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Not Funny: Lazy Letterman Lets Ogre OÕReilly Off the Racist Oil War Hook


Last Friday night I saw something on television that momentarily knocked me out. For about six or seven minutes, it seemed that substantive political controversy hand trumped mindless amusement – on the “Late Night With David Letterman Show,” of all places.

I’d accidentally clicked into the middle of an outwardly angry duel between two large white television alpha males. On one side sat the fitfully anti-Iraq War Letterman. On the other side sat the notorious Fox News Bush apologist and hard-right tyrant Bill O’Reilly.

O’Reilly’s position was straight out of the White House’s mid-term talking points. Iraq, he argued, is a tough and complicated situation in a difficult and dangerous world where America is trying to do the right thing. It won’t be easy, but we need, the FOX News bully insisted, to stay the course. We must finish the job of bringing freedom and democracy to the country we liberated from Saddam, which can’t be left to the terrorists.

Interestingly enough, O’Reilly mentioned the presence of vast oil reserves in Iraq, raising the horrid specter of the Iraqi people doing what they wish with the strategic raw materials under their own soil.

Reflecting the temper of public opinion in a time when the majority of Americans no longer see the occupation as morally justified or as positively connected to the “war on terrorism,” O’Reilly’s argument seemed distinctly unpopular with Letterman’s studio audience.

But the lazy, liberal-leaning talk-show host was in no position to take meaningful advantage. At one point in the show, O’Reilly lectured hostile audience members about the crimes of Saddam, telling them to keep their mouths shut after reminding them that the Iraqi dictator had “killed 400,000 of his own people.”

It was a perfect opportunity to point out that many of Saddam’s crimes against Iraqis were committed with United States and Reagan administration aproval and support. It was an ideal moment to add that U.S. economic sanctions killed more than a million Iraqis and, above all, that (as recently reported in the leading British medical journal The Lancet) the current U.S. occupation has killed more than 650,000 Iraqis.

Letterman failed to mention any of these elementary facts. Again and again, Letterman blustered in O’Reilly’s face about “all the people who have died” because of Bush’s war. But each time Letterman mentioned this problem of unnecessary deaths, he referred only to the nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers who have lost their lives in Iraq.

The two-thirds of a million Iraqis liberated from earthly existence by “Operation Iraqi Freedom” were not part of the problem for the talk show host. They were not part of “all the people who have died,” reflecting a telling selectivity that speaks volumes for anyone who still wonders “Why They Hate Us.”

Letterman repeatedly failed to challenge O’Reilly’s recurrent assertion that the U.S. invaded Iraq on the basis of “bad” and “mistaken” intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As war opponents knew from the start and has been widely exposed since, the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq with the assistance of its own deliberately “cooked” intelligence. That “bad intelligence” was “fixed around the [pre-ordained] policy” (in the words of the Downing Street memo) of illegally occupying oil-rich Mesopotamia. It was made to order.

Letterman also played along with O’Reilly’s telling of the Cheney-Rove-Rumsfeld-Bush regime’s leading post-WMD fairly tale. This leading bedtime story for the American masses claims that the real reason for invading Iraq was the noble desire to export freedom and democracy.

Never mind that democracy, freedom, and national independence are the last things U.S. foreign policymakers want to see in Iraq. The attainment of those things would mean that the Iraqis would be at liberty to do whatever they like with their vast and super-strategic oil reserves – to cut, for example, any petroleum deals they wish with leading economic and geopolitical competitor states and regions like Russia, China, and Western Europe.

Such Iraqi liberty is anathema to U.S. policy for some very good imperial reasons.

When O’Reilly recycled an old and discredited White House link between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda (in al Anbar Province), Letterman was reduced to confused silence, lacking the knowledge or will to challenge the proto-fascist media henchman.

Letterman deserves some credit for blurting out “oh, so it’s all about the oil” early in his argument with O’Reilly. He did not – and was in no position – to pursue that rather vital point, however and his bemused and bewildered U.S. viewing herd was left as confused as ever. At the end of the “debate,” Letterman confessed that “I don’t know what I’m talking about” and he reached out pathetically to shake war propagandist O’Reilly’s hand.

The authoritarian ogre O’Reilly emerged as the intellectual victor, striking the lackadaisical Letterman mute on key historical details, including why the U.S. is in Iraq and what Letterman would like to see happen there.

Meanwhile the real victims of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” – the Iraqi people – were rendered yet more invisible inside the imperial homeland, consistent with the racist nature of the oil occupation from the beginning.

Paul Street([email protected])is a writer and speaker in the American Midwest. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) Street’s next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).

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