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George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive wars is creating a new deep divide in U.S. politics. On one side, Bush and his backers see the Iraq War as the start of an American global empire built around unparalleled military power. On the other, a scattered grouping of skeptics dig in for what they see as a fight for the soul of the American republic.
Without doubt, the Bush side now owns the strategic high ground, asserting vindication in the U.S. ouster of Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. Bush also can claim near total mastery of a U.S. news media that shed any pretense of “objectivity” as it flooded the nation with heroic images of American soldiers and heart-warming scenes of grateful Iraqis, while downplaying civilian dead and growing signs that many Iraqis resent the U.S. occupation.
The anti-empire side finds itself pinned down, too, by accusations that its opposition to the three-week war was naïve and even disloyal. Plus, it's a disorganized mix of political interests, ranging from old-time conservatives to traditional liberals, from the likes of Pat Buchanan to Howard Dean. Yet as imbalanced as this struggle now appears, both sides agree that it holds in its outcome the future of the American democratic experiment.
The pro-empire side argues that only a militarily assertive United States can address what Bush calls “gathering dangers” facing the nation – even if that means tighter constraints on liberty at home and freer use of U.S. troops abroad. The pro-republic forces say Bush’s imperial strategy is a sham – false security that cedes life-and-death national decisions to the dictates of one man.
To the pro-republic side, part of the price for empire is the increasingly shallow U.S. news media that largely sanitized the war. Rather than troubling Americans with gruesome images of mangled and dismembered Iraqi bodies, including many children, the cable networks, in particular, edited the war in ways that helped avoid negativity and gave advertisers the feel-good content that plays best around their products.
Fox News may have pioneered this concept of casting the war in the gauzy light of heroic imagery, where Iraqi soldiers were “goons” and interviews with Americans at war were packaged with the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the soundtrack.
But the supposedly less ideological MSNBC may have carried the idea to even greater lengths with Madison-Avenue-style montages of the Iraq war. One showed U.S. troops in heroic postures moving through Iraq. The segment ended with an American boy surrounded by yellow ribbons for his father at war, and the concluding slogan, “Home of the Brave.”
Another MSNBC montage showed happy Iraqis welcoming U.S. troops as liberators and rejoicing at the toppling of Hussein. These stirring pictures ended with the slogan, “Let Freedom Ring.”
Left out of these “news” montages were any images of death and destruction. For instance, there was no scene of a newly orphaned 12-year-old Iraqi boy waving the stump of what’s left of his arms. No sense either of the unspeakable pain of a father who was injured in a U.S. bombing and was about to learn that his three young daughters, who were the center of his life, were dead.
The happy montages also sanitized out the horror of a mother who found her 20-year-old daughter in the ruins of a bombed-out restaurant, first her torso and then her head. The U.S. had bombed the restaurant in a residential area thinking Hussein was there.
Cable news also downplayed evidence that many Iraqis, while glad to see Hussein gone, were angered by the U.S. invasion and its aftermath, which brought widespread destruction, arson and looting, including the loss of priceless antiquities of Mesopotamia dating back more than 5,000 years. The reaction to the U.S. occupation has included marches by thousands of Iraqis demanding withdrawal of U.S. troops and calling for an Iran-like Islamic state.
The Wall Street Journal took note of the dueling coverage presented by domestic CNN and its CNNI Networks, which broadcasts to international viewers. While domestic CNN focused on happy stories, such as the rescue of U.S. prisoner-of-war Jessica Lynch, CNNI carried more scenes of wounded civilians overflowing Iraqi hospitals.
“During the Gulf War in 1991, [CNN] presented a uniform global feed that showed the war largely through American eyes,” the Journal reported. “Since then, CNN has developed several overseas networks that increasingly cater their programming to regional audiences and advertisers.” [WSJ, April 11, 2003]
Left unsaid by the Journal’s formulation of how CNN’s overseas affiliates “cater” to foreign audiences was the flip side of that coin, that domestic CNN is freer to shape a version of the news that is more satisfying to Americans and to U.S. advertisers.
The Saddam Statue
The iconic image of an American soldier and tank helping Iraqis topple a statue of Hussein in downtown Baghdad on April 9 was a case in point. The scene became exhibit A to prove Bush’s claim that he was “liberating” the Iraqis, giving the war a justification even if the U.S. doesn’t find those elusive weapons of mass destruction. After being pulled down by the U.S. tank, the toppled statue was set upon by dancing Iraqis who carried off Saddam’s head as a prize.
