Sheldon Rampton is the co-author of “The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq” along with John Stauber. The book examines the Iraq War, how we got in, how it has been carried out and how the U.S. can get out. Rampton and Stauber, work with the Center for Media & Democracy and have a keen ability to analyze the propaganda that engulfs this war and how it has led to self-delusion by those who carry it out. Biographies of Rampton and Stauber follow the interview.
KEVIN ZEESE: There are a lot of books being written about the Iraq War and occupation, what is different about your book? Why did you write it?
Sheldon Rampton: We’ve written a previous book about Iraq, “Weapons of Mass Deception,” which was the first book to systematically critique the Bush administration’s original case for war. This book follows up on the themes we explored when we wrote WMD in 2003.
Lots of books are being written now about Iraq, many of them excellent in various ways. One thing that I want to stress is that we are not presenting ourselves as experts on Iraq. We have not been to Iraq, we do not speak Arabic, and although we have studied the situation in Iraq quite a bit, our book is primarily focused on examining the propaganda SURROUNDING the war: how messages were developed, how they were sold to the American people, how the propaganda has had to change as reality sinks in, and the effect that this has had on the course of the war and on the propagandists themselves. There are some important lessons to be learned that we think apply not only to Iraq but in a broader sense to understanding how politics work, as well as to understanding wars in general and the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world.
Our niche has always been that we study propaganda. We’ve spent years dissecting the public relations industry in the United States, and one of the themes that we see quite frequently is that propaganda is often more successful at molding the views of the propagandists themselves than it is at shaping the views of their “target audiences.” This has certainly been the case with respect to the war in Iraq. The degree of credulity given to the Bush administration’s rhetoric can be mapped in a series of concentric circles emanating from Washington, DC. The Washington opinion-makers in their think tanks, lobby shops and bureaucracies are the people who have come to believe in their own propaganda with the greatest passion and the least ability to absorb nuance and criticism. The rest of the United States constitutes the next circle of credulity. Outside Washington, many Americans were initially persuaded to believe the case for war, but that belief has steadily eroded. And simply setting foot outside the borders of the United States into either Canada or Mexico will take you into territory where the public has consistently and strongly opposed the war since its inception.
Fan out further, and the skepticism increases. On the eve of the war with Iraq, it was opposed by 85 percent of the people of Spain, 86 percent of Germans, 91 percent of Russians. In the Middle East, the White House message on Iraq was accepted by less than 10 percent of the population.
What this tells us, in short, is that the main accomplishment of U.S. propaganda regarding Iraq has been to enable the Bush administration — and, to a significant degree, the rest of the America people — to fool themselves.
KZ: It seems to me the U.S. went to war unprepared, do you agree? Why? What was the rush? Did they really believe they would be welcomed as liberators?
SR: What looks like lack of preparation is really a consequence of the self-delusions that we describe in the book. The U.S. State Department actually did quite a bit of detailed planning for how to manage the post-war occupation of Iraq. They organized a “Future of Iraq Project” that brought together 17 teams including 240 Iraqis, who produced 2,000 pages of detailed reports including plans for health, education, sanitation, the economy, and post-war security. Some of their advice looked prophetic in retrospect, such as their prediction of widespread looting and insurgency once Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. Shortly before the war began, however, these recommendations were shelved, and an entirely new team was brought in, which made a point of excluding people who had worked on the Future of Iraq Project or Pentagon officials with actual experience in postwar reconstructions. The fear, according to a Defense Department official, was that such people would offer pessimistic scenarios, which might leak to the press and undermine public support for the war.
The reason that they abandoned these plans is that part of their marketing campaign to sell the war included telling people that it would quick, relatively painless and inexpensive. When Eric Shinseki, the Army’s chief of staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services committee, he told them that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required to maintain order in post-war Iraq. The White House was furious at him for saying it, because they were trying to tell people that the U.S. would be in and out of Iraq in 90 days. Paul Wolfowitz said that Shinseki’s estimate was “wildly off the mark,” and Shinseki’s military career came to a quick end as a result.
The reason they were so determined to tell people the war would be quick and cheap was that they realized the public would have misgivings about getting into an expensive, unending quagmire. The resulting paradox is that the current mess in Iraq is a consequence of the brilliant marketing campaign waged by the Bush administration originally to sell the war to the American people — a campaign so successful that the war planners came to believe it themselves. It gives us no pleasure to point out that we predicted this could happen, but we did.
KZ: A big point you make in the book is that the Bush Administration lied to itself. With an administration with so much experience — Colin Power, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney among others have spent a lot of years in Washington, DC, the White House, national security, intelligence and the military. How could such experienced people get it so wrong? What is that about? Why did it occur?
SR: Experience and intelligence are no protection. All of us are capable of error and self-deception. The problem with the Bush administration is that its communications strategies created an environment that reinforced groupthink and self-deception. Anyone who deviated from the talking points used to sell the war was suspect: even insiders like Eric Shinseki, CIA analysts, fellow conservatives. When Hans Blix said he wasn’t finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, their first reaction was to look for ways to discredit him. If Saddam Hussein said he DID have weapons systems, it proved he was a threat. If he said he DIDN’T, it proved he was a master of deception. In effect they created an information environment in which everything tended to reinforce their own assumptions, which meant wildly exaggerated estimates of the threat that Iraq posed, and equally unrealistic assumptions about the ease with which the U.S. could succeed in occupying Iraq.
