The first casualty is clarity

Commentators are reading meaning into Bush's stance on Iraq where none exists.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘The Bush administration is once again on track in its effort to effect regime change in Iraq’, declared Stephen F Hayes in the right-leaning US journal The Weekly Standard in September 2002.

Despite ‘a rough 10 days of public squabbling’, the war-supporting Hayes reckons Bush has got his act together and that ‘serious planning for the war with Iraq continues at a brisk pace’ (1).

But around the same time, the World Net Daily ran a headline claiming that ‘Bush is backing down on Iraq attack’. According to WND: ‘Partially acceding to a political and psychological defeat, the Bush administration has begun to back down from plans for a near-term attack on Iraq.’ WND, which has expressed scepticism about invading Iraq, thinks this ‘wavering’ reflects the ‘tortuous political and military complexity of a war on Iraq’ (2).

In recent weeks, we have been bombarded with contradictory claims and reports about Bush’s intentions over Iraq – over whether, when and how the USA will get rid of Saddam and change the Iraqi regime. As a result, reading the coverage can be a confusing experience.

‘Bush steers clear course towards war’ claimed a news headline on 5 September 2002, reporting that ‘after a fortnight of silence on Iraq, Bush laid out a clear course towards war by announcing a dual strategy to gain congressional and international support’ (3). Apparently, Bush ‘has already decided on Iraq’, and recent speeches by Bush officials are part of a ‘preordained and pre-positioned… public relations strategy’ aimed at convincing the rest of us (4).

But in the same week, another report claimed that ‘Bush faces task of uniting divided administration’ (5). Far from having a coherent strategy on what to do next, Bush is desperately trying to ‘impose leadership and coherence on an administration deeply divided on Iraq’. ‘Superficial unity on the need for regime change exists’, said the report, ‘but serious differences have become apparent on how the US should go about the task’ (6).

‘Americans support efforts to remove Saddam’, claimed an article in early September 2002, alleging that war polls have ‘consistently demonstrated strong voter approval for regime change in Iraq’ (7). Apparently, ‘65 percent of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll thought the United States was morally justified in removing Saddam’, numbers that ‘will almost certainly rise with the administration’s coming PR offensive’ (8).

But in the same month, ABC News reported that ‘Support for war against Iraq drops’. According to ABC, ‘Public support for military action against Iraq has dropped to its lowest level since the war on terrorism began, with the public divided on whether or not such an attack would create a greater risk of terrorism’. Apparently, only 56 percent of Americans favour military action against Iraq, while 40 percent think such action could create more terrorism around the world (9).

Of course political polls – especially where war is concerned – should always be taken with a cellar of salt. They usually reveal more about the pollsters’ prejudices than the public’s opinions. The ‘do they?’/‘don’t they?’ wrangling over whether Americans support bombing Baghdad tells us more about those dissecting the polls than those who took part in them.

So a CNN poll, which claimed that 53 percent of Americans favoured sending ground troops to Iraq, was used by anti-war commentators to say that ‘just over half of Americans are interested in this war’, and by pro-war types to say that ‘over half of Americans want Bush to act’. In fact, far from reflecting either a definite pro-war stance or a coherent anti-war stance, many of the polls capture a level of cynicism and fear about launching an invasion, reflecting a general concern about the potentially dangerous consequences of bombing Baghdad.

Reading war reporters, commentators and pollsters on Iraq, it is easy to get lost. Has Bush got a clear-cut plan to attack, or is he hedging his bets? Is an invasion ‘imminent’, or does Bush ‘face a long wait to build up forces’ (10)? Do American voters support bombing Baghdad, or are they worried about the consequences of any ‘hot-headed action’? One exasperated US commentator writes: ‘It isn’t only Bush who [is] confused. So am I….’

