Normalizing Godfatherly Aggression
Recapping the media’s selling of conquest and occupation

By Edward S. Herman
JUne 2003

It is fascinating to see how effectively the U.S. propaganda system has normalized and even put a very good face on its government’s straightforward aggression against—and conquest and colonial occupation of—a small, distant country. It is especially remarkable that this has happened across the board, through all major media venues, despite the fact that the media are not directly owned and controlled by the government.

All of them, however, are part of a national establishment that shares an ideology and worldview, and their integration into that establishment has been increased by the steady centralization and intensified commercialization of the media, their control by a narrowing elite, and their heavy reliance on the government as a news source. The media have also been kept in line by the increasingly powerful right-wing contingent of media owners, editors, and pundits. This right-wing echo chamber pushes for imperial violence, especially when organized by a right-wing executive, and assails media deviants for lack of patriotic ardor. (It can also punish a supposed “liberal” executive, hated by the right wing, like Clinton, for the Lewinsky caper, but protect George Bush from any serious media bother for his failure to prevent 9/11, despite inside and outside warnings, for his inside trading of Harken stock, and for his and his colleagues’ Enron-energy policy conflicts of interest.)

Normalization of government policy, no matter how vicious and contrary to the public interest that policy may be, follows easily from the acceptance and internalization of patriotic premises and the view that the media are part of a team fighting the good fight. From the Gulf War case of CNN’s top reporter Christiane Amanpour marrying top State Department public relations officer James Rubin in the midst of that conflict, without any media mention of possible conflict of interest, to Judy Woodruff’s and Wolf Blitzer’s comradely “we” in talking with—and never asking challenging questions of—their official counterparts, the team spirit has dominated not only CNN but all the U.S. networks. Network sourcing of the news on the Iraq crisis has been overwhelmingly through present and former government officials (76 percent in a FAIR study). The mainstream print media have not been quite as atrocious, but they have been loyal members of the team as well. The result has been the dominance of “press release journalism,” a high media gullibility quotient and easy management by government officials, and the attrition or death of criticism and investigative reporting that challenges the official lines.

In the case of the Iraq invasion and conquest, the first aim of official propaganda was to sell it to the public. This was accomplished by three gambits: (1) demonization; (2) claims regarding the demon’s possession of weapons that threaten our national security; and (3) “failed” diplomacy and inspections. The media cooperated beautifully in pushing these propaganda themes. Saddam was demonized quite effectively—not a difficult task—but the media also accomplished the more difficult task of deflecting attention from the earlier alliance with and support of the demon. The mainstream media have not said that an agreement between the United States and Saddam is impossible; they refuse to discuss and reflect on the one that existed for an extended time period. The picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in December 1983, as he helped cement an alliance with the demon, was not shown on the TV networks or published in the New York Times or Philadelphia Inquirer. The second propaganda gambit was to focus on Saddam’s alleged continued possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their threat to U.S. national security. The media pushed this theme by providing saturation coverage of government charges on these matters, by following the government’s party line that this was a really important issue and that we were dealing with a real threat. But as with the first gambit, important complements were also applied: namely, suppressing inconvenient evidence, avoiding experts who would challenge the party line, failing to call attention to and criticize the shifting claims and stream of lies, and refusing to discuss and analyze either the supposed threat to U.S. national security or the possible hidden agenda rationalized by the WMD-threat charge.

On Iraq’s WMD, Scott Ritter, the former top weapons inspector, claimed that when he left in 1998, 90 to 95 percent of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons (CBW) had been destroyed and any remaining anthrax or sarin would be useless sludge. It was recently disclosed that the number one Iraqi expatriate, Hussein Kamel, whose testimony had been repeatedly cited by U.S. officials, had told his interrogators in 1995 that Saddam Hussein had destroyed his chemical and biological weapons and had none left, a point not made public until March 2003 (John Barry, “The Defector’s Secret,” Newsweek, March 3, 2003). The New York Times handled these matters by never allowing Ritter any opinion space and not reporting the Newsweek disclosure of Hussein Kam- el’s 1995 claim. It also never featured the puzzling fact that Saddam had not used his CBW arsenal during the Gulf War, but had only employed such weapons when supported by the United States during the war with Iran; or that CIA head George Tenet had told Congress that Saddam was unlikely to use them against the United States unless in defense when under attack. Despite thousands of lines on the Iraq controversy, the New York Times never provided a single article analyzing the shifting Bush claims and enumerating the serial lies, whose exposure was a commonplace in the foreign media and Internet sources (Raymond Whitaker, “Revealed How the Road to War Was Paved With Lies,” Independent, April 27, 2003; Carla Binion, “Bush Lies and Manipulates Public and Congress,” Online Journal, April 25, 2003—Binion gives detailed references to sources on official lies). The pattern of suppressions, plus massive conduiting of Administration claims, plus refusal to analyze or allow contesting analyses, permitted a non-existent threat to be made into a real one. An important measure of the effectiveness of fear-mongering and disinformation in making the public ready for aggression is the fact that, whereas 3 percent believed that Saddam Hussein had had something to do with 9/11 immediately after the event, 45 percent believed this by the time of the invasion. This was the disinforming result of the coordinated efforts of the war-makers and media.