Some of this is the fault of the Bush administration, but we try to make the point that some of the problems are rooted more deeply in American culture. During the 20th century, the United States became a world superpower, with military bases around the world and economic end political interests everywhere, yet paradoxically we remain isolationist in our attitudes toward the rest of the world. Very few Americans take a serious interest in events outside our borders or learn to speak a foreign language. This combination of cultural isolationism and international interventionism has taken political form under Bush as unilateralism: the idea that we can successfully invade and occupy a country as far away and alien to our own culture as Iraq. The result is that we have troops attempting to impose order in a country where almost none of them know how to speak the language or read trafffic signs, let alone understand the nuances of Iraqi culture or politics. This is a big part of why the war has gone so badly, and it’s not all the fault of Bush or his advisors, although certainly they epitomize it.
KZ: What is the prognosis for this war? Have we lost? What has been the real cost of this war in lives lost, Iraqi and U.S.?
SR: We have a chapter in “The Best War Ever” titled “Not Counting the Dead,” and it’s actually the first chapter we wrote and the part that angers us the most. Not only has there been scant reporting on U.S. casualties — not just people killed, but thousands more with serious, life-altering injuries — there has been outright hostility directed at people who have even attempted to count the number of Iraqi deaths. The Iraq Body Count website keeps a partial tally, based solely on deaths that have been reported in newspapers, which of course is only a fraction of the total. Its figures have been widely reported in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, but barely mentioned in the United States. Marla Ruzicka, a peace activist from California, attempted to do her own partial accounting of Iraqi deaths. When she was killed herself by a terrorist bomb, her death was celebrated by Front Page Magazine, the right-wing website run by David Horowitz. It published a piece calling her death “poetic justice” and describing her as an “activist bimbette” whose “sole purpose is to legitimize our enemies, cause problems for U.S. troops already in harm’s way, and morally equate dead terrorists with victims of 9/11.”
The best study to date of Iraqi casualties was done in 2004 by Les Roberts, an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins University. His team used statistical sampling techniques that have been widely accepted as the gold standard for measuring casualties in countries affected by war. They came up with an estimate of 100,000 more Iraqi deaths than would have happened if the U.S. had never invaded Iraq and Saddam Hussein had remained in power. The Lancet study was also attacked by pro-war pundits, who called it “shoddy research,” “rotten to the core,” “polemical garbage.” Of course, if supporters of the war really thought the Lancet’s research was bad, they could have conducted research of their own, but no one has tried. The truth is that they oppose ANY effort to assess the number of deaths, which is all the more hypocritical since many of them made their case for war by claiming that it would actually save lives. If they really believed that, they’d WANT to do an assessment, and counting the dead isn’t just an exercise in morbid curiosity. It’s part of the information you need to collect if you care at all about reducing the number of deaths in the future.
A couple of years have gone by since the Lancet did its mortality study, during which the level of violence in Iraq has increased dramatically. According to the Iraqi government’s own figures, war-related violence is killing more than 3,000 people per month. Unfortunately, those aren’t complete statistics. To get a meaningful assessment, you need to look for deaths that aren’t reported, including deaths from secondary causes of war, such as disruption of access to food, water and health care, and no one is even attempting to make those assessments. It’s shameful.
As for whether “we have lost,” someone has to first explain what they think “winning” would mean. If it means “toppling Saddam Hussein,” okay, we won already, so why are we still there? If it means stopping terrorism, the war has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in terrorism worldwide. If it means making life better for Iraqis, the war has actually made life much worse, and there is no reason to think that continued U.S. occupation will eventually have the opposite effect. Suppose a plumber comes to your home to fix a broken water pipe. Three years later, the guy’s still there, and not only is your basement flooded, you’ve got raw sewage backing up into the rest of the house and the whole house is wrecked. How bad do things have to get before you face the fact that you need to fire your plumber? That’s where we’re at with regard to the notion that continued U.S. occupation can fix Iraq.
KZ: Why did we fight this war?
SR: The Bush administration said it was because Iraq posed a threat and now says it was for Iraqi freedom. The left says it was for oil. I just watched a documentary called “The War Tapes,” which was filmed entirely by U.S. soldiers. Most of them actually voted for Bush and supported the war, although they were admirably candid about the difference between what they saw on the ground and the rhetoric that got them there. Several of them seemed to think the war was for oil and went so far as to say that we’d BETTER get some oil out of it.
Personally, I don’t think it was as directly about the oil as some people think, although certainly oil has been the driving motive behind U.S. and other countries’ interventions in the Middle East for the past century. Probably, though, we could have gotten more oil out of Iraq if we had just left Saddam Hussein in place. I think self-delusion and the arrogance of empire — combined, of course, with America’s emotional desire to lash out following 9/11 — did as much to get us into war as any particular rational motive. Irrational forces sometimes account for a lot in explaining why nations do what they do. When European nations threw themselves into the First World War, some people must have imagined that there were spoils to be won, but in reality they got mutual ruination for all parties. Afterwards someone asked a journalist named Karl Weigand why nations go to war, and his answer was, “Politicians lie to journalists and then believe those lies when they see them in print.” That’s as likely an explanation for how we got into Iraq as anything else I’ve seen.
KZ: How do we get out?
SR: Lies got us into this war. Only the truth will get us out. First, the American people need to face the fact that what we’ve been doing has not been noble and it has not been done out of compassion or concern for the people of Iraq. Then they need to move beyond apathy and cynicism and seriously put pressure on their government to get out.
KEVIN ZEESE is executive director of DemocracyRising.US..