By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|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.
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 Minutesbroadcast 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."
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