The American people’s short memory virtually constitutes complicity in the loss of millions of lives and billions of dollars worth of property. In the past 15 years alone, over a million Iraqis have died and thousands of Serbians and Afghanis have perished in aggressive wars perpetrated on countries to serve America’s geopolitical interests at the expense of innocent civilians who were not collateral damage but who were deliberately bombed as part of heinous war strategy to provoke the people in these countries into overthrowing their own governments.
To build a case to persuade the American people and Congress to approve these illegal wars, administrations implemented a multi-faceted propaganda campaigns consisting of demonizing the leader of the targeted country, evoking fear of a threat to American national security or interests, concocting a spurious authorization to legitimize the war and contriving a set of lofty and noble objectives. Notwithstanding the fact that this pattern has been repeated numerous times since World War II, the American people and Congress acquiesce in supporting wars as was the case in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Panama, Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq. Currently, the same pattern is evolving in the campaign to attack Iran and the same, reflexive mindless support of the American people is growing.
American presence in Vietnam began before the French were defeated at Diem Bien Phu but the real escalation of American involvement began under Kennedy and reached its apogee under Johnston. The enemy was Communism embodied in this case by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong who, according to American policy-makers, were bent on uniting both South and North Vietnam, with force if necessary, which would establish a Communist prototype for Indochina. Contrary to this propaganda, the 1954 Geneva Accords called for a vote in both the South and North over uniting the two and Americans knew that Ho Chi Minh would win and feared his victory would trigger the so-called domino effect.
As a result, the US inaugurated a propaganda campaign which characterized Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong as evil communists, to frighten the American people into supporting a massive US intervention in Vietnam.
Underlying the threat of Indochina, was the already deep-seated misplaced fear of the International Communist Movement with its unrelenting drive to infiltrate Western countries to convert their governments to Communism.
Needing a strong justification to establish legitimacy for intervention in Viet Nam, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara used a spurious incident in which a North Vietnamese ship attacked the American destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, to claim that the North Vietnamese had launched an unprovoked attack on an American ship in international waters. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which granted the President the authority to wage war as he saw fit.
All elements of the pattern are evident in the propaganda campaign. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong were evil Communists who were part of a worldwide conspiracy to subvert governments and take over the world; the threat of all of Indochina falling to Communism represented a major threat to national security; the approval of Congress granted the authority for the war and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was the authorizing underpinning which infused the war with legitimacy. The noble cause was to save South Vietnam and the world from communism.
The same pattern repeats itself in Nicaragua. According to official sources, Nicaragua became such a threat to the security of the US that President Reagan warned Americans that Nicaragua was only two days march from Brownsville Texas.
From 1933 to 1979, Nicaragua was ruled by the Somoza family whose brutal and corrupt reign of terror endured until a popular revolutionary group, the Sandinistas, overthrew Somoza and replaced his government with the nationalist, populist Daniel Ortega and members of the Sandinistas. In 1984 internationally supervised elections were held and the wildly popular Sandinistas won a majority of the seats. The agenda of their government was to improve conditions for the people through higher quality healthcare, schools and redistribution of land once owned by the Somoza family.
Fearing a successful economic archetype and the domino effect in Latin America, Reagan organized a surrogate force, called the Contras, based in Honduras and Costa Rica, whose purpose was to avoid the Sandinista army and to strike during the night at schools, hospital and buses in a war of attrition against the people of Nicaragua to persuade them to overthrow the Sandinistas or vote them out of office.
The Reagan administration employed the usual tactics. In order to legitimize support for the Contras, Reagan created the Kissinger Commission to “lay the foundations for a long-termed unified national approach to the freedom and independence of the countries of Central America.” Its lofty-sounding purpose masked its real intent which was to justify support for an illegal intervention in violation of international law.
One of the conclusions of the Commission demonized the Sandinistas by claiming that Nicaragua was worse off under them than under Somoza. Henry Kissinger also concluded that Nicaragua was worse than Nazi Germany and Reagan, focusing on the other end of the political spectrum, referred to Nicaragua as a Communist dictatorship.
Apparently, International Communism, with its grand design to take over the world, posed a threat to U.S. national security. Reagan’s comment about Brownsville Texas was obviously nothing more than a scare tactic in the same vein as buying duct tape to protect American homes from biological or chemical warfare.
To lend legitimacy to supporting the Contras, the Reagan administration invoked the War Powers Act up to 1982 at which time Congress passed the Boland Amendment, warned about the sale of arms to the rebels in El Salvador which was never proven and created the supposed bipartisan commission headed by Kissinger.