As the war talk over Iraq drags on, more and more people seem to be projecting their own prejudices on to the unfolding (non-)events. Right-wing commentators, like Stephen Hayes at The Weekly Standard and British journalist in America Andrew Sullivan, claim that recent events illustrate Bush’s good intentions to sort out Saddam. According to Sullivan, ‘To argue that the Bush administration has never been clear about [Iraq], that it has only recently conjured up a campaign against Saddam…is ludicrous’ (11). Instead, says the pro-invasion Sullivan, Bush has issued a clear ‘challenge to Saddam’.

Others, who are not so hot on the idea of attacking Iraq, claim that recent events expose the folly of invading. A left-wing US commentator says ‘the Bush administration is divided, reflecting its inability to justify going to war’. Where pro-war commentators argue that Bush is pushing ahead in the right direction, some anti-war commentators claim the reason Bush is holding back is because it ain’t the right direction – ‘and sections of his administration are slowly but surely realising that’.

Every day there seem to be further clashing interpretations and contradictory claims about America’s war talk. Why? Because the Bush administration itself is so uncertain.

It is precisely the confusion and caution over Iraq among the US authorities that creates the space for so much wild speculation about America’s intentions. The lack of direction at the heart of the Bush administration creates a canvas on to which anyone and everyone can project their preferred course of action.

Since Bush labelled Iraq part of the ever-expanding ‘axis of evil’ (60 nations at the last count) in his State of the Union address on 30 January 2002, his administration has upped the war talk against Iraq and unveiled a number of often contradictory invasion plans. But it seems increasingly incapable of acting in a decisive or unified way. According to the Independent on Sunday, never has a war been ‘so heavily signposted so long in advance, to the general indifference of so many’ (12).

The US authorities have been tearing themselves apart over how and when to invade. Some Bush administration aides prefer the idea of small-scale military involvement, where a few hundred special forces would help dissidents within Iraq to overthrow Saddam – while some military officials are demanding an all-out military mobilisation, with 250,000 US troops laying siege to Baghdad (while other military officials would prefer to avoid war altogether).

Other Bush officials have suggested a ‘third way’ approach to invading Iraq. ‘[Some] have argued that the job in Iraq could be accomplished with air strikes backed by several hundred special-operations soldiers, working in conjunction with Iraqi opposition forces and defectors’, reported the Wall Street Journal (13) – indicating that the third way option is just to do everything all at once.

As the New York Times points out, US leaders often disagree on foreign ventures – but for such disagreements to become so public is ‘exceptional’. ‘[T]he administration planners are struggling with deep internal divisions over the best way to oust [Saddam]’, says the New York Times. ‘This dispute is being played out publicly, through official statements and surreptitious leaks – a common practice when it comes to tax policy but extremely rare with military strategy.’ (14)

The US elite’s uncertainty over what to do about Iraq is reflected in increasingly public spats among Bush officials and contradictory claims from leading Bush aides. According to Condoleezza Rice, America’s national security adviser, ‘a campaign against Iraq is an extension of the war against terror’ (15). Rice claimed that if Europe really stood shoulder to shoulder with America in the battle against terror, then it would stand shoulder to shoulder in the ‘same battle’ against Iraq.

Not according to US military officials. On 1 September 2002, the same day that Rice was scolding European leaders, military bosses expressed concern that by ‘launching a war to topple Saddam, the US will divert attention and resources from the military campaign against…terrorism’. Far from seeing a link between the war on terror and the war on Baghdad, leading commanders claim that an Iraqi invasion ‘would place a serious drain on…the military’s efforts to hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban members in Afghanistan and Pakistan’.

On 26 August 2002, US vice president Dick Cheney declared that ‘the risks of inaction [on Iraq] are far greater than the risk of action’ (16). For Cheney, there was little doubt that America should invade. ‘We will not simply look away, hope for the best, and leave the matter for some future administration to resolve’, he said. It didn’t take long for news reporters and commentators to hail Cheney’s speech as evidence that ‘America will attack, and soon’.

