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Framing Iraq: The Marketing of Preemptive War

Chris Toensing
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Ours is a cynical age. We know that the government lies to justify its military adventures, and that the mainstream media most often swallows the lies whole. But the most inveterate cynic must be astonished by the dishonesty of public debate during the interminable buildup to George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. Asked why Bush was not “making his case” for war as talk-show pundits sniped from right and left in the late summer, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card quipped, “You don’t roll out new products in August.” Country club Republicans and Democratic presidential hopefuls had gained the media’s ear with a feeble protest for peace: go to war if you must, but not so fast and not without allies. Since then, a vigorous White House marketing campaign, pushed by an eager sales force in the media, has undermined the establishment’s caution. To dispel fears that the Bush Doctrine of the preemptive strike is irresponsible, Bush’s minions have conjured up a “mortal threat” coming from Iraq. To duck accusations of “going it alone,” the administration went to the United Nations. Neither the threat nor the international consensus is real, but the Bush administration has successfully hidden its thoroughly imperial and unilateralist motivations behind simulacra of grave danger to global security and the “coalition” to confront it. Mortal threat Does Saddam Hussein’s regime retain chemical and biological weapons, perhaps even the capacity to manufacture a nuclear bomb, from its illicit programs in the 1980s and 1990s? It’s not an unreasonable assumption, though it remains unproven. But the mere existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq does not mean that the weapons pose a threat. Iraq has no ballistic missiles which can hit the United States. Any offensive use of chemical or biological munitions against Iraq’s immediate neighbors, the Kurds or the Shia would bring a deadly US response, as reiterated in the National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction released on December 11. The Iraqi regime, which has survived wars, coups, assassination attempts and the most comprehensive sanctions in modern history, will not commit suicide in this fashion. Only a US invasion of Iraq to remove the regime might prompt Saddam and his generals to discharge whatever chemical and biological shells they may be hiding. It is simply illogical to assert that Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction warrant preemptive war, which is why the neo-conservative hawks advocating forcible “regime change” spent the better part of 2001 in futile, if rancorous, squabbles with other factions in the Bush administration. Then the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington gave the war party its public relations message: Iraq could “threaten” the US by handing its canisters of VX gas to violent radical Islamists like al-Qaeda. Proof of this entirely unlikely alliance has been elusive. Hawks in the Defense Department and Dick Cheney’s office finally employed their own intelligence analysts, because the CIA and other spy shops wouldn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. At intervals that seem to coincide with dips in public support for war, the hawks leak “reports” of Iraqi collaboration with al-Qaeda to willing accomplices in the media. On December 12, an especially alarming “report” alleging that Lebanese affiliated with al-Qaeda had acquired VX gas from Iraq appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. Nearly every anonymous source quoted in the story, as well as the one named source, admitted the report was “uncorroborated” and lacked “hard evidence,” but the headline and lead paragraphs of the story gave precisely the opposite impression. Pentagon officials quoted by MSNBC disavowed the VX story as “highly speculative” the next day, but as with earlier attempts to link Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the first impression is what lingers in Americans’ minds. Over 60 percent of viewers of the FOX News Channel—the most-watched cable news channel and a tireless recycler of Saddam-backs-Osama innuendo—believe that Iraq is behind the al-Qaeda mass murders on September 11. Fool’s errand The dishonesty of debate about weapons of mass destruction has been especially rank since the UN Security Council authorized tougher inspections on November 8. Iraq is challenged to prove that it does not have any proscribed armaments. Bush’s speeches and British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s vaunted “dossier” claim that it does, creating another logical conundrum. Why do we need inspections at all if the US and Britain know where to find the weapons stockpiles? Article 10 of UN Security Council resolution 1441 “requests all Member States to…provid[e] any information related to prohibited programs…, including on Iraqi attempts since 1998 to acquire prohibited items.” Inspectors have been scouring Iraq in vain since November 27. If the US and Britain do possess clear-cut intelligence of remaining chemical and biological arsenals in Iraq, then Bush and Blair are in material breach of UNSC 1441 themselves, because they haven’t shared it. On the exceedingly rare occasions when pro-war commentators are asked to resolve this apparent paradox, they return to Iraq’s record of deceiving inspectors in the 1990s to show that inspections will not find a “smoking gun.” As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s maxim puts it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Such disingenuous salesmanship has an obvious explanation: the war party does not believe that Saddam Hussein’s regime is a “mortal threat.” They are selling the war with doomsday scenarios to divert attention from the underlying motives of empire and oil. If Hans Blix detects a stray anthrax spore in the desert, perfect. When the inspectors come up empty-handed, as is more likely, that will prove that inspections are a fool’s errand which cannot disarm Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld and his underlings have argued thusly all along. The UN track George W. Bush garnered kudos from all concerned when he demanded that the UN Security Council enforce its numerous resolutions calling upon Iraq to divest itself of weapons of mass destruction. Establishment accounts, like Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, portray Bush’s decision to go to the UN as a victory for