W. Bushs 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 Iraqs 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 Bushs 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
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
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 whats 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 Journals formulation of how
CNNs 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 Bushs claim
that he was liberating the Iraqis, giving the war a justification
even if the U.S. doesnt 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 Saddams 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
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
CIAs 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
Irans 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 Parrys 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, Washingtons
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 didnt 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 Bushs 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 Uum 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
Iraqs 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
They have no command and control, no
organization, said Brig. Gen. Louis Weber. Theyre just dying.
Commenting upon the annihilation of Iraqi forces in
one-sided battles, Lt. Col. Woody Radcliffe said, We didnt 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
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. Lets 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,
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 Husseins 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 Husseins 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
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
"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 wasnt just ordinary love, his
wife said. He was crazy about them. It wasnt 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. Alis 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 Iraqs history, wrote Robert
Fisk of Londons 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 citys main square, the director
of the citys 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 citys
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.
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,
Under these plans, Iraq is intended to be an outpost
for American imperial reach into the Middle East. Many of Bushs
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 networks bottom line
and for individual news personalities who dont want to risk their
seven-figure salaries by offending todays power structure.
For that reason, Bush can expect that the unpleasant
details of any future imperial adventures wont 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, Husseins 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 Internationals veteran intelligence reporter Richard Sale [April
Husseins 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 Panamas
Manuel Noriega overstepped his bounds. [For details of Saddams
green lights including a top-secret document written in 1981 by
then-Secretary of State Al Haig see Consortiumnews.coms "Missing
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
Husseins secular state where Islamic fundamentalists were brutally
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
wont dissipate the way his fathers did in 1992.
Democratic leaders who comfort themselves by
repeating their 1992 mantra its 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 Bushs design for empire the inevitable
eclipse of Americas constitutional republic; and leftists, who fear
that Bushs 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 Israels Likud Party who oppose ending Israels occupation of
charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare
our country in a series of wars that are not in Americas 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 peoples 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 Bushs 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
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
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 Americas soldiers at war.
The anti-empire message is also more complex,
requiring historical context and appreciation of the frustrating work of
diplomacy. Bushs argument is easier to grasp for many Americans
conditioned by Hollywoods 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 Bushs judgment,
seeing him as The Man Who Knows Too Little, the character in the
Doonesbury cartoon who dons a Roman helmet and declares, Pox
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 nations
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.