But just days later, Bush distanced himself from Cheney’s words. According to the Guardian, ‘President Bush has moved to distance himself from his vice president after it was revealed that [Cheney’s] sabre-rattling speech on Iraq was made without clearing key points with the White House’ (17). According to one report, ‘[T]he Cheney speech was a freelance job which had not been cleared with other agencies’, and ‘the president had not authorised Cheney’s language, [which] was toned down in a second version of the speech delivered later in the week’ (18).

Apparently, there is even a split within the ‘house of Bush’, as George senior and George junior disagree over how the US should proceed. According to a headline in The Times (London), ‘Bush and father at odds over Iraq strike’, with ‘a growing rift between George W Bush and his father’s senior advisers over whether to invade Iraq’ (19).

Far from uniting America around a common sense of purpose and mission, the Iraq war talk seems only to have exposed differences and brought internal divisions to the fore. Far from bringing the Bush administration together, the plans to invade Iraq seem to have ripped it apart. One report claims that the White House is in ‘disarray’ over Saddam (20) – and it is precisely this disarray that allows so many to read meaning and direction into the recent wranglings over Iraq.

Despite claims that Bush is a ‘gung-ho cowboy’ of a president, in fact his stance on Iraq has been full of trepidation. But although America lacks a clear policy or vision on Iraq, it continues to talk up an invasion and the ‘absolute necessity’ of getting rid of Saddam. This combination – a lack of vision with constant rhetoric – creates a climate where people’s expectations are heightened. And many seem to be filling in the gaps with their own speculation and hopes.

One day someone tells us that Bush has made his mind up and it’s a good thing too – the next we’re told that no decisions have been made and ‘all options’ are still on the table. One minute we’re told there is consensus among Bush officials about getting rid of Saddam – the next we’re told that even Bush and Bush cannot agree.

The first casualty in war may sometimes be truth. The first casualty in this war is clarity. It would be better to expose and question the murky confusion of Bush and co, rather than projecting our own prejudices on to it.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
spiked-issue: War on Iraq

A panic attack over Iraq, by Mick Hume

Bush’s Gulf War syndrome, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) We will attack Iraq sooner than you think, Stephen F Hayes, The Weekly Standard, 5 September 2002

(2) Bush backing down on Iraq attack, World Net Daily, 20 August 2002

(3) Bush steers clear course towards war, Daily Telegraph, 5 September 2002

(4) Senator says Bush has decided on Iraq, Washington Times, 1 September 2002

(5) Bush faces task of uniting divided administration, Guardian, 2 September 2002

(6) Bush faces task of uniting divided administration, Guardian, 2 September 2002

(7) We will attack Iraq sooner than you think, Stephen F Hayes, The Weekly Standard, 5 September 2002

(8) We will attack Iraq sooner than you think, Stephen F Hayes, The Weekly Standard, 5 September 2002

(9) Support for war against Iraq drops, ABC News, 3 September 2002

(10) Bush faces long wait to build up enough forces against Baghdad, Daily Telegraph, 9 September 2002

(11) Isn’t it Rich?, Andrew Sullivan, Salon, 5 Sept 2002

(12) We’re coming to get you Saddam (but it may take a little while), Independent on Sunday, 21 July 2002

(13) Problems with Iraq invasion plans, Wall Street Journal, 15 July 2002

(14) For each audience, another secret plan to attack Iraq, New York Times, 11 August 2002

(15) US reminds Germany, ‘you’re a hate target too’, The Times (London), 2 September 2002

(16) Vice President Speaks at VFW 103rd National Convention, White House Press Office, 26 August 2002

(17) White House in disarray over Cheney speech, Guardian, 2 September 2002

(18) White House in disarray over Cheney speech, Guardian, 2 September 2002

(19) Bush and father at odds over Iraq strike, The Times (London), 26 August 2002

(20) White House in disarray over Cheney speech, Guardian, 2 September 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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