The pattern was an integral part of the war on the Nicaraguan government. Reagan claimed that the contras were engaged in a humanitarian mission to free the people of Nicaragua from the yoke of communism and to support them in meeting their social and economic needs. Reagan demonized Ortega and the Sandinistas, warned the American people of the threat they posed to national security, created the Kissinger Commission to lend legitimacy to supporting the Contras and enveloped the campaign in the mantle of humanitarianism and freedom.
Panama offers another example of how the U.S. wins support for interventions that violate international law.
Between the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 there was a gap during which there was no arch enemy threatening the interests of the United States that could serve as a justification for enormous defense spending and for maintaining such overwhelming military superiority. The Reagan and Bush administrations conjured up the “War on Narcoterrorism” as the new superenemy to be overcome with American military might.
President Manuel Noriega was on the CIA parole for many years as an important asset for gathering intelligence in Latin America and for flying weapons to the Contras on the same planes that carried drugs on their return flights.
When Noriega began asserting his nationalistic proclivities and refused to obey all the orders issued by North, Poindexter or Casey, it was becoming increasingly necessary to replace him with a more American-friendly leader. The strategy was to warn Americans about the dangers posed by this so-called narcoterrorist, indict him in a Florida court, and then invade Panama for the purpose of capturing him for trial in the U.S. The U.S. invasion was swift and merciless.
Reagan and Bush Sr. repeatedly demonized Noriega by referring to him as a narcoterrorist dictator despite the fact that they both knew that he was on the CIA parole at the same time as he was heavily involved the Latin American drug trade.
President Bush Sr. considered him a threat to U.S. interests on two counts. He proclaimed that a critical strategy in the War on Drugs in the United States was to eliminate Noriega. As well, Noriega posed a problem because he refused to renegotiate a treaty signed by President Carter and the former President of Panama, Omar Torrijos, which transferred control of the Canal Zone where the Southern Command was located from the United States to Panama.
American forces invaded Panama under the pretext of capturing the narcoterrorist Noriega and freeing the Panamanian people from a brutal dictator. The justification for the invasion was based on the Florida indictment and the protection of American lives. The U.S. military in Panama repeatedly provoked the Panamanian Defense Forces until an incident occurred in which one marine was shot and another held captive. These incidents provided the necessary justification for invading Panama to save American lives.
The lofty purpose for this murderous invasion was the protection of American lives, freeing the people from an evil dictator and disrupting an important cog in Latin American drug trafficking.
There was the predictable demonization of Noriega, instilling fear of a dangerous narcoterrorist, legitimizing the invasion with claims that American lives were at risk and ennobling the cause by imbuing it with a humanitarian façade.
The 1991 war on Iraq was anomalous given that it was clearly an aggressive war against Iraq but was sanctioned by the Security Council. One of the two criteria for assessing the legality of a war is that it wins the approval of the Security Council but in this case, the approval violated the UN Charter. The US achieved this feat of legerdemain by threatening or bribing the members of the Security Council. The U.S.-dominated World Bank offered China $114 million in aid and the U.S. offered normalization of diplomatic relations. They convinced some of its Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia to loan $4 billion to the Soviet Union. Egypt, whose support was critical, was desperate for economic assistance which arrived in the form of debt forgiveness from the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Through bribes and threats, the American government secured the ultimate authority for using force against another nation and in the process seriously damaged the credibility of the Security Council.
To demonize Saddam Hussein, the Bush Sr. administration lured Iraq into invading Kuwait and then condemned Saddam Hussein for such a brutal act of aggression. Then to cement his case against Hussein, Bush hired Hill & Knowlton to invent a story about Iraqi soldiers snatching babies from incubators and throwing them on concrete floors. Despite the offers from Iraq to negotiate, Bush claimed that Iraq was intractable. Of course, there were the usual comparisons to Hitler.
On January 8, 1991 President Bush sent a letter to Congressional leaders warning that “The current situation in the Persian Gulf, brought about by Iraq’s unprovoked invasion and subsequent brutal occupation of Kuwait, threatens U.S. vital interests. The situation also threatens the peace.”
All the signposts of the American war propaganda strategy are evident and include referring to Saddam Hussein as a brutal dictator with grand designs on the region and as a threat to American interests. In addition, Bush won Security Council approval and created a coalition of partners to legitimize his cause which was wrapped in a humanitarian cloak.
President Clinton managed to convince the American people and Congress that the war on Serbia was a singular example of nations cooperating in a great humanitarian cause. In order to break up the former Yugoslavia, Clinton exploited the civil war that had already been waged in Bosnia and the ongoing civil war between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbia as a pretext for bombing Serbia. After presenting a peace agreement to both parties in Rambouillet, France, that no sovereign state could possibly accept, he warned Milosevic, the President of Serbia, that NATO would use force if necessary if he did not sign the agreement. After committing many atrocities during the bombing campaign against Serbia after Milosevic predictably refused to sign the agreement, NATO forced Milosevic to surrender.
