Normalizing Godfatherly Aggression


is fascinating to see how effectively the U.S. propaganda system
has normalized and even put a very good face on its government’s
straightforward aggression against—and conquest and colonial
occupation of—a small, distant country. It is especially remarkable
that this has happened across the board, through all major media
venues, despite the fact that the media are not directly owned and
controlled by the government. 

of them, however, are part of a national establishment that shares
an ideology and worldview, and their integration into that establishment
has been increased by the steady centralization and intensified
commercialization of the media, their control by a narrowing elite,
and their heavy reliance on the government as a news source. The
media have also been kept in line by the increasingly powerful right-wing
contingent of media owners, editors, and pundits. This right-wing
echo chamber pushes for imperial violence, especially when organized
by a right-wing executive, and assails media deviants for lack of
patriotic ardor. (It can also punish a supposed “liberal”
executive, hated by the right wing, like Clinton, for the Lewinsky
caper, but protect George Bush from any serious media bother for
his failure to prevent 9/11, despite inside and outside warnings,
for his inside trading of Harken stock, and for his and his colleagues’
Enron-energy policy conflicts of interest.) 

of government policy, no matter how vicious and contrary to the
public interest that policy may be, follows easily from the acceptance
and internalization of patriotic premises and the view that the
media are part of a team fighting the good fight. From the Gulf
War case of CNN’s top reporter Christiane Amanpour marrying
top State Department public relations officer James Rubin in the
midst of that conflict, without any media mention of possible conflict
of interest, to Judy Woodruff’s and Wolf Blitzer’s comradely
“we” in talking with—and never asking challenging
questions of—their official counterparts, the team spirit has
dominated not only CNN but all the U.S. networks. Network sourcing
of the news on the Iraq crisis has been overwhelmingly through present
and former government officials (76 percent in a FAIR study). The
mainstream print media have not been quite as atrocious, but they
have been loyal members of the team as well. The result has been
the dominance of “press release journalism,” a high media
gullibility quotient and easy management by government officials,
and the attrition or death of criticism and investigative reporting
that challenges the official lines. 

the case of the Iraq invasion and conquest, the first aim of official
propaganda was to sell it to the public. This was accomplished by
three gambits: (1) demonization; (2) claims regarding the demon’s
possession of weapons that threaten our national security; and (3)
“failed” diplomacy and inspections. The media cooperated
beautifully in pushing these propaganda themes. Saddam was demonized
quite effectively—not a difficult task—but the media also
accomplished the more difficult task of deflecting attention from
the earlier alliance with and support of the demon. The mainstream
media have not said that an agreement between the United States
and Saddam is impossible; they refuse to discuss and reflect on
the one that existed for an extended time period. The picture of
Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in December 1983,
as he helped cement an alliance with the demon, was not shown on
the TV networks or published in the

New York Times



second propaganda gambit was to focus on Saddam’s alleged continued
possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their threat
to U.S. national security. The media pushed this theme by providing
saturation coverage of government charges on these matters, by following
the government’s party line that this was a really important
issue and that we were dealing with a real threat. But as with the
first gambit, important complements were also applied: namely, suppressing
inconvenient evidence, avoiding experts who would challenge the
party line, failing to call attention to and criticize the shifting
claims and stream of lies, and refusing to discuss and analyze either
the supposed threat to U.S. national security or the possible hidden
agenda rationalized by the WMD-threat charge. 

Iraq’s WMD, Scott Ritter, the former top weapons inspector,
claimed that when he left in 1998, 90 to 95 percent of Iraq’s
chemical and biological weapons (CBW) had been destroyed and any
remaining anthrax or sarin would be useless sludge. It was recently
disclosed that the number one Iraqi expatriate, Hussein Kamel, whose
testimony had been repeatedly cited by U.S. officials, had told
his interrogators in 1995 that Saddam Hussein had destroyed his
chemical and biological weapons  and had none left, a point
not made public until March 2003 (John Barry, “The Defector’s


, March 3, 2003). The

New York Times

handled these matters by never allowing Ritter any opinion space
and not reporting the


disclosure of Hussein Kam-
el’s 1995 claim. It also never featured the puzzling fact that
Saddam had not used his CBW arsenal during the Gulf War, but had
only employed such weapons when supported by the United States during
the war with Iran; or that CIA head George Tenet had told Congress
that Saddam was unlikely to use them against the United States unless
in defense when under attack. 

thousands of lines on the Iraq controversy, the

New York Times

never provided a single article analyzing the shifting Bush claims
and enumerating the serial lies, whose exposure was a commonplace
in the foreign media and Internet sources (Raymond Whitaker, “Revealed
How the Road to War Was Paved With Lies,”


April 27, 2003; Carla Binion, “Bush Lies and Manipulates Public
and Congress,”