As for the third propaganda ploy, after an internal debate, the Bush administration agreed to seek UN Security Council approval of its attack on Iraq, instead of just attacking without such sanction. It then waged an intense campaign of propaganda, bribery, and threats to get other members of the Security Council to approve its aggression. It argued that inspections had failed and that an attack or threat of attack was needed to get the demon to “disarm.” All intelligent and honest observers understood that the inspections were a charade as far as the Bush administration was concerned, and that “disarmament” was a cover for an intent not only to displace Saddam Hussein, but also to occupy and control Iraq. This last was even acknowledged when the United States made clear that Saddam’s exit wouldn’t suffice—there must be a military occupation of Iraq.The media collaborated fully in these various charades. They accepted that the Bush administration was engaging in “diplomacy,” when it was only buying and coercing other governments to sanction its plan to commit aggression. With patriotic ardor they framed the issue as one of support for Bush versus disloyalty, helping produce a small-scale demonization of the French for failure to go along. They portrayed this campaign to bully the UN into approving an invasion and occupation of Iraq as a test of UN “relevance,” not a threat to its independence, integrity, and ability to prevent the “scourge of war” and outright aggression. They failed to discuss openly the fact that Bush intended regime change and was using inspections as a pretext, while actively subverting the inspections by denigration, false charges, and providing information that Hans Blix called “garbage.”

Another important requirement of a propaganda system trying to put a good face on aggression is to pretend that what its leadership is doing is not aggression, but a legitimate response to a threat, that it has a right to engage in such intervention, and that international law has no bearing on the case. This is done in large part by playing dumb and relying on the demonization and inflated threat to transform an unprovoked attack into self-defense and a response of good to evil. You don’t aggress if you are only defending yourself and serving freedom. Correspondingly, the media have never used the word aggression to describe the U.S. attack on Iraq, just as they never did when the United States invaded Vietnam (by invitation of a client government that it imposed, and whose leadership it changed at its pleasure).

But international law is clear and the UN Charter is explicit that war is an unacceptable means of settling international disputes. The 1945 Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal stated clearly, “to initiate a war of aggression is the supreme international crime.” Nuremberg judge Robert Jackson also stated that this greatest of war crimes is criminal when engaged in by anybody, not just the Germans. The pathetic front person for the great powers, Kofi Annan, was quoted a few days before the U.S. attack as saying plaintively that such an attack would be in violation of the UN Charter. But Annan did not propose any action to prevent this major violation, nor did he resign in protest at this trampling on UN Charter fundamentals. No other country or major institution of the “international community” called for a serious response to open aggression.

The media largely steered clear of discussing international law and the UN Charter—it is inconvenient and, by patriotic assumption, it is not applicable to the good and benevolent United States, whose leaders are protecting U.S. national security and bringing liberty to the Iraqis. On the rare occasions when the media allowed international law to be addressed, they chose their sources carefully. The New York Times gave byline space to international law experts Anne-Marie Slaughter and Gary Bass to apologize for U.S. policy and assail the dilatory UN and—just as it steered clear of Ritter, Hans Von Sponeck, and Denis Halliday on Iraq WMD and sanctions—so it refused space to critical international law experts Francis Boyle, Richard Falk, Michael Ratner, and Burt Weston. From January 1, 2002 to April 24, 2003, Slaughter, Bass and Yale Law School super-apologist Ruth Wedgwood together had 13 bylined columns in the NYT, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Time Magazine, whereas the four dissident experts had a grand total of one column.