Milosevic was portrayed as a monstrous war criminal who had been guilty of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and was now perpetrating the same crime in Kosovo. Rather than claiming that American interests were specifically threatened, President Clinton grandstanded about how the United States and its NATO allies were committed to humanitarian interventions to prevent the kind of ethnic cleansing which was inflicted on Kosovo and Bosnia.
Unable to convince the Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in Serbia, Clinton used NATO as the authorizing agent not only to lend credibility to this particular war but also to an expanded role for NATO. The grand cause was the new concept of legitimate humanitarian intervention even though the war against Serbia violated both the UN and NATO Charters. This concept has led to the principle that a war can be illegal but still legitimate; a principle which conveniently allows nations to ignore international law when it suits their purpose but which would not be acceptable to any international tribunal or to the overwhelming majority of states that have ratified the vast system of international conventions, treaties and laws.
The war on Serbia possesses all the elements of the pattern including demonizing the leader Milosevic, defining American interest in terms of humanitarian interventions, establishing NATO as the authority approving the war and creating the concept of illegal but legitimate wars.
In 2003, Bush Jr. set out to finish the task of removing Saddam Hussein from office but for different reasons. Bush Sr. was unable to convince Saddam to be a client state and failing assassination attempts by the CIA, was forced to resort to war. Bush Jr., or more accurately his advisors, had grand plans for gaining control of the Middle East by ensuring a friendly regime in Iraq and by weakening the remnants of the once relatively strong Iraqi armed forces.
Saddam was condemned repeatedly by everyone in the administration and eventually but belatedly his removal became the “real” purpose of the invasion. Lacking United Nations approval and the support of the major states which had participated in the first war on Iraq, Bush managed to cobble together a rather ragtag group of nations (except for Britain and Australia) called the “Coalition of the Willing” which consisted of Albania, Azerbaijan, Dominican Republic El Salvador, Eritrea and Nicaragua to name but a few. His grand and noble cause changed many times from elimination of Saddam’s WMD to building democracy in Iraq.
To complete the task of gaining control of the Middle East and ensuring that all its nations were American-friendly, war against Iran became the next target in the campaign to secure approval from the American people and Congress. To persuade the American people and Congress to support a possible attack on Iran, Bush Jr. is cultivating the specter that Iran is a nuclear threat to the region and the US and as well, the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a madman and anti-Semite capable of pulling the nuclear trigger.
According to the Bush administration, Ahmadinejad is another Hitler who is a menace to the Middle East and in particular, to Israel, whom he allegedly threatened to “wipe of the map” and who was also allegedly involved in terrorist activities in the eighties.
Alleged anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments were a result of deliberate misinterpretations based on a number of his speeches. For example, according to Virginia Tilley in CounterPunch (August 28/06), “In his October 2005 speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad never used the word ‘map’ or ‘wiped off’. According to Farsi-language experts like Juan Cole and even right-wing services like MEMRI, what he actually said was ‘this regime that is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time’.” “Regime” does not refer to Israel but to the government which is currently oppressing the Palestinians.
As for the accusation that Iran is a nuclear threat, although American intelligence agencies differ in their progress estimates of Iran’s nuclear capability, they all agree that it is premature to conclude that Iran has weapons-grade material. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors did not find any evidence of a program to produce fissile material.
A nuclear attack on either Israel or the United States is the threat posed by a nuclear capability in Iran and a madman as leader. According to the New York Times “Iran’s fundamentalist regime and its nuclear ambitions pose a strategic threat to the United States…It’s obvious that Iran wants nuclear weapons, has lied about its program and views America as an enemy.” Saving the world from a dangerous nuclear power is the lofty cause pursued by the United States.
As in the previous examples, the imperialistic government in Washington is manipulating and deceiving the American public and Congress into supporting a possible illegal intervention for the purpose of advancing American interests. At the same time that support for the occupation of Iraq has dropped below 50%, Bush and his cronies are using the same tactics to win approval for a war of aggression against Iran. The overlap is ironically paradoxical given that the American people are questioning the honesty of the president at the same time that they seem willing to believe the case he is making against Iran. Every time the American people and Congress support these imperial interventions their hands are covered with blood.
DAVID MODEL is Professor of Political Science and Economics at Seneca College in Toronto. In August 2005, Common Courage Press released his latest book titled “Lying for Empire: How to Commit War Crimes with a Straight Face“. He can be reached at: David.Model@senecac.on.ca