For many Americans the scene was a catharsis, bringing relief that the war might end quickly and satisfaction that the Iraqis were finally acting like the grateful people that administration officials had said they would be.
However, Americans seeking a fuller understanding of the moment needed to search the Internet or access foreign newspapers. Those that did found that the close-up scenes were misleading. Rather than a spontaneous Berlin Wall-type celebration by hundreds of thousands, the toppling of the statue was a staged event with a small crowd estimated in the scores, not even the hundreds. One photo from a distance showed the square ringed by U.S. tanks with a small knot of people gathered around the statue.
Indeed, given the political importance of the images, some intelligence experts expressed surprise that so few Iraqis were present. One CIA veteran told me that such images are never left to chance because of their psychological warfare potential. He said all U.S. battle plans include a "psy-war annex," a kind of public-relations script meant to influence the target population – in this case, the Iraqis – and the larger world public, including the American people.
These psy-war strategies have been part of the CIA’s bag of tricks for more than a half century. Legendary CIA operative Miles Copeland told me in a 1990 interview that he and other CIA officers moved through the bazaars in Teheran in 1953 passing out $100 bills to foment large street demonstrations against Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh – using some of the same protesters who had earlier denounced the Shah of Iran.
“All we had to do was to get at them, they were a mob anyhow, and turn it around,” Copeland said. “I think we had about 80,000 at the end yelling, ‘Long live the shah, death to Mossadegh.’” Having created an image of mass discontent, the CIA officers organized a coup to oust the democratically elected Mossadegh and restore the shah to the Peacock Throne. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Trick or Treason.]
Similarly, it was crucial for the Bush administration to portray the invasion of Iraq – conducted without the approval of the United Nations – as a liberation. In the run-up to war, the administration had led the American people to expect Iraqis welcoming U.S. troops with cheers and rose petals. Some U.S. officials may have even come to believe their own propaganda.
On the eve of the conflict, Washington’s conventional wisdom held that the “shock and awe” bombing strategy would be so intimidating that much of the Iraqi army would either refuse to fight or oust Saddam Hussein itself. If that didn’t work, the oppressed Shiite community of Basra would rise up and turn over the second-largest city to the Anglo-American forces. Little resistance was expected in the Shia-dominated south.
The Pentagon also warned that the Iraqis would fire off chemical or biological weapons once U.S. troops crossed the “red line” about 50 miles outside Baghdad. That would prove Bush’s chief rationale for war – that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was reckless enough to use them. The U.S. news media published hundreds of articles about this supposed “red line” or “red zone.”
All these assumptions proved wrong.
The “shock and awe” bombings destroyed some government buildings in Baghdad but failed to deliver the devastating psychological blow that was intended. British forces ran into surprising resistance in the port of Umm Qasr and early British claims of an uprising in Basra turned out to be bogus, as did reports that Iraqi militiamen were firing from behind human shields, according to later interviews with Basra residents. [Washington Post, April 15, 2003]
In the early days of the war, American troops encountered unexpected resistance in southern towns, such as Nasiriya and Najaf. There was also no use of chemical weapons in the “red zone,” nor were any weapons of mass destruction found by advancing U.S. forces.
On the battlefield, rather than throwing down their arms, the Iraqi army sometimes fought heroically though hopelessly against the technologically superior U.S. forces. Christian Science Monitor reporter Ann Scott Tyson interviewed U.S. troops with the 3rd Infantry Division who were deeply troubled by their task of mowing down Iraqi soldiers who kept fighting even in suicidal situations.
“Even as U.S. commanders cite dramatic success in the three-week-old war, many look upon the wholesale destruction of Iraq’s military and the killing of thousands of Iraqi fighters with a sense of regret,” Tyson reported. “They voice frustration at the number of Iraqis who stood their ground against overwhelming U.S. firepower, wasting their lives and equipment rather than capitulating as expected.”
“They have no command and control, no organization,” said Brig. Gen. Louis Weber. “They’re just dying.”
Commenting upon the annihilation of Iraqi forces in one-sided battles, Lt. Col. Woody Radcliffe said, “We didn’t want to do this. Even a brain-dead moron can understand we are so vastly superior militarily that there is no hope. You would think they would see that and give up.”
