How blatantly can an administration lie to promote a war and get away with it? We’ll find out in the coming weeks, as U.S. forces in Iraq search for evidence of banned weapons and U.S. officials shape postwar Iraq.
Ironically, the conduct of the war provides compelling evidence that Iraq probably had no usable weapons of mass destruction and posed no threat outside its borders. Everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was most likely to use such weapons if his regime faced collapse. But no such weapons were used, suggesting that he lacked the weapons or a delivery capacity, suggesting the Bush administration had been lying.
That would not be big news. To whip up fear about Iraq, U.S. officials lied and distorted the truth for months:
* In his Feb. 5 U.N. speech, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell claimed that a "poison and explosive training center camp" existed in northeastern Iraq. A few days later, journalists visited the site and found "a dilapidated collection of concrete outbuildings" and no evidence for Powell’s claims.
* The Blair administration’s report on weapons – which Powell lauded in his U.N. speech for its "exquisite detail" about "Iraqi deception activities" – was stitched together from public sources, including a 12-year-old report. One expert described it as "cut-and-paste plagiarism."
* U.S. officials claimed that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, later explained that the documents on which the claim was based were faked.
Propagandists know that perception counts for more than truth. This was the approach the administration used concerning Iraq’s alleged terrorist ties. Bush officials avoided specific claims about Iraqi involvement in past attacks on Americans – but they sowed enough speculation to create impressions. That’s why in a March poll, 45 percent of the American people believed Hussein had been "personally involved" in the 9/11 attacks.
This strategy of multiple justifications provided a shifting cover story to divert attention from the obvious reason for war: expanding the U.S. empire to control the flow of oil and oil profits. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld called such assertions "nonsense," though it made – and continues to make – sense to most of the world.
Rumsfeld and the gang hope that finding some evidence of banned weapons or weapons programs will provide a retroactive justification – something like, "Even if we lied, we turned out to be right."
If no or little evidence is found, Bush has ways out. There are several semi-plausible explanations: Weapons and records were destroyed in bombing or looting. Hussein hid them so they can never be found. They were transferred out of the country. There is no way to disprove such claims.
But those rationalizations may prove unnecessary if the "liberation" of the Iraqi people sticks as a blanket justification for the invasion. Anyone with an ounce of compassion feels grateful that Iraqi suffering at the hands of Hussein is over. But while the vast majority of Iraqis are glad the tyrant is gone, they seem less excited about military occupation and U.S. domination of their politics. Mistrust is compounded by the fact that Iraqis know the destruction of their civilian infrastructure by the United States in the 1991 Gulf War – along with a dozen years of punishing economic sanctions maintained at U.S. insistence – have intensified their suffering.
So Bush’s stated concern for freedom in Iraq also will be tested in the coming weeks. If he is truly interested in democracy, he will remove U.S. forces, acknowledging that no meaningful democratic process can proceed under occupation by a nation with selfish interests in the outcome. If strategic advantage was not a motive for war, Bush will not seek a permanent military presence in Iraq from which the United States can dominate the region.
If the United States stays in Iraq while a new government is formed, and retains basing rights, the world will justifiably conclude that the motivation for war was to install a compliant government to extend and deepen U.S. control over the energy resources of the region. The question is whether the American public is willing to face those realities or hide in the lies.
ROBERT JENSEN is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet "Citizens of the Empire." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.