Slaughter’s contribution in the NYT, entitled “Good reasons for going around the UN” (March 18, 2003), describes the Bush course of action as “illegal but legitimate.” She cites the Independent International Commission on Kosovo as saying that, while the invasion is “formally illegal,” it was “legitimate in the eyes of the international community.” By “international community” Slaughter and her favored commission obviously don’t mean the people of the world and they don’t mean a majority of UN or Security Council members. They are referring to a mystical group that would include the International Commission on Kosovo and unknown and unspecified others who agree with the U.S. position. Slaughter then says that the invasion would be legitimate in retrospect if “irrefutable evidence” is found that Saddam possessed WMD or if the Iraqis “welcome their coming.” She doesn’t explain how “welcoming” could be measured, although I suspect that Slaughter would be satisfied with a pulling down of Saddam’s statue and a street full of cheering Iraqis holding U.S. flags.

On the weapons, what if they are not found? Given that that was the issue and basis of “formal” illegality, wouldn’t there be retrospective real illegality and shouldn’t the perpetrators be then tried for war crimes? Slaughter doesn’t consider these possibilities. Even if WMD are found, if the inspections process had been continued, it is possible that they could have been removed without a devastating war. Again, Slaughter doesn’t consider this. Still further on, she argues that UN constraints “cannot be a straitjacket, preventing nations from defending themselves or pursuing what they perceive to be their vital national security interests.” The implication that this applies to the U.S. attack on Iraq is taken for granted and, if applicable here, would certainly apply to Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939. We have here crude and silly apologetics for aggression.With the approach to and during this war, the media spent a great deal of effort and space describing the mobilization process, the plans, the debates over strategies, and the course of the war as seen by Rumsfeld and company and the imbedded journalists.

As in all recent U.S. military attacks on Third World countries, the media pretended that this was a “war” as opposed to a straightforward attack by a distant superpower on a virtually defenseless target state—an unlevel playing field par excellence and a massacre of enemy forces that had been disarmed, bombed, spied on under the guise of inspections, and starved for the prior dozen years. These pretenses were essential to allowing the defeat of Iraq to be a military marvel and matter of pride, rather than a source of embarrassment and shame at beating up yet another hapless and deliberately crippled victim.

As in all recent U.S. attacks, the media followed the government’s lead in steering clear of details on civilian casualties. The official position was that our high-tech precision weapons were civilian friendly and that we were going to great pains to avoid civilian sites. This became the media mantra and the media also proceeded to steer clear of looking at the characteristics of the weapons used or the actual effects on civilians. Al- Jazeera’s practice of showing pictures of civilians injured and killed was considered improper by both U.S. officials and the U.S. media. One important reason for this is that it would deflate the claims of a civilian-friendly war by bringing home an important, but carefully evaded reality. The media did an outstanding job of evading this reality. They had devoted endless news reports, commentaries, and pictures to the several thousand victims of 9/11, but the much larger number of dead and seriously injured Iraqis were almost entirely invisible in the U.S. media and to the U.S. public. As NBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield noted recently, it was a “bloodless war” in which “you didn’t see what happened when the mortars landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me” (Andrew Grossman, “Banfield Lashes Out at Own Network,” April 28, 2003).

With the victory and occupation, the media continued to avoid the hospitals and the general condition of a citizenry suffering from a water crisis, food shortages, a breakdown of public services, and a medical care crisis—all exacerbated by belatedly exploding ordnance and land mines and the looting of hospitals as well as homes, stores, and public facilities. The media focus was on signs of celebration of the “liberated” Iraqis. Most notable was the coverage of the pulling down of the statues of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Fardus Square, featured throughout the media. It is now well established that this was organized by the U.S. military, whose machinery actually pulled the statue down, and that only a tiny crowd was participating, comprised mainly of recently imported Chalabi supporters. The media uniformly served as agents of disinformation in this contrived celebration, by failing to show a picture of the entire Square, which was surrounded by U.S. tanks and empty of Iraqi celebrants, and by failing to discuss the organizers and participants. What are the principles and gambits required to deal with a post-aggression occupation? The first principle is to take it as given that the aggressor has the right to rule. The media have done this across the board, reading from the successful victory some kind of vindication of aggression, as if the French and global majority in opposition questioned the ability of the United States to defeat a tiny disarmed victim. The assumed right to rule is asserted regularly: “The coalition alone retains absolute authority within Iraq,” according to Lt. General David McKiernan, the U.S. ground forces commander, and that is reported and not debated in the media, who find this easy given their ready acceptance of the right of aggression (by their country).

