Exclusive: A decade ago, George W. Bush’s administration, citing the specter of “mushroom clouds,” launched a PR campaign to rally the American people behind an invasion of Iraq. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is undertaking a similar effort against Iran, writes Peter Dyer.
By Peter Dyer
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to his cabinet on Sept. 2 that “the international community is not setting Iran a clear red line and Iran does not see international determination to stop its nuclear project.”
But Netanyahu also is having trouble convincing the Israeli people about the need to attack Iran, with one recent poll indicating less than one-third of respondents favor a military strike.
Ten years ago this week, President George W. Bush faced a similar dilemma in persuading the American public that it was necessary to go to war with Iraq. Like Netanyahu, the Bush administration also resorted to the specter of a hypothetical nuclear threat to rally the public.
On Sept. 8, 2002, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, spoke of intercepted shipments to Iraq of “aluminum tubes … that are really only suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs. …
“The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
The claim that these tubes were to be used to build nuclear centrifuges — repeated by Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in his Feb. 5, 2003, address to the U.N. Security Council — was later debunked, as was the existence at the time of any Iraqi nuclear weapons program. But the scare tactics worked in rallying a frightened U.S. public behind the Iraq invasion.
The Bush administration’s fear-mongering also was no fluke. It was part of a carefully scripted propaganda campaign, coordinated by the White House Information Group (WHIG), which was established expressly to “market” the invasion of Iraq. Organized by Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, WHIG was remarkable not only for its recklessness with the truth but for the candor with which it acknowledged it was running an advertising campaign.
The day before Rice’s fear-mongering and mendacious pitch for war, the New York Times published a short article about WHIG, entitled “TRACES OF TERROR: THE STRATEGY; Bush Aides Set Strategy to Sell Policy on Iraq.”
The lede read: “White House officials said today that the administration was following a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.” Card was very frank about the project and the timing: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
Unlike Prime Minister Netanyahu – who is still struggling to win over the Israeli public – President Bush soon was enjoying favorable marketing results. A Gallup poll for Sept. 5-8, 2002, showed 58 percent of Americans were sold on a U.S. invasion of Iraq. By comparison, a survey published last month by the Dialogue Institute showed 32 percent of the Israeli public supporting a strike against Iran.
Disdain for Rule of Law
Besides their fear-based marketing, the Netanyahu and Bush campaigns for war share another element: contempt for international law.
As Bishop Desmond Tutu recently pointed out, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq had devastating human consequences that warranted the prosecution of ex-President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair before an international tribunal at the Hague. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate noted:
“More than 110,000 Iraqis have died in the conflict since 2003 and millions have been displaced. By the end of last year, nearly 4,500 American soldiers had been killed and more than 32,000 wounded.
“On these grounds alone, in a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.”
As Bishop Tutu recognized, international law on the issue of aggressive war is well-established. Regarding Netanyahu’s wished-for “clear red line,” there already is a “red line” for military action by any state against any other state. It’s set forth in Chapter 7, Articles 2(4) and Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
Though there is some ambiguity concerning whether and to what extent Article 51 may allow anticipatory or interceptive self-defense, such questions typically involve degrees of imminence, i.e., has an armed attack begun or is one clearly about to begin?
These questions have little relevance to the present state of Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes only. There also is a consensus in the U.S. intelligence community that Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear bomb.
On the other hand, Israel’s existing (though unacknowledged) nuclear weapons arsenal, coupled with consistent and numerous threats to attack Iran, renders at least an equally plausible and frightening specter of imminent nuclear attack in the other direction.
No single individual, state or any other organization has the legal right to unilaterally draw a red line to justify war. Nor is there any right grounded in law to initiate military action based on any arbitrary standard. Indeed, a call for, much less the establishment of, such a line indicates willful disregard of the U.N. Charter.
An attack grounded in such disregard would constitute aggression, a crime characterized in the 1946 judgment of the first Nuremberg Trial as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” At this Nuremberg trial, five of the 21 German defendants were sentenced to death for crimes including aggression.
A case is easily made that President Bush and other members of his administration (along with key allies such as Prime Minister Blair) committed this “supreme international crime” of aggression in March 2003 with the invasion of Iraq.
Today, there is more tragic irony in the prospect of an American-enabled Israeli violation of the single most prominent feature of the Nuremberg Charter: the outlawing of aggressive war and the principle of individual criminal responsibility for leaders guilty of this crime.
After all, it was largely the moral authority wielded by the United States at Nuremberg that sent Nazi war criminals to the gallows for their use of aggression to trigger World War II and for their industrial barbarity evidenced in the Holocaust, which grew more intense as the war dragged on.
Though today’s White House maintains that “all options are on the table” concerning Iran, other reports are that President Barack Obama is presently no more enthusiastic about a possible Israeli attack than the Israeli public is.
Perhaps, in this instance, Obama will continue to show more restraint, better judgment and more respect for international law than his belligerent predecessor did ten years ago.
Peter Dyer is a freelance journalist who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .