Bush Rides Gulf War Spin
As every savvy mass manipulator knows, it is the propaganda that does not appear as such that works the best. Too obvious a pitch can only fail.
Consider, for example, the GOP's recent show of multicultural diversity -- "It Takes a Potemkin Village." That burst of pseudoamity was such a patent sell that it gave all the op-ed wits and cable clowns an easy opening, which was then exploited by the Democrats in their quadrennial miniseries. The Bush convention was an "inclusion illusion," said Jesse Jackson, and Joe Lieberman cracked wise about Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, and a good time was had by all.
But while it failed to make Bush/Cheney seem as mellow as the Grateful Dead, the show succeeded brilliantly at glorifying the main accomplishment of Bush the Elder -- and at identifying his son with that amazing tour de force. Dick Cheney's role as ready understudy, the feisty testimonials of Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf, and the many blustering allusions to Saddam Hussein were broad reminders of the momentary glory that was Operation Desert Storm. At such belligerent theatrics no one laughed -- no pundits or comedians or Democrats -- because that "operation" still exerts a certain magic. The GOP's politically-correct charade no doubt distracted us from thinking critically about the party's celebration of that war.
By apt coincidence, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait took place exactly ten years prior to the show in Philadelphia, and a little over ten years prior to Al Gore's choice to run with Senator Lieberman, who, in concert with Dick Cheney, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and George Bush, did his utmost to arouse enthusiasm for the war. (Al Gore, too, was a supporter.) In the anniversary spirit, then, we should revisit the original Bush/Cheney production, to get a sense of what a propaganda masterpiece it really was.
Lest we forget, the invasion of Kuwait had been tacitly green-lighted by April Glaspie, our ambassador in Baghdad, who reassured Saddam Hussein that "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your disagreement with Kuwait." Whether such encouragement was her mistake or State Department policy is still an open question.
Iraq's dictator had enjoyed immense Republican support. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the U.S. government was most receptive to the lobbying efforts of the U.S.-Iraq Business Forum -- a grand consortium of corporate powers established in 1985, that wanted access to the Iraqi market. The Forum lobbied heavily against congressional sanctions on Iraq, despite her leader's grisly record. The Forum (with the aid of Henry Kissinger) also worked to help Iraq out with her debts -- and the Reagan and Bush administrations pitched right in: underwriting loans from Italy's infamous Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, quietly facilitating aid through the Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corporation, and pressing the Commerce Department to allow Iraq to purchase various lethal goods from U.S. companies.
Thus did the Bush team help to arm the tyrant whom they would soon demonize to shattering effect. Such facts were missing from the pro-war propaganda churned out during the months of Operation Desert Shield; and the issue vanished after 1992, when a Justice Department inquiry went nowhere.
The Build Up
Inside the White House and the Pentagon, there was no doubt that we would stomp Iraq, a third-world country mangled by eight years of inconclusive war against Iran, and -- unlike Vietnam -- ruled by a gangster largely feared and hated by his people. But despite their confidence, from early August 1990 through the next five months, the Bush team and the Pentagon expertly jolted the American people, suggesting often that Iraq might win. War always being "a terrible thing with unpredictable consequences" (as General Powell put it scarily), we might be facing an ordeal in which (as another, unnamed general put it) "many, many people are going to die. And it's important for people to understand that it's not inconceivable we could lose." Far from helping to expose this systematic lie, the antiwar protesters (insofar as you could hear them) merely reconfirmed it, by insisting hotly that this conflict would turn out to be "another Vietnam."
Meanwhile, in the Gulf, our toughest troops could see what they were really facing. One ex-Ranger told me, with a chuckle, of the weak Iraqi force in Kuwait City. (Against strict orders, he and a few buddies had stolen over there to take a look.) He also noted his amazement at the tearful panic of his folks back home, when he called them via satellite from the desert. Like the rest of us, his family had been spooked for weeks by the official buzz about "the elite Republican Guard," the quarter-million soldiers on the Saudi border (of whose existence there is still no public evidence), the moats of flaming oil, and on and on.