During and immediately after the invasion, U.S. mobile investigative teams visited 90 of the top 150 most promising WMD sites identified by U.S. intelligence, but none of these provided a smoking gun. The media have expressed no surprise and little interest that no WMD have yet been uncovered, despite the occupation and search, and despite the fact that their fearsome presence was the rationale for invasion. They have reported the Bush refusal to allow UN inspectors to return to do the job, and insistence that only U.S. or U.S.-approved personnel do the search, but the media don’t see a conflict of interest here or express any suspicion that this might facilitate the planting of weapons to meet the demand. You may be sure that they will not provide anything like former CIA analysts Ray McGovern’s and David McMichael’s detailed analysis of the numerous occasions on which U.S. officials have forged and planted evidence in the past (“Ex-CIA Analysts on the Pretext for War,”

Not finding any hard evidence, U.S. officials have turned to claims of Iraqi scientists who allegedly worked on Saddam’s WMD and are now prepared to tell the “truth.” This is a plausible fallback position, as scientists can easily be found who will trade off saying what U.S. officials want said for money, rights to travel and settle abroad, and exoneration from penalties for punishable actions in the past. This has been a longstanding way of getting official claims “confirmed” and publicized. (The most famous case dealing with Soviet diplomat Arkady Shevchenko was written up by Edward Epstein under the title “The Spy Who Came in To Be Sold,” New Republic, July 15-22, 1985.) The media have always cooperated and today as in the past they never suggest that the witnesses—now Iraqi scientists—are extremely vulnerable to pressure, and that their “evidence” cannot be taken seriously without independent support.

The New York Times, which has regularly fallen for propaganda lies in the past (see its own self-serving confession in its editorial with the revealing title “The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down,” January 18, 1988), has set a new standard for gullible propaganda service with Judith Miller’s front page article, “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert” (April 21). Miller didn’t even talk with the scientist, but merely passed along statements he allegedly made to U.S. government agents. He says everything the government would like him to say: that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons destroyed just before the war (no explanation by him, or discussion by Miller, of why they didn’t choose to use the weapons); some had been sent off to Syria in the mid-1990s; and “more recently Iraq was cooperating with Al Qaeda.” Miller doesn’t discuss the credibility problem—the possible gain to some Iraqi from saying what the government wants said or the record of fabrications by the Bush administration (and its predecessors). This is propaganda that is almost surely disinformation, but the New York Times gives it front page space, in its great tradition of pushing convenient lies. (It often doesn’t shoot them down even with a time lag—the paper has never acknowledged that its pushing the Bulgarian-KGB link to the shooting of Pope John II in 1981 was a lie; it suppressed the 1991 revelation by CIA official Melvin Goodman that the CIA knew it was a lie because they had penetrated the Bulgarian secret services). With the WMD not found after a month-long search and any that might appear belatedly and under pressure—and those claimed by confessing scientists—possibly not convincing to a suspicious world, the “coalition” has put ever increasing stress on the aim of giving the Iraqis their freedom. The media have supported this new stress by featuring evidence that Saddam Hussein was a brutal ruler and by giving prominence to Bush administration claims and promises regarding a democratic Iraqi future. Equally important has been the media failure to give context and ask questions: Didn’t the U.S. and Britain support Hussein for many years; and if so, doesn’t this suggest that Iraqi liberty is unlikely to be a driving motive? Why not liberty for Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Palestinians? Is concern for Iraqi welfare compatible with having smashed its infrastructure, killed and wounded many thousands, and allowed its great cultural heritage to be destroyed? Does the U.S. record in other places where it has intervened heavily, such as Guatemala, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, suggest that it will bring liberty and contribute to nation-building? Are its contracts and threats to freeze out countries like France and Germany from Iraq operations compatible with the free choice of Iraqis? Are its plans, as spelled out in government documents and earlier statements of objectives and its recent suggested intention to maintain military bases in Iraq compatible with Iraqi freedom?

A focus on such questions is incompatible with the normalization of aggression and occupation and the propaganda system skirts past them. It postulates the right of the United States to aggress, occupy, decide who are good and bad Iraqis, organize the reconstruction—first and foremost of the oil industry—and decide, at least for now, on Iraq’s direction, very possibly toward privatization of the oil industry and integration into the global market as a U.S. client state. Whether the Bush administration can get away with this is not certain, but it will try and its media will continue to do their best to put this aggression and occupation bringing “liberty” to the Iraqis in a good light.

Published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Back to Political Articles