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Baiting, Not Debating

By Robert Parry
June 27, 2005

A few years ago as the Iraq War loomed, I had breakfast in Washington with a prominent out-of-town liberal thinker who was expecting a Great Debate about war and peace, between the merits of invading Iraq and finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

I stifled any overt sign of disbelief so as not to be rude, but I had worked in Washington for a quarter century. I had watched the rise of the neoconservatives in the 1980s and the consolidation of conservative media power in the 1990s. It was painfully clear that the nation was headed for a Great Baiting, not a Great Debate.

There should have been no doubt what would happen to anyone who questioned George W. Bush’s case for war. The dissenters would be baited, ridiculed, marginalized, and drowned out by accusations of disloyalty as well as epithets about “Saddam sympathizers.”

Which is, of course, what happened. War critics were treated like fringe nut cases, while nearly every major Washington pundit fell for the Bush administration’s deceptions about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Just look at the editorial pages on Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations.

Now, amid the rising death toll in Iraq, a hopeful new line from some pundits is that the nation is on the cusp of a serious debate about the war’s future – as Bush finally levels with the American people, regains their trust and enlists them in the sacrifices ahead.

In one of these columns, published by the Washington Post, The New Republic’s editor Peter Beinart observed that “a plurality of Americans now believe they were ‘deliberately misled’ before the war. When the president talks to the country about Iraq on Tuesday night, he needs to address that.

“Otherwise, he’ll never have the credibility to tell Americans the harsh truth: that Iraqi troops won’t be ready to defend their government for two years or more. And until they can, brave young U.S. soldiers will have to keep doing the job.” [Washington Post, June 26, 2005]

No Exit

Of course, Beinart, like other leading pundits, rules out any substantive debate about withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. He calls that suggestion “breathtakingly irresponsible.” So, presumably, the only permissible outcome of this latest Great Debate must be a consensus to “stay the course” and make Bush’s Iraq policy succeed.

But even that truncated debate, with Bush leveling with the American people, surely will not happen.

Does anyone believe that Bush will “address” how he “deliberately misled” the country to war? Or that if he did so, that would somehow earn him the credibility to explain how thousands of additional U.S. soldiers must die in Iraq because Bush and his advisers can’t think of a way out of the mess?

Rather, Bush has already signaled how he intends to deal with the growing doubts about both his pre-war rationalizations and his foundering war policy. The American people can expect another round of baiting, not debating.

That was the significance of Bush’s unleashing his deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to mock “liberals” for supposedly demonstrating a cowardly naivety in the face of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” Rove said in a speech to the Conservative Party of New York State on June 22, 2005.

“I don’t know about you, but moderation and restraint is not what I felt when I watched the Twin Towers crumble to the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble,” Rove said.

Demonizing Durbin

Rove joined, too, in the Right’s assault on Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois for highlighting criticism from FBI officials about the mistreatment of inmates at Guantanamo Bay. In a Senate floor speech, after reading from an FBI agent’s report on the abuses, Durbin said:

“If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings.”

In his New York speech, Rove accused Durbin of jeopardizing American troops by making these comments. “Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger,” Rove said. “No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.” [NYT, June 23, 2005]

The Rove speech put down a marker for any U.S. political figure who dares criticize aspects of Bush’s war policies. Dissenters will be accused of endangering American troops – as sure a way as can be imagined to throttle a public debate.

If there was any doubt about whether Rove was speaking for Bush, White House spokesmen and Republican leaders pointedly defended Rove’s remarks.

What was lost in the political brouhaha, however, was that the White House was signaling its strategy for firming up softening public support for the Iraq War: demonize those who dissent, again.

More Propaganda

On the presidential level, Bush made clear in a radio speech on June 18.that he will continue his own pattern of offering up lies and distortions about Iraq.

“We went to war because we were attacked,” Bush said in the radio speech, still implying a tie-in between the Sept. 11 terrorism and Iraq by juxtaposing references to the attacks and Saddam Hussein, the same strategy Bush pursued in the run-up to war.

Bush also is still playing rhetorical games with cause and effect. For instance, he said in the radio address, “Some may disagree with my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but all of us can agree that the world’s terrorists have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror.”

What is left out of that phrasing is that Bush’s decision to invade Iraq – when it was not “a central front in the war on terror” – is what made it “a central front in the war on terror.” Instead of admitting his own misjudgments and their dangerous consequences, Bush leaves the impression that history has proven him right.

Bush also fails to acknowledge that the bulk of the resistance to the U.S. military presence in Iraq is coming from Iraqis, particularly the Sunni minority that lost a substantial amount of political power because of the U.S. invasion. Instead, he portrays the conflict as a war pitting “foreign terrorists” against Iraqis who need U.S. protection.

“These foreign terrorists violently oppose the rise of a free and democratic Iraq, because they know that when we replace despair and hatred with liberty and hope, they lose their recruiting grounds for terror,” Bush said.

