It’s a propaganda war, but not as we know it

This war is more about projecting a self-image than pursuing a strategic interest.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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As American forces broke through the ‘red line’ that they had drawn around Baghdad, there was much talking-up of the danger that Saddam Hussein’s desperate regime might resort to using chemical weapons. Back in Washington, one Pentagon source even made the remarkable statement that ‘If he’s got them, and we’re sure he has, now is the time for him to use them’ (1).

That sounded rather like wishful thinking. It is as if some in the US-UK coalition are now so desperate to find a justification for the war against Iraq that they would almost welcome the release of a small but suitably photogenic cloud of poisonous gas in the Iraqi desert. If they do manage to unearth a few stray buckets of something nasty in a Baghdad woodshed, we will be assured that the invasion has saved the world from disaster.

Elsewhere in the same Pentagon, however, the failure of Saddam to come up with any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) so far has led to a shift of the political emphasis. When US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld listed the eight US objectives on the second day of the war, the first was to get rid of Saddam and the second was to seek and destroy his WMD stockpile.

On day 10, Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke set out to restate those objectives ‘as Secretary Rumsfeld described just a week ago’. This time, however, finding Saddam’s suspected chemical and biological weapons had slipped to number four, and destroying them was down to fifth place. The second objective was now ‘to capture or drive out terrorists sheltered in Iraq’, while new at number three was to ‘collect intelligence on terrorist networks’ (2).

Leaving aside the bizarre notion that collecting intelligence could be a legitimate reason for sending an army to invade a sovereign state, this shift of emphasis is revealing of the Pentagon’s uneasy state of mind. Having failed as yet to find any of the WMD that the war was said to be about, Rumsfeld and co resort to playing the terrorist card, in a risible bid to make an emotive connection with the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

As Brendan O’Neill reported earlier this week on spiked, the Iraqi campaign looks increasingly like a war in search of a war aim (see Propaganda defensive). The coalition appears to be not so much scouring Iraq for deadly weapons as racking its own brains for killer arguments. What is behind this obsession with how the war is seen?

There is a lot of discussion of ‘the propaganda war’, or ‘the battle for hearts and minds’, with experts reassuring us that such things always go hand-in-hand with the military campaign. Indeed they do. But not like this.

In a conventional conflict, the protagonists would have clear strategic war aims, usually a combination of political and economic self-interest. The propaganda war would then involve finding arguments and evidence that could win wider support for the pursuit of those aims – for example, through allegations of enemy atrocities. The First World War against Germany, widely understood as a war to defend the power and profits of the British Empire, was thus thinly disguised as a battle to defend plucky little Belgium (and especially its nuns) from the rapine Hun.

Today, however, things are different. There are no clear strategic interests behind the coalition’s war in Iraq. Indeed by conventional standards it may well be damaging to the interests of the increasingly isolated US and UK governments. Instead, this time, the entire war is a propaganda war. Its primary aim was not to ‘liberate’ Iraq or capture its oil, but to project a positive self-image of the American (and to a lesser extent British) role in a risky and uncertain world. Yet the US and UK authorities do not seem entirely certain of what that image should be. Are they warriors or victims, freedom fighters or social workers?

This confusing state of affairs is a symptom of the post-Cold War age, when all of the old international arrangements have unravelled. These days it appears that nobody in power in the West has firm political convictions to fight for, or the nerve boldly to stand up for their own national interest. Instead everything has to be justified in the name of others – ‘we are acting on behalf of the environment, or of future generations, or of the Iraqi people’.

It is not simply a continuation of the past, when the Great Powers confidently conquered the world while claiming to pursue some higher goals. Today they are genuinely uncertain of their own greatness, or of how to exercise their power. These are empires in denial, empires that dare not speak their name. Indeed it is almost as if Not In My Name, the disengaged demand of the anti-war movement, has become the secret slogan of President Bush and prime minister Blair, too. They appear more concerned to be seen to do the right thing than certain of what they are trying to do. That is why their self-justifications – we’re after the missiles/the terrorists/whatever – can fluctuate from day to day.

As in domestic politics, in the absence of substantial causes to fight for, issues of style assume a disproportionate importance. The obsession with projecting an image rather than pursuing a strategic interest has turned the Iraqi conflict into a propaganda war. But when image is your concern, the unpleasant realities of war present big problems. That helps to explain why, from the first, the coalition has been so concerned with getting the media coverage of this war ‘right’, and why the battle over how the conflict is covered has often seemed as fierce as the fighting on the battlefield.

Jennie Bristow has highlighted the tensions inherent in the new system of ’embedding’ reporters with military units (see Strange embedded-fellows). The continuing uncertainty over media coverage suggest that these tensions are becoming more acute.

Embedding was supposed to give the coalition direct input into news reports. But it has also presented an immediate and magnified picture of what war means on the ground, removed from any wider context of the political ends being pursued. Seen in this way, gory images of dead bodies, or of soldiers behaving like soldiers – yelling at people, whooping at a kill, etc – look intensely destructive. Like a reality TV show with guns, the coverage takes the everyday business of war, normally hidden from public view, and blows it up into a grisly, repulsive spectacle.

In response, various politicians in the USA and UK have made knee-jerk complaints about war reporting. But they are wrong to try to shoot the messenger. The root of their problem lies closer to home. They are so hyper-sensitive to bad news (real and imagined), only because they have set up this conflict as a risk-averse exercise in ‘safe war’, effectively being fought on behalf of/for the benefit of everybody except Saddam and his cronies. It is this apologetic portrayal of the war that makes the coalition so vulnerable to news of what are mostly minor criticisms and setbacks.

When the UK Ministry of Defence is so defensive as to tell newspapers, on the day the first bombs fell on Baghdad, that ‘we could have a war with zero civilian casualties’ (3), it should hardly be surprised that there is an outcry when some civilians are inevitably killed. If the Coalition had a convincing cause to promote, rather than an image to project, it would be far less worried about how to justify what it is fighting for.

Sooner or later, the Coalition should certainly win its hollow military victory in Iraq. Indeed as one British military expert observes, ‘It is tempting to wonder, on the evidence so far presented, whether the Iraqis have been fighting a war at all’, given that they did not defend their borders, or their only port, or their vital bridges, and have fought no battles (4). (Maybe somebody should revisit old Jean Baudrillard’s much-maligned point about how the last Gulf War ‘did not happen’ but was a media pseudo-event….)

Yet it seems highly unlikely that the uncertain American and British elites, bereft of a clear sense of mission, will be able to convert any military gains into the broader authority they crave. In an image-conscious propaganda war, it is all very well to knock down statues of Saddam Hussein. But it is a different matter altogether to decide who or what you are going to raise up in their place.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Daily Mail, 3 April 2003

(2) U.S. War Priorities Shift Away from Disarming Iraq, Reuters, 1 April 2003, on Truthout website

(3) Sun, 20 March 2003

(4) Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2003

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

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