Propaganda defensive

The coalition's campaign looks like a war in search of a war aim.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

‘PROOF’ says the front page of today’s UK Sun, claiming that ‘an Iraqi terror camp making ricin poison has been smashed by a huge Allied blitz’ (1). Apparently, the discovery of the ‘poisons HQ’ is ‘final proof that Saddam is targeting Britain’ – and that he may have supplied London-based terrorists with the means and know-how for turning innocent castor beans into deadly ricin (2).

Then you turn to page two of the Sun and realise that the alleged poison factory is in northern Iraq, territory that was taken out of Saddam’s control after the first Gulf War of 1991; that it apparently belongs to Ansar al-Islam, a radical Kurdish Islamic group whose talked-up links to Saddam’s regime remain unproven; and that US forces have yet to search ‘the factory’, where, according to US General Richard Myers, we are ‘unaware that any weapons of mass destruction have been found so far’ (3)

It isn’t only the pro-war Sun that is desperately seeking ‘PROOF’ of Saddam’s wrongdoing in order to justify the war. The coalition’s campaign has become a war in search of a war aim. From questionable claims of chemical weapons finds to anecdotal evidence of Saddam’s barbarity, US and UK officials are trying to justify the offensive as they go along. At times, it seems that the only coherent war aim is to find something that might justify the war.

Having talked up Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction as the driving force for war, coalition forces are now under intense (and self-induced) pressure to find such weapons. British and American officials openly talk about needing to find weapons in order to ‘vindicate the invasion’ (4). One British commander told Reuters: ‘It’s very important for a number of reasons…that we produce the “smoking gun”. It’s at the heart of the strategic aim of what we’re doing.’ (5)

Coalition forces haven’t found any banned weapons – so instead they have flagged up everything and anything that points to the possible existence of such weapons somewhere in Iraq. America’s Department of Defence website has published photos of chemical suits apparently found near Umm Qasr; British troops found Geiger counters and gas masks in an abandoned Iraqi base in southern Iraq, which were cited as evidence that Saddam ‘is pursuing weapons of mass destruction’. Coalition forces have shown us just about everything but the alleged weapons.

But the weapons remain the main focus. According to one report, US and British officials are ‘keenly aware that a confirmed discovery would be a propaganda coup’ (6). Other reports claim that coalition forces have got journalists waiting in Kuwait and Qatar specifically on a promise that they will be flown by helicopter to Iraq as soon as weapons of mass destruction are uncovered (7). ‘Those flights would happen as soon as possible’, says one official.

By banging on about banned weapons, coalition forces are creating potential problems for themselves on the propaganda front. By showing photos of every gas mask they discover; by reminding us of the need to find weapons in order to ‘vindicate’ the war; by keeping selected journalists on tenterhooks for that final moment when chemical weapons are found….the war-planners and war-spinners are ensuring that the weapons issue remains centre stage, and that further questions are asked every time a search turns up a dud.

Consider the events in western Iraq over the weekend. Early last week, Pentagon officials said they were certain that at least 10 sites in western Iraq housed weapons of mass destruction. But on Sunday, an American military official in western Iraq told the Washington Post that ‘[a]ll the searches have turned up negative. The munitions that have been found have all been conventional’. Donald Rumsfeld’s reponse? He simply shifted the geography of the weapons claims, telling ABC News that, in fact, the weapons are further inside Iraq, ‘in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad’ (8). US officials are setting themselves up for a further fall.

Other officials have gone one better than Rumsfeld – shifting the expectations of a weapons find, not just further into Iraq, but further into the future. Some reports claim that US officials might settle for ‘justifying the war retrospectively’, by ‘discovering the conclusive evidence afterwards’. According to the UK Guardian, in an article published in Arab newspapers yesterday, UK prime minister Tony Blair ‘cited Iraq’s banned weapons…declaring that “history will judge” him to be right’ (9). This must be the first war where officials hope that future finds will justify their current campaign.

Of course, Saddam has a grim record in the lethal weapons stakes, and coalition forces may yet find some nasty-sounding ‘weapons’. But the coalition’s current rummaging around for weapons in Iraq looks more like a desperate attempt to find something, anything, to vindicate the war effort, rather than a concerted search for dodgy things that they know for a fact exist.

Perhaps as a result of the coalition’s difficulty in finding banned weapons, some have noted a subtle shift in the coalition’s PR campaign – away from focusing on ‘disarming Saddam’ towards focusing on the ‘barbarity of Saddam’s regime’. In his radio address to the nation over the weekend, President Bush didn’t mention Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, instead claiming that ‘the world has now seen firsthand the cruel nature of a dying regime. In areas still under its control, the regime continues its rule by terror’ (10).

Even on the question of Saddam’s terror, however, the coalition’s PR campaign sounds less than convincing. In his address, Bush claimed that ‘an Iraqi woman was hanged for waving at coalition troops’ – a claim that has since done the rounds in the international media. But the case of the hanged Iraqi woman seems to raise more questions than answers.