In one battle around Najaf, U.S. commanders ordered air strikes to kill the Iraqis en masse rather than have U.S. soldiers continue to kill them one by one. “There were waves and waves of people coming at them with AK-47s, out of this factory, and they (the U.S. soldiers) were killing everyone,” said Radcliffe. “The commander called and said, ‘This is not right. This is insane. Let’s hit the factory with close air support and take them out all at once.’”
This slaughter of young Iraqis troubled front-line U.S. soldiers. “For lack of a better word, I felt almost guilty about the massacre,” one soldier said privately. “We wasted a lot of people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent. It takes away some of the pride. We won, but at what cost?” [Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 2003]
Bush seemed to share none of these regrets. Commenting about the Iraqi soldiers to his war council, Bush said they “fight like terrorists,” according to a New York Times report on how Bush saw the war. [NYT, April 14, 2003]
The falsity of so many of the initial assumptions led some U.S. military analysts to worry about the worsening devastation. Some analysts felt that hope for any meaningful victory – without excessive destruction to Iraq and widespread anger around the world – was lost in the first week when “shock and awe” failed, American forces began the war in a shorthanded “rolling start,” and many Iraqi soldiers chose to fight and die.
Those early surprises left Bush with two choices: either halt U.S. forces and work out a settlement with Hussein’s regime – an alternative that Bush had ruled out as unthinkable – or to crash onto the center of Baghdad laying greater and greater waste from aerial bombings as the U.S. Air Force depleted its supply of precision bombs.
That loss of sensitivity to civilian casualties was reflected in the hasty decision to bomb a restaurant where Hussein was thought to be eating. Though Hussein’s whereabouts remain unknown, the bodies of more than a dozen civilians, including young children and the headless woman found by her mother, were pulled from the rubble.
"When the broken body of the 20-year-old woman was brought out torso first, then her head," the Associated Press reported, "her mother started crying uncontrollably, then collapsed." The London Independent cited this restaurant attack as one that represented "a clear breach" of the Geneva Conventions ban on bombing civilian targets.
But the civilian deaths were of little interest to the U.S. news media. "American talking heads, playing the what-if game about Saddam's whereabouts, never seemed to give the issue any thought," wrote Eric Boehlert in a report on the U.S. war coverage for Salon.com. "Certainly they did not linger on images of the hellacious human carnage left in the aftermath."
Hundreds of other civilian deaths were equally horrific. Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded in an American bombing raid, but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had killed his three daughters – Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 – who had been the center of his life. “It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.” [NYT, April 14, 2003]
The horror of the war was captured, too, in the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S. missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, his pregnant mother and his siblings were all killed. As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, Ali said he would rather die than live without his hands.
For its part, the Bush administration has announced that it has no intention of tallying the number of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the war. In its last report on civilian casualties, the Iraqi government said 1,254 civilians had died as of April 3. [Washington Post, April 15, 2003]
The U.S. media also has largely shielded the American public from the ugly chaos that has followed the military victory, concentrating instead on the humanitarian efforts to rebuild the country.
Yet while U.S. marines guarded offices associated with the oil industry, other government buildings were burned, including the central library where ancient Arabic texts were stored. The national museum – one of the prides of the Islamic world – was ransacked with many priceless antiquities stolen and others smashed.
“They lie across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq’s history,” wrote Robert Fisk of London’s Independent newspaper. “The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling down the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them on to the concrete.
“Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history only to be destroyed when Americans came to ‘liberate’ the city.” [Independent, April 13, 2003]
The CIA veteran told me that this post-combat chaos was partly the fault of inadequate Pentagon deployment of civil affairs personnel with the troops. The wishful thinking about popular uprisings and surrendering Iraqi troops had left U.S. forces without enough experts to deal with the breakdown of police operations and the lack of electricity, food and medicines, he said.
As Marines and other front-line combat troops were forced into controlling anti-American demonstrations, killings of civilians followed. In the northern city of Mosul, Marines fired into angry crowds, killing 17 Iraqis in the city’s main square, the director of the city’s hospital said. Marines said they had been fired upon, but Mosul residents denied those claims – and Islamic fundamentalist appear to be emerging as the chief political beneficiaries of the swelling hostility. [NYT, April 17, 2003]
“We must be united and support each other against the Anglo-American invasion,” declared Sheik Ibrahim al-Namaa, who is viewed as a rising leader in Mosul, where the looting of that city’s ancient treasures also is feeding anger over the U.S. occupation. “We must try to put an end to this aggression.” [NYT, April 20, 2003]
Thousands of Iraqis also have demonstrated against the U.S. occupation in Baghdad, with nearly 100 Islamic leaders calling for the ouster of Americans and the creation of an Islamic state.