Online Journal

, April 25, 2003—Binion
gives detailed references to sources on official lies). The pattern
of suppressions, plus massive conduiting of Administration claims,
plus refusal to analyze or allow contesting analyses, permitted
a non-existent threat to be made into a real one. An important measure
of the effectiveness of fear-mongering and disinformation in making
the public ready for aggression is the fact that, whereas 3 percent
believed that Saddam Hussein had had something to do with 9/11 immediately
after the event, 45 percent believed this by the time of the invasion.
This was the disinforming result of the coordinated efforts of the
war-makers and media. 

for the third propaganda ploy, after an internal debate, the Bush
administration agreed to seek UN Security Council approval of its
attack on Iraq, instead of just attacking without such sanction.
It then waged an intense campaign of propaganda, bribery, and threats
to get other members of the Security Council to approve its aggression.
It argued that inspections had failed and that an attack or threat
of attack was needed to get the demon to “disarm.” All
intelligent and honest observers understood that the inspections
were a charade as far as the Bush administration was concerned,
and that “disarmament” was a cover for an intent not only
to displace Saddam Hussein, but also to occupy and control Iraq.
This last was even acknowledged when the United States made clear
that Saddam’s exit wouldn’t suffice—there must be
a military occupation of Iraq.

media collaborated fully in these various charades. They accepted
that the Bush administration was engaging in “diplomacy,”
when it was only buying and coercing other governments to sanction
its plan to commit aggression. With patriotic ardor they framed
the issue as one of support for Bush versus disloyalty, helping
produce a small-scale demonization of the French for failure to
go along. They portrayed this campaign to bully the UN into approving
an invasion and occupation of Iraq as a test of UN “relevance,”
not a threat to its independence, integrity, and ability to prevent
the “scourge of war” and outright aggression. They failed
to discuss openly the fact that Bush intended regime change and
was using inspections as a pretext, while actively subverting the
inspections by denigration, false charges, and providing information
that Hans Blix called “garbage.” 

important requirement of a propaganda system trying to put a good
face on aggression is to pretend that what its leadership is doing
is not aggression, but a legitimate response to a threat, that it
has a right to engage in such intervention, and that international
law has no bearing on the case. This is done in large part by playing
dumb and relying on the demonization and inflated threat to transform
an unprovoked attack into self-defense and a response of good to
evil. You don’t aggress if you are only defending yourself
and serving freedom. Correspondingly, the media have never used
the word aggression to describe the U.S. attack on Iraq, just as
they never did when the United States invaded Vietnam (by invitation
of a client government that it imposed, and whose leadership it
changed at its pleasure). 

international law is clear and the UN Charter is explicit that war
is an unacceptable means of settling international disputes. The
1945 Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal stated clearly, “to initiate
a war of aggression is the supreme international crime.” Nuremberg
judge Robert Jackson also stated that this greatest of war crimes
is criminal when engaged in by anybody, not just the Germans. The
pathetic front person for the great powers, Kofi Annan, was quoted
a few days before the U.S. attack as saying plaintively that such
an attack would be in violation of the UN Charter. But Annan did
not propose any action to prevent this major violation, nor did
he resign in protest at this trampling on UN Charter fundamentals.
No other country or major institution of the “international
community” called for a serious response to open aggression. 

media largely steered clear of discussing international law and
the UN Charter—it is inconvenient and, by patriotic assumption,
it is not applicable to the good and benevolent United States, whose
leaders are protecting U.S. national security and bringing liberty
to the Iraqis. On the rare occasions when the media allowed international
law to be addressed, they chose their sources carefully. The

York Times

gave byline space to international law experts Anne-Marie
Slaughter and Gary Bass to apologize for U.S. policy and assail
the dilatory UN and—just as it steered clear of Ritter, Hans
Von Sponeck, and Denis Halliday on Iraq WMD and sanctions—so
it refused space to critical international law experts Francis Boyle,
Richard Falk, Michael Ratner, and Burt Weston. From January 1, 2002
to April 24, 2003, Slaughter, Bass and Yale Law School super-apologist
Ruth Wedgwood together had 13 bylined columns in the


Wall Street Journal,

Washington Post, Los Angeles




Magazine, whereas the four dissident
experts had a grand total of one column. 

contribution in the


, entitled “Good reasons for
going around the UN” (March 18, 2003), describes the Bush course
of action as “illegal but legitimate.” She cites the Independent
International Commission on Kosovo as saying that, while the invasion
is “formally illegal,” it was “legitimate in the
eyes of the international community.” By “international
community” Slaughter and her favored commission obviously don’t
mean the people of the world and they don’t mean a majority
of UN or Security Council members. They are referring to a mystical
group that would include the International Commission on Kosovo
and unknown and unspecified others who agree with the U.S. position.
Slaughter then says that the invasion would be legitimate in retrospect
if “irrefutable evidence” is found that Saddam possessed
WMD or if the Iraqis “welcome their coming.” She doesn’t
explain how “welcoming” could be measured, although I
suspect that Slaughter would be satisfied with a pulling down of
Saddam’s statue and a street full of cheering Iraqis holding
U.S. flags. 