The Bush team further heightened the suspense by feigning high hopes for diplomacy -- meanwhile subverting every diplomatic possibility and making "offers" that could only pique Iraq's defiance. The cruelest such maneuver was the much-hyped meeting, just five days before the deadline, between Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. Americans -- especially those with loved ones in the Gulf -- were eager for a breakthrough, and suffered when the talks broke off. The Bush team, however, saw the meeting only as a way to goose up the dramatic tension. As Dan Quayle noted in his diary that day: "Baker/Aziz meeting.Went as planned. Baker failed."
And then the deadline finally came -- and went. Thus Desert Storm, when it began the following night (at 7:00 P.M., EST), started at the point of greatest mass anxiety. Such timing was essential to the impact of the war's first night, which smartly followed up our months of dread with joyous word of many unexpected victories. Watching CNN, you were convinced that the Iraqi air force had been devastated in an hour or two, that the nuclear, chemical, and biological (NBC) facilities had been destroyed, that the scuds wiped out, and more -- all without a single Allied casualty!
The attentive viewer eventually discovered that those euphoric bulletins were, by and large, as bogus as the previous alarms. The NBC facilities were untouched (and would be until the UN started looking for them), the scuds were good to go (and would land here and there throughout the war, the Allied planes unable to take out a single mobile launcher). And that night there was a U.S. casualty: Lt. Commander Scott Speicher, his F/A-18C vaporized by an Iraqi MiG (although the Pentagon, once it did reveal his death, suppressed its cause).
After all the months of dread, such wondrous tidings had the psychological effect of an unexpected pardon granted just before an execution. And so the president's approval ratings, and the ratings for the war itself, spiked predictably that very evening. (Until that heady moment, U.S. mass opinion on the war was evenly divided.)
Throughout the war (and after), the Bush/Cheney team repeatedly extolled our high-tech weaponry: the F-117A Stealth fighter, the "smart bombs," and the Patriot missile.
None worked as advertised. Of the 88,000 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq, only 7% were "smart," and of those, only 60% were said to hit their targets. (Of all those dumb bombs, less than 25% hit home.) The Patriot -- not built for such a job -- created lethal downpours of debris, and seems itself to have posed considerable danger. And the Stealth fighter wasn't very stealthy. Three British destroyers stationed in the Gulf had easily tracked the planes on their own radar.
We knew none of this, because the Pentagon showed us only bull's-eyes. The Bush/Cheney team compounded the illusion with exuberant speeches (as when the president saluted Raytheon for giving us the Patriot), thereby presenting U.S. weapons manufacturers with a propaganda windfall.
We'll never know how many of Iraq's civilians died in Desert Storm, because Saddam Hussein has kept the number secret. It was (and is) not in his interests even to acknowledge such great losses, much less inflate them, because, like any tyrant, he lives in terror of a coup. Too blunt a revelation of the war's civilian toll might have struck his enemies, or henchmen, as a tempting sign of weakness, and so the state stopped posting any figures on mortality after just a few days' bombing.
That Saddam Hussein played down his people's suffering disproves the charge, carried nationwide throughout the war, that he was craftily hyping the destruction (and using CNN's Peter Arnett as "his Goebbels"), so as to weaken world resolve against him. On the contrary: His policy on publicizing the Iraqi deaths was not much different from Dick Cheney's, which likewise masked the horrors on the ground with euphemisms like "collateral damage," and by urging, or forcing, all journalists to stay far away from what was really going on.
Nevertheless, the war's proponents dismissed as "Iraqi propaganda" any evidence that we were blowing up civilians. For example, on February 20, at Senate hearings on the Pentagon's press policy, Senator Lieberman said that "journalists are shown what Iraq claims is damage to civilian homes and businesses in Iraq , but they're not shown the horrendous damage that Iraq did to Kuwait. We see Iraqi babies being pulled from the wreckage of a military target in Baghdad, but we never saw Kuwaiti babies being tossed out of incubators in Kuwait."
