretary when he was vice president, explained it this way: "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it." If it happens to be untrue, "so what. Maybe 200 people read [the correction] or 2,000 or 20,000."

Hermann Goering was more specific: "Why, of course, the people don't want war," he told G.M. Gilbert at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal. "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders . . . All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's magazine and author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War.

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