the weapons, what if they are not found? Given that that was the
issue and basis of “formal” illegality, wouldn’t
there be retrospective real illegality and shouldn’t the perpetrators
be then tried for war crimes? Slaughter doesn’t consider these
possibilities. Even if WMD are found, if the inspections process
had been continued, it is possible that they could have been removed
without a devastating war. Again, Slaughter doesn’t consider
this. Still further on, she argues that UN constraints “cannot
be a straitjacket, preventing nations from defending themselves
or pursuing what they perceive to be their vital national security
interests.” The implication that this applies to the U.S. attack
on Iraq is taken for granted and, if applicable here, would certainly
apply to Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939. We have here
crude and silly apologetics for aggression.

the approach to and during this war, the media spent a great deal
of effort and space describing the mobilization process, the plans,
the debates over strategies, and the course of the war as seen by
Rumsfeld and company and the imbedded journalists.

in all recent U.S. military attacks on Third World countries, the
media pretended that this was a “war” as opposed to a
straightforward attack by a distant superpower on a virtually defenseless
target state—an unlevel playing field par excellence and a
massacre of enemy forces that had been disarmed, bombed, spied on
under the guise of inspections, and starved for the prior dozen
years. These pretenses were essential to allowing the defeat of
Iraq to be a military marvel and matter of pride, rather than a
source of embarrassment and shame at beating up yet another hapless
and deliberately crippled victim. 

in all recent U.S. attacks, the media followed the government’s
lead in steering clear of details on civilian casualties. The official
position was that our high-tech precision weapons were civilian
friendly and that we were going to great pains to avoid civilian
sites. This became the media mantra and the media also proceeded
to steer clear of looking at the characteristics of the weapons
used or the actual effects on civilians. Al- Jazeera’s practice
of showing pictures of civilians injured and killed was considered
improper by both U.S. officials and the U.S. media. One important
reason for this is that it would deflate the claims of a civilian-friendly
war by bringing home an important, but carefully evaded reality.
The media did an outstanding job of evading this reality. They had
devoted endless news reports, commentaries, and pictures to the
several thousand victims of 9/11, but the much larger number of
dead and seriously injured Iraqis were almost entirely invisible
in the U.S. media and to the U.S. public. As NBC reporter Ashleigh
Banfield noted recently, it was a “bloodless war” in which
“you didn’t see what happened when the mortars landed.
A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes,
believe me” (Andrew Grossman, “Banfield Lashes Out at
Own Network,” April 28, 2003). 

the victory and occupation, the media continued to avoid the hospitals
and the general condition of a citizenry suffering from a water
crisis, food shortages, a breakdown of public services, and a medical
care crisis—all exacerbated by belatedly exploding ordnance
and land mines and the looting of hospitals as well as homes, stores,
and public facilities. The media focus was on signs of celebration
of the “liberated” Iraqis. Most notable was the coverage
of the pulling down of the statues of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s
Fardus Square, featured throughout the media. It is now well established
that this was organized by the U.S. military, whose machinery actually
pulled the statue down, and that only a tiny crowd was participating,
comprised mainly of recently imported Chalabi supporters. The media
uniformly served as agents of disinformation in this contrived celebration,
by failing to show a picture of the entire Square, which was surrounded
by U.S. tanks and empty of Iraqi celebrants, and by failing to discuss
the organizers and participants. 

are the principles and gambits required to deal with a post-aggression
occupation? The first principle is to take it as given that the
aggressor has the right to rule. The media have done this across
the board, reading from the successful victory some kind of vindication
of aggression, as if the French and global majority in opposition
questioned the ability of the United States to defeat a tiny disarmed
victim. The assumed right to rule is asserted regularly: “The
coalition alone retains absolute authority within Iraq,” according
to Lt. General David McKiernan, the U.S. ground forces commander,
and that is reported and not debated in the media, who find this
easy given their ready acceptance of the right of aggression (by
their country). 

and immediately after the invasion, U.S. mobile investigative teams
visited 90 of the top 150 most promising WMD sites identified by
U.S. intelligence, but none of these provided a smoking gun. The
media have expressed no surprise and little interest that no WMD
have yet been uncovered, despite the occupation and search, and
despite the fact that their fearsome presence was the rationale
for invasion. They have reported the Bush refusal to allow UN inspectors
to return to do the job, and insistence that only U.S. or U.S.-approved
personnel do the search, but the media don’t see a conflict
of interest here or express any suspicion that this might facilitate
the planting of weapons to meet the demand. You may be sure that
they will not provide anything like former CIA analysts Ray McGovern’s
and David McMichael’s detailed analysis of the numerous occasions
on which U.S. officials have forged and planted evidence in the
past (“Ex-CIA Analysts on the Pretext for War,” 

finding any hard evidence, U.S. officials have turned to claims
of Iraqi scientists who allegedly worked on Saddam’s WMD and
are now prepared to tell the “truth.” This is a plausible
fallback position, as scientists can easily be found who will trade
off saying what U.S. officials want said for money, rights to travel
and settle abroad, and exoneration from penalties for punishable
actions in the past. This