Public Propaganda and the Iraq War


It was a tiny Reuters’ news item last week but there was a lot more to it than a first glance might reveal. “The administration arranged for some 75 House members and 25 senators to visit Iraq in recent weeks. Most returned supporting Bush’s $87 billion proposal.” Nothing much in that, apparently, other than the fact that a great deal of taxpayers’ money was spent on a series of unproductive visits. Unproductive, that is, save for convincing the converted that they must continue to support Bush, which is the major factor in White House management during the run-up to next year’s election; and thereby hangs the tale, which is not only important for America but for all of us out here.

A hundred US legislators visited Iraq, but, as Reuters recorded, the number did not include “Senator Christopher Dodd and three other Democrats critical of administration policy”. Why? Well, the official Washington answer was that they were denied permission to visit Iraq because there were “logistical problems”. There were what? This is the army that drove into Iraq and took over in a couple of weeks and it can’t arrange a visit by four Democrats because its logistics aren’t up to it? This is an Air Force with 126 C-5s and 539 C-130s plus another 1000 or so transports of various types and so many helicopters they would eclipse the Washington sun at midsummer midday were they to hover concentrically round the Memorial. But there is no space for four people to be taken to Iraq?

How could there possibly be logistical problems about a journey of four US legislators, or four anybodies, indeed, to Iraq? There is a public relations machine whirring in top gear to cater for all the visitors to Baghdad and much else besides. CNN reported Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s observation that “We were told an airplane was not available, but Britain offered an airplane . . . If Britain can offer United States senators an airplane, you would think the United States government could do so as well.” What can be going on?

First, there is the lie. It is patently absurd and blatantly insulting to expect anyone to believe that “logistical problems” prevented United States senators from visiting US soldiers in Iraq and receiving briefings from people on the ground concerning a major financial commitment about which they should be well-informed before voting on it. Senators Dodd and Daschle seemingly don’t want to have an undignified squabble with the White House and the Pentagon over this almost unbelievable incident involving denigratory and vulgar treatment of elected representatives of the American people, and the matter has been quietly put aside. But it gives a very good idea of the depths to which Bush administration apparatchiks will stoop in their control freakery. (And make no mistake about responsibility in this, because minions — even high mucky-muck minions — do not insult senators without approval of somebody.)

So the second point revealed by this example of Bush administration contempt for the norms of politeness towards political opponents is that if you do not agree with its every word and deed you are an enemy and must be punished. Even distinguished US senators must get into administration lockstep or they will be subject to treatment more usually associated with dysfunctional schoolyard bullies than with those at the highest levels in the capital of the most powerful nation in the world. Bush was not speaking lightly two years ago when he said “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror”. Although the threat at the time was unnecessary (and indeed stupidly offensive to many nations – remember the 9/11 headline in the French newspaper Le Monde : “We are all Americans now”?), most of us thought the Bush expression of intimidation was concerned solely with the ‘war on terrorism’. But it has developed a much, much wider intent. Down in the depths of his rancid little psyche, Bush has conjured up a new war which is uncannily reminiscent of the Nixon years.

Stephen Ambrose, in his book about Nixon 1962-1972, records that ” . . . late in the first term, Nixon was sitting round with Kissinger, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Colson. They were discussing some of Nixon’s enemies, in this case antiwar [anti Vietnam war] Democratic senators. Nixon said ‘One day we will get them — we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist — right. Chuck, right?’ Colson nodded assent. ‘Henry knows what I mean,’ Nixon went on. ‘Get them on the floor and step on them, crush them, show no mercy.’ Kissinger smiled and nodded”.

Nobody can claim that such a scene has ever occurred in the present White House with Bush, Rice and Rove discussing anti war (anti Iraq war) Democratic Senators Dodd, Daschle and the others. Heaven forbid it should or could. All Washington would be shocked — shocked — if it did. But the tenor of events is eerily parallel with those of thirty years ago, when Nixon “accused the press of being liberal, softheaded, idealistic and out to get him . . . Nixon saw all criticisms of his policy as a criticism of his person brought on by the reporters’ hatred of him.” According to Kissinger in his modest ‘Years of Upheaval’ , Nixon’s reaction to the attitude of the press was “we should draw the wagons round the White House.” Move forward thirty years, and Bush’s reaction to the attitude of the press is “There’s a sense that the people in America aren’t getting the truth.”