“We are demanding an Islamic state,” said Sheik Abbas al-Zubaidi, who is among the Shiite clerics who have taken control of several hospitals. In this future Islamic-ruled Iraq, “televisions are not allowed, dominoes are not allowed, women wearing makeup are not allowed, dubbed foreign films are not allowed,” he said. [NYT, April 20, 2003]
“You are the masters today,” another Islamic leader, Ahmed al-Kubeisy, said about the Americans. “But I warn you against thinking of staying. Get out before we kick you out.” [NYT, April 19, 2003]
The Bush administration, however, has no intention of withdrawing U.S. military forces in the foreseeable future. It wants to use Iraq as a site for military bases that can project American power throughout the Middle East. In effect, the U.S. plan envisions allowing limited Iraqi self-government with American troops stationed nearby, serving in a role similar to Latin American militaries, which set parameters for civilian governments.
American military officials want four bases in Iraq, including one at the international airport outside Baghdad and one near Nasiriya in the south, senior administration officials told the New York Times. “There will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq, similar to Afghanistan,” one official said. [NYT, April 20, 2003]
Under these plans, Iraq is intended to be an outpost for American imperial reach into the Middle East. Many of Bush’s neo-conservative backers see Iraq as only the first step in a process of asserting U.S. dominance in the region and elsewhere around the globe.
On this pro-empire side, Bush can count a number of important political allies, including many Christian fundamentalists who have an apocalyptic view of the Middle East, some Jewish Americans who see Arab states as a mortal threat to Israel, and many Middle Americans who distrust multilateral organizations and foreigners, from the United Nations to the French.
The conservative news media also has long favored a muscular U.S. approach to the rest of the world, at least when a Republican is in power. Seeing Fox News at the top of the cable-news ratings and Rush Limbaugh-types dominating talk radio, the mainstream media grasps that flag-waving sells, both for the network’s bottom line and for individual news personalities who don’t want to risk their seven-figure salaries by offending today’s power structure.
For that reason, Bush can expect that the unpleasant details of any future imperial adventures won’t get mentioned much. By and large, the American news media has forsaken its historical duty of informing the American people as fully as possible and now sees its primary function as avoiding Vietnam-style negativity that might “endanger” U.S. forces.
Saddam & the CIA
For example, as TV news devoted hours and hours of coverage to the Iraq war, some history about the murky U.S. relationship with Saddam Hussein might have been in order, but it was almost entirely missing in action.
That U.S.-Saddam relationship dated back to the 1960s when Hussein was a young military officer who was both protected and promoted by the CIA looking for a counterweight to suspected communist influence in Iraq. At one point, Hussein’s role in a botched assassination attempt forced him into exile where the CIA supported him, according to former CIA officials cited in a summary of that history by United Press International’s veteran intelligence reporter Richard Sale [April 10, 2003]
Hussein’s tutelage by the CIA explains why he undertook his two invasions of other countries – against Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990 – after getting what he took to be “green lights” from the United States. Far from the renegade as presented by U.S. officials, the real Hussein was more of a client who – like Panama’s Manuel Noriega – overstepped his bounds. [For details of Saddam’s “green lights” – including a top-secret document written in 1981 by then-Secretary of State Al Haig – see Consortiumnews.com’s "Missing U.S.-Iraq History."]
With little access to this deeper history, however, Americans can be easily manipulated by the pathos of war. U.S. spirits were buoyed, for instance, by the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a scene filmed by the U.S. military in the fuzzy green of night-vision equipment and played over and over again to the American people.
Only later, deep inside some newspapers, could some Americans learn that Iraqi doctors who had cared for Lynch said the event was staged, a kind of made-for-TV movie before it becomes a made-for-TV movie. “They made a big show,” said Haitham Gizzy, a doctor who treated Lynch. “It was just a drama” filmed after Iraqi fighters had fled the scene and with only doctors manning the hospital. [Washington Post, April 15, 2003, A17]
Denied history and manipulated by emotions, Americans are easy marks for administration schemes to mislead them to war. Bush and his advisers have played the residual Sept. 11 fears so effectively that polls show nearly half of Americans blaming Iraq and Saddam Hussein for the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, although none of the al-Qaeda terrorists came from Iraq and Osama bin Laden's outlaw band despised Hussein’s secular state where Islamic fundamentalists were brutally persecuted.