Here was topsy-turvy propaganda at its dizziest: Those "homes and businesses" in Baghdad were destroyed by American bombs, as was the crowded Amerrhiya shelter (which was not "a military target"). On the other hand, the primary reason why "we never saw Kuwaiti babies being tossed out of incubators" is that it never happened -- like other nightmarish atrocities ascribed to the Iraqi army by our propagandists (who, meanwhile, ignored the many crimes that the Iraqis did commit against Kuwaitis). So perfect a misstatement of the case is something other than a lie: an outburst of impassioned wishful thinking, based on the intoxicating mix of falsehoods, half-truths, and delusions that the White House and Pentagon were spreading everywhere. The senator spoke thus, in other words, because he wanted to believe what he was saying; and, of course, his audience -- loath to think that "we" would ever hurt civilians -- wanted to believe it too.
We were also kept in grinning ignorance of what was happening on the battlefield, where untold thousands of Iraqi soldiers were incinerated, buried alive, or (as Seymour Hersh has recently reported) shot down while retreating -- soldiers who, in many instances, were forced into the fight by Ba'athist goons. Such atrocious practice was enabled by our overwhelming technological advantage, which made the "operation" not a "war" such as, say, Clausewitz would have recognized, but an old-fashioned imperialist massacre, recalling, say, the British use of Maxim guns to mow down countless Zulus.
Our own troops also suffered in the overflow of such abundant firepower. While it belabored as "miraculous" the modest toll of U.S. soldiers killed in battle (148 we were told often), the propaganda made no mention of the total incidence of "friendly fire," which officially accounts for 35 of those fatalities, and may account for many more -- easily the highest proportion in any modern war. Eager to idealize high-tech warfare, the Pentagon not only downplayed such unheroic accidents, but hid our wounded from the public. Disfigured troops allege that they were not allowed to join the postwar victory parades in Washington and New York City.
The End (That Wasn't)
All such manipulation and suppression could, perhaps, be justified, or at least defended, if Iraq's dictator was as dangerous as U.S. propaganda claimed -- and if he and his regime had been replaced, as in post-war Germany.
But George Bush cut the operation short, leaving a tyrant "worse than Hitler" (as the president had put it) in command, and free again to maul his people and conspire to build forbidden weapons. Because of him, the U.S. is still a major presence in the Gulf, with 24,000 soldiers on active duty, at a cost of roughly $2 billion per annum.
Since 1991, moreover, the U.S. has enforced a range of sanctions meant to force the starved Iraqi population into somehow rising up against the well-fed and (still) well-armed Saddam Hussein: "Iraqis will pay the price" for their oppressor's power over them, Robert M. Gates, the president's deputy national security adviser, announced after the war. This has meant continued U.S. bombings, "which have become almost daily occurrences," according to Christopher Hellman of the Center for Defense Information. Meanwhile, the sanctions, which by now have killed and injured many thousands of Iraqis, have hurt the hated Saddam not at all. "You are hurting the people, not the regime, and Saddam Hussein can keep blaming their inhuman plight on the U.S.," Tunisia's president, Zine Abidine Ben, said recently.
And yet the sanctions' failure has not led the Bush team to denounce them (or Bill Clinton to abandon them, or either Democratic candidate to question them). Certainly there were no mentions of Iraqi suffering in the recent testimonials to Desert Storm.
This brings us back to the Republican convention -- whose major oratorical motif did not meet with a tidal wave of ridicule, although it was no less preposterous than all the tolerationist theatrics. Speech after speech extolled the candidates' "integrity" and "honesty," and their scorn for "polls" and "focus groups." Governor Bush was cast as "a man without pretense, without cynicism," and the stolid Cheney lauded as a paragon of "substance" over "flash." (Similarly, Jerry Falwell later praised the "credibility ... which Mr. Lieberman brings to anything he touches.")
Now we have the Bush team back again -- and promising always to tell the truth. We should therefore ask George W. Bush what he would have done differently if he'd been in his father's place; and we should ask Dick Cheney all the questions that he wouldn't let us ask -- and that we couldn't even think to ask -- ten years ago.
Mark Crispin Miller is a Professor of Media Ecology at New York University, where he also directs the Project on Media Ownership.