Secretary of State Colin Powell, who somewhat bizarrely has come to personify moderation in today’s Washington. Media cheerleaders for the neo-conservatives portray “the UN track,” and particularly the arduous eight-week negotiations with France and Russia over niceties of language in the new resolution, as a defeat for their preferred unilateral approach. Two such chest-thumpers, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, warned Bush not to fall into “the inspections trap,” and lose the chance to go to war. But UNSC 1441 is neither proof of newfound moderation in the White House nor a trap for the war party. Bush went to the UN primarily to market his war to the American public (and secondarily to give the Saudis and Turks political cover when the US bombs Iraq from their airfields). As a marketing strategy, the UN track killed two pesky birds with one stone. Americans support the UN in far greater numbers than do the American political classes, and Bush’s appeal for international backing was reassuring. Second, the very willingness of Security Council members like France and Russia to address the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—when their goal in the late 1990s had been to ease sanctions—lent credence to the crucial fiction that Iraq poses a threat to world peace. Key Security Council members are angry with US-British obstruction of steps toward lifting sanctions on Iraq, but they were in no position to resist US insistence upon moving UN Iraq policy to the right. Covetous of great power status themselves, France and Russia would rather be on the inside looking out when the world’s sole superpower is on the warpath. Lest they miss the point, Bush himself promised on several occasions that the US would attack Iraq unilaterally if the UN proved “irrelevant to the problems of our time.” To avert that eventuality, not to disarm Iraq, France and Russia convinced even Syria to join the unanimous vote in favor of UNSC 1441. The resulting illusion of multilateral amity obscured the fact that the UN would not have discussed a resolution at all without the arm-twisting and unveiled threats from Washington. Images of compromise The resolution contains no statement that only the Council can sanction war to enforce it. Rather, as the neo-conservatives wanted, it says that Iraq is in “material breach” of past resolutions—which the US has previously argued justifies military action. The resolution’s statement that Iraq now has a “final opportunity” to prove its full disarmament leaves little doubt as to what the “serious consequences” for its non-compliance might be. As shown above, the standard for non-compliance is likely to be a political decision in Washington, where Iraq’s non-compliance is already proven. Two other “hidden triggers” lurk in the painstakingly negotiated text. Article 8 prohibits hostile Iraqi acts against states enforcing other UN resolutions—a clear reference to anti-aircraft fire at US-British sorties over the northern and southern no-fly zones. Predictably, the overflights have increased since November 8, in hopes that Iraqi fire will intensify, thereby establishing “a pattern of non-compliance” (though no UN resolution explicitly authorizes the no-fly zones). The neo-conservatives’ major triumph comes in the paragraph saying that inspectors “may at their discretion conduct interviews inside or outside of Iraq, [and] may facilitate the travel of those interviewed and family members outside of Iraq.” Beyond the reach of Saddam Hussein’s hatchet men, the hawks believe, Iraqi scientists will divulge enough details of existing weapons programs to make inspections unnecessary. Under heavy US pressure, Hans Blix has begun to demand that Iraq produce its weapons scientists. Naturally, the White House did not expect to obtain a resolution that approved inspections and military force all at once. But like clever marketers, they planted this notion in public discourse so that when the French “two-resolution” approach prevailed, the media reported UNSC 1441 as a monumental compromise. The image of compromise quieted the establishment’s harrumphs of caution about war without allies (while giving the French and Russians political cover of their own at home). The hawks can count in the text not one but at least three pathways to war, all potentially bearing the UN imprimatur. No wonder Bush and his aides were all smiles when UNSC 1441 passed. First resort Contrary to White House pronouncements that military force is “the last resort” for disarming Iraq, the administration badly wants war, as is obvious from its behavior. For the neo-conservatives who dominate foreign policy, an attack on Iraq will establish the long-sought precedent for the preemptive strike, a necessary tool to forestall the rise of future challengers to US hegemony both globally and regionally. US bases in a post-Saddam Iraq will deter Russia or China from gaining a foothold in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. No lesser Gulf power will dare to interfere with US machinations to keep oil prices artificially low. In the future, Iraq’s reconstructed oil industry may supplant Saudi Arabia’s in the world markets. The neo-conservatives, with their close ties to Israel’s Likud party, would dearly love to destroy the basis for the US-Saudi strategic partnership. In the short term, they calculate (wrongly) that war on Iraq will enable Ariel Sharon to inflict a final defeat upon the Palestinians. The war party are unabashed ideologues of American empire, but they are aware that their agenda would deeply divide public opinion, were it well-understood. As of now, the White House marketing strategy adopted to cloak this agenda has worked. By the time of Iraq’s “document dump” on December 7, no establishment poohbah was questioning the wisdom of a preemptive strike. Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman asked why the US was waiting for inspections to take their course before striking. But public support for war is shallow at best. Eighty percent of Americans think that Bush should supply actual evidence of weapons of mass destruction before attacking Iraq, proof that the media-Pentagon chorus for war has not made true believers of everyone. To win over the agnostic public, the anti-war movement must first understand that the UN track is not “half a victory” for peace, and then point out, with relentless lack of cynicism, the fundamental dishonesty of the case for war. About the Author Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, publication of the Middle East Research and Information Project. The views expressed here are his own.