So there's no reason to think these public-relations strategies will stop working for Bush. With teary-eyed victory celebrations on the horizon and a powerful political machine behind him, he has good reason to feel confident that his high approval ratings won’t dissipate the way his father’s did in 1992.
Democratic leaders who comfort themselves by repeating their 1992 mantra “it’s the economy, stupid” may be forgetting the real history themselves. President George H.W. Bush lost his mantle as Persian Gulf War hero because of foreign policy disclosures about his secret dealings with Hussein in the 1980s – known as the Iraqgate scandal – and revelations just days before the 1992 election that the senior Bush was lying when he said he was “not in the loop” on the Iran-contra scandal.
George W. Bush also can be encouraged by the fact that opposition to his imperial aspirations is largely splintered, less an organized force than pockets of resistance.
The key elements are: rank-and-file Democrats, who view Bush as a would-be emperor, a threat to democracy who lost the popular vote in 2000 and seized the presidency only by getting the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the counting of votes in Florida; old-line conservatives, who see in Bush’s design for empire the inevitable eclipse of America’s constitutional republic; and leftists, who fear that Bush’s strategy will mean death and destruction abroad and repression at home.
These anti-imperial groupings also emphasize different points to their backers. For instance, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan argues that neo-conservative ideologues have won over Bush and are pushing strategies that are in the interests of hard-liners in Israel’s Likud Party who oppose ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
“We charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests,” Buchanan wrote. “We charge them with deliberately damaging U.S. relations with every state in the Arab world that defies Israel or supports the Palestinian people’s right to a homeland of their own. We charge that they have alienated friends and allies all over the Islamic and Western world through their arrogance, hubris and bellicosity.” [The American Conservative, March 24, 2003, issue]
In contrast, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, one of the few Democratic presidential contenders who opposed Bush’s Iraq War resolution, stresses the damage that Bush is doing to international cooperation needed to protect American long-term interests.
“This unilateral approach to foreign policy is a disaster,” Dean wrote in explaining his opposition to the so-called Bush Doctrine. “All of the challenges facing the United States – from winning the war on terror and containing weapons of mass destruction to building an open world economy and protecting the global environment – can only be met by working with our allies. A renegade, go-it-alone approach will be doomed to failure, because these challenges know no boundaries.”
Dean argues that by opposing the Bush Doctrine, the Democratic Party can show the American people that the party stands for principle and, through that, “we may yet rediscover the soul of our Party.” [Common Dreams, April 17, 2003] Buchanan and his America-First conservatives are certainly less concerned about the future of the Democratic Party.
With such diverse interests, the challenges facing these anti-empire forces are daunting. In particular, they are vastly outgunned in all forms of media, which makes it easier for Bush and his allies to isolate the critics as unpatriotic and unconcerned about the welfare of America’s soldiers at war.
The anti-empire message is also more complex, requiring historical context and appreciation of the frustrating work of diplomacy. Bush’s argument is easier to grasp for many Americans conditioned by Hollywood’s shoot-‘em-up war movies where the answer is simply to take out the bad guys.
Yet the pro-republic position does have resonance with millions of Americans who understand, at least intuitively, that violence rarely solves real-life problems. Many Americans also share an abhorrence of empire, recognizing that its needs are inimical to the principles of freedom and democracy. Others distrust Bush’s judgment, seeing him as The Man Who Knows Too Little, the character in the Doonesbury cartoon who dons a Roman helmet and declares, “Pox Americus!”
For Bush to be successfully challenged, however, the pro-republic side must undertake a number of initiatives, including investing much more in media – from talk radio and cable/satellite TV to magazines and newspapers. Right now, with few exceptions, that media is limited to Web sites, a few small-circulation magazines and a handful of newspaper columnists, the equivalent of RPGs against Abrams tanks.
Only by building independent media – a difficult task, to be sure – can space be created to delve into the dark history of U.S. policy in the Middle East. And only with an unafraid media can the American people be engaged in a debate about the future of the nation’s democratic ideals at a time of international dangers.
That great debate, which calls for commitment from Americans of all walks of life and across the political spectrum, also must reach beyond the emotionalism, ignorance and jingoism that today are paving the road toward endless international conflict.
While at the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. His latest book is Lost History.