Indeed there are efforts to prevent the American people being told the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Iraq (and much else besides), because the White House demands that unsavory matters remain under wraps, especially those that might place Bush himself in a poor light. Otherwise, revelation of truth has to be selective and, in the words of Bush, must indicate “there is a positive thing that is taking place inside of Iraq.” On the day he made that pronouncement there were at least seven incidents of violence directed at occupation forces in Iraq. (There may have been more. The system of reporting attacks on US troops is far from transparent, and there have been instances of engagements whose details would not have seen the light of day had it not been for the presence of media representatives. In one egregious case, the killing of an Iraqi interpreter by a casual shot fired by a soldier who has not faced disciplinary proceedings would have remained unreported had it not been that a distinguished foreigner was covered in the blood of his dying assistant.)

The beginning of the Bush campaign aimed at improving public awareness of all that is Good in Iraq involved despatch of the Commerce Secretary, Don Evans, to Baghdad for forty-eight hours, during which extended period of deep exposure to the country he decided that “I’m not scared here. I feel very safe here, quite frankly” (CNN October 14).

October 14 was the day on which three US soldiers were killed (in, respectively, Tikrit, Baiji and on a road fifteen miles north east of Baghdad). But the valiant Evans, surrounded by bodyguards, stuck to his guns, as it were (having overnighted in Kuwait), and announced that these were merely “isolated acts of terror”. He scolded the media and said “You have to look beyond these isolated incidents that are occurring”. Mike Allen of the Washington Post reported that “Asked if he had seen any problems Evans said ‘No, I have not. There’s lots to be done, in terms of rebuilding the economy of Iraq’.” So in 48 hours in Iraq, fearless Don Evans saw no problems. Mind you, as a Texas oil magnate Friend of George who directed the Bush 2000 election campaign, Evans could hardly be expected to see problems of any sort in Bush policy.

One positive thing about the Evans’ exploit is he demonstrated beyond doubt that he is a patronising oaf. When he saw two boys selling soft drinks he brought his convoy to a halt and bought one. Reuters reported “he called the youngsters symbols of Iraq’s entrepreneurial spirit and said ‘We need to bring more capital into this country . . . to develop the private sector’.” It would have been more to the point if he had asked why the kids weren’t at school, but his attitude epitomises the Bush approach to news : get a quick soundbite headline whenever you can. His proposal about bringing capital into Iraq is a reasonable one. Perhaps it might make up for the destruction by US troops of people’s livelihoods.

As reported by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent (UK) the day before dauntless Don dropped in, “US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as lemon and orange trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops . . . The children of one woman who owned some fruit trees lay down in front of a bulldozer but were dragged away, according to eyewitnesses . . . When a reporter . . . tried to take a photograph of the bulldozers at work a soldier grabbed his camera and tried to smash it . . .”

Of course any farmer who dared tell US troops about guerrillas would be signing his death warrant, as anyone with a shred of common sense would realise. Further, but seemingly irrelevant to modern US practice, Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states “No protected person [civilians under occupation rule] may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited [as are] reprisals against protected persons and their property.” An Iraqi newspaper quoted a US officer, Lt-Colonel Springman, as saying “We asked the farmers several times to stop the attacks or to tell us who was responsible but the farmers didn’t tell us.” So he destroyed their livelihoods. Little wonder occupation forces are hated by so many Iraqis. But we are assured by Evans there are no problems in Iraq and, as White House spokesman Scott McClellan said three days after the trees were destroyed to the sound of blaring jazz, “We’re making great progress about improving the lives of the people there in Iraq . . . ”

After spending four days in Baghdad, Rep George Nethercutt (R-Wash) told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on 13 October that “The story of what we’ve done in the post-war period is remarkable. It is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day.” Oh my. There’s real compassion for you. For anyone to talk casually of “losing a couple of soldiers a day” is disgusting. But he is on message, just like Rep Greg Walden (R-Ore) who returned from his visit enthusing about “restoration of a water pumping station that is now irrigating 150,000 acres of farmland”. Pretty good. But a pity it isn’t irrigating the fields where all the fruit trees were bulldozed. (And obviously Reps Nethercutt and Walden are more important than Senators Daschle and Dodd.)

The vice-president and other administration figures have made speeches claiming much the same as Nethercutt, Evans and Walden : there is nothing new out of Iraq except good news and anything bad is the fault of the media. “There is a positive thing that is taking place inside of Iraq” is the Bush mantra of the moment, and an assault on middle America is being made to spread that message. But those who would try to deceive us end up deceiving themselves. In the words of Bush, “The people in America aren’t getting the truth”. He is quite right. Washington’s private self-deception is manifesting itself as public propaganda, and this is dangerous for the whole world, not just America.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website:

He can be reached at:


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.