That line, too, is a reprisal of another favorite Bush propaganda theme, which emphasizes “hatred” of freedom as the issue when a far more important element in the Iraq fighting is a conviction among many Muslims that the U.S. invasion represents an assault on a major Arab nation and on the Islamic faith, which some feel must be defended at all cost.

Bush’s formulation fits with his earlier misrepresentation of al-Qaeda’s reasons for the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush claimed that the motive was hatred of American freedom, when a much bigger factor was al-Qaeda’s resentment of U.S. policies in the Middle East and, particularly, American support for al-Qaeda’s regional enemies in the autocratic governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not exactly beacons of liberty.

Fear Mongering

In the radio address, Bush tossed in another of his favorite arguments that appeals to American insecurities but makes no rational sense.

“Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home,” Bush said. But that ignores the view of U.S. intelligence analysts that the hatreds stirred up by the U.S. invasion have strengthened Islamic extremism, not weakened it.

Plus, it makes no sense to believe that fighting some extremists in Iraq doesn’t mean that other extremists won’t conduct terrorist attacks in Europe or in the United States if they choose to do so.

Finally, in the radio speech, Bush made clear that he will portray “staying the course” in Iraq as a test of American will and cite the deaths of more than 1,700 American troops as a reason why the United States can’t contemplate a withdrawal.

“The terrorists know they cannot defeat our troops, so they seek to weaken our nation's resolve,” Bush said. “They know there is no room for them in a free and democratic Middle East, so the terrorists and insurgents are trying to get us to retreat. …

“By making their stand in Iraq, the terrorists have made Iraq a vital test for the future security of our country and the free world. We will settle for nothing less than victory.”

So, the pundits hoping that Bush will level with the American people either aren’t being sincere themselves or they aren’t paying attention.

A Bush ‘Speech’

Indeed, it is hard to even imagine what that “leveling with the American people” speech would sound like. For instance, if Bush truly wanted to shelve the propaganda and tell it like it really was, he would have to give a speech that would say something like:

“My fellow Americans, let me explain to you what really went wrong with the Iraq policy and why so many young Americans have died in what looks like a futile war without end.

“First, you must know that I have long obsessed about getting rid of Saddam Hussein, taking care of some unfinished business from my dad’s presidency. There’s also a lot of oil there and my neoconservative advisers saw a good chance to project American power into the Middle East.

“So when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, I saw my chance. Vice President Dick Cheney and I began merging references to al-Qaeda and Iraq. That way, the casual listener would start associating Iraq with Sept. 11 subliminally, even if there was no real evidence to support that connection.

“We also decided to exaggerate the shaky intelligence we had about Iraq’s WMD because we knew that would scare the American people into supporting a war against a country that wasn’t threatening us.

“Next, I got rid of officials, like Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Gen. Eric Shinseki, who had doubts about the Iraq War plans. To keep British Prime Minister Tony Blair on board, we agreed to go to the United Nations, but only because we hoped that Saddam would reject a demand for U.N. inspections and give us a better pretext for war.

“When Saddam crossed us up by letting the inspectors in, we started a war hysteria inside the United States. When the French wanted more time for the inspections to work, we turned ‘France’ into a dirty word, even renaming French toast and French fries into ‘freedom toast’ and ‘freedom fries.’

“Before it sank into the American people that the U.N. inspectors weren’t finding any WMD, I forced the inspectors to leave. Later, after the war was over, when your memories were getting a little fuzzy, I pretended that Hussein had never let the inspectors in and had shown ‘defiance,’ leaving me no choice but to invade as a ‘last resort.’ For details on how I pulled off that sleight of hand, see Consortiumnews.com’s ‘President Bush, With the Candlestick…’

“In the first days of the Iraq War, when we realized ‘shock and awe’ didn’t have quite the effect we hoped, I had the U.S. military bomb civilian targets, such as a residential restaurant which we obliterated because of some sketchy information that Saddam might be eating there. We did this even though we knew that civilians would be killed. We were right about the civilians getting killed, but Saddam turned out not to be there.

“All these acts that I’ve described to you tonight might well be considered war crimes, but I really don’t care much about international law. Remember when I reacted to one question about international law by joking, ‘International law? I better call my lawyer.’ That’s just the way I feel about treaties and other things that try to tie me down.

“Some of my critics might say that I’ve been a dissembler, which means someone who doesn’t tell the truth. But that’s just politics.

“Well, so now that I’ve leveled with you about how we got into this mess, I’m sure you feel you can trust me to continue protecting the American people and leading our great nation to victory in Iraq.

“As I actually did say in my radio address on June 18, ‘I’ll continue to act to keep our people safe from harm and our future bright. Together we will do what Americans have always done: build a better and more peaceful world for our children and grandchildren.’”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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