In some reports, American troops saw the Basra woman ‘waving a white flag to warn them of danger, and that woman was later found hanged’. In other reports, the woman had simply ‘waved hello’ to US troops in order to ‘greet them’ into Basra. Some reports claim that the woman had waved a white flag in order to get out of Basra. Others claim that it was British troops, not American troops, who saw the woman waving at them, and that the British later found her hanging from a light post. A British Lieutenant claims that a teenage girl waved at his troops, and was found hanged, not the following day, but ‘within the hour’.

Whatever happened to the Iraqi woman in Basra, where no doubt civilians are suffering, her fate now seems to have become part of the coalition camp’s PR campaign. In an attempt to convince us of the barbarity of Saddam’s regime, and thus justify the ongoing war, some in the coalition appear to be latching on to every individual example of terror, however uncertain the facts may be.

Where some coalition officials are putting off a potential weapons find into the future, others are busy looking for evidence of Saddam’s barbarity in the past. On 29 March 2003, the Pentagon launched, according to one report, a ‘graphic public relations offensive aimed at illustrating the brutality of the Iraqi regime’ (11). How? By showing video images of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish villagers 15 years ago. When Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke was asked if the video showing was an attempt to counteract TV images shown around the world of civilian war fatalities in Iraq, she said: ‘That was my decision to use those clips.’ (12)

So having failed to find weapons in the here and now, and increasingly concerned about losing the propaganda war to Saddam and co, the Pentagon has been reduced to digging up images of Iraqi atrocities that took place in 1988 – three years before the first Gulf War.

Another problem for the coalition is that their claims about the war seem to be less readily believed today. Instead of being greeted as evidence of Saddam’s barbarity, Bush and Blair’s arguments for war are often treated with suspicion and cynicism, as yet more examples of ‘spinning the war’ to suit their own ends. The broader ambivalence about the war – which sometimes seems to stretch from the war planners themselves down to the rest of us – seems to find expression in an increasing cynicism about the aims and conduct of the war.

So Blair’s claims at Camp David that two British soldiers were executed in cold blood by Iraqi troops were ridiculed by the soldiers’ families, who had been told that their loved ones died in combat. The day after Blair made the execution claims, the UK Daily Mirror ran a frontpage story denouncing him as a liar. Likewise, when Blair’s war cabinet leaked the suggestion that the two recent marketplace bombings in Baghdad may have been a result of Iraqi missiles falling back into the city, rather than the result of American bombing, very few bought it.

This cynicism towards government propaganda is not an unambiguously good thing. It is often driven, less by a positive desire to challenge the coalition’s campaign in Iraq, than by a broader sense of mistrust about politics and politicians. Individuals’ unwillingness to believe the PR campaign over Iraq seems to express the ‘politicians always lie!’ sentiment, rather than a ‘hands off Iraq!’ sentiment. This reflects a deeper sense of mistrust in Western societies that has little to do with Iraq itself, and which cannot be solved by a clever spin story or, indeed, the discovery of some ‘PROOF’ inside Iraq.

After the first Gulf War of 1991, it took five years for some journalists in the West to admit that they had bought into the war propaganda and told ‘American lies’. It wasn’t until 1995 that Guardian journalist Maggie O’Kane admitted that during the Gulf War ‘we, the media, were harnessed like beach donkeys and led through the sand to see what the British and US military wanted us to see’ (13). Today, suspicion about American and British claims makes the front pages within 24 hours.

In times of war, there has always been PR campaigns and wild claims – and such stories always have to be taken with a cellar of salt. But what is striking about the current PR campaign is its defensiveness. American and British officials, uncertain about what the war is for and of their mission on the international stage, seem to be lashing around desperately for something, anything, to justify the war. This constant shifting around in search of some purpose to the war only makes the whole affair look more, well, shifty.

Contrary to widespread claims, it is not so much that Saddam is winning the propaganda war, but that coalition forces are losing it by themselves.

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

(1) ‘PROOF’, Sun, 31 March 2003

(2) ‘PROOF’, Sun, 31 March 2003

(3) US searches Iraq ‘ricin base’, BBC News, 31 March 2003

(4) Iraq’s ‘Smoking Gun’ Will Be Found, Military Say, Washington Post, 25 March 2003

(5) Iraq’s ‘Smoking Gun’ Will Be Found, Military Say, Washington Post, 25 March 2003

(6) Iraq’s ‘Smoking Gun’ Will Be Found, Military Say, Washington Post, 25 March 2003

(7) Iraq’s ‘Smoking Gun’ Will Be Found, Military Say, Washington Post, 25 March 2003

(8) Search for smoking gun draws a blank, Guardian, 31 March 2003

(9) Search for smoking gun draws a blank, Guardian, 31 March 2003

(10) Radio Address by the President to the Nation, White House, 29 March 2003

(11) Pentagon, in PR assault, uses graphic video images, Reuters, 29 March 2003

(12) Pentagon, in PR assault, uses graphic video images, Reuters, 29 March 2003

(13) Guardian, 16 December 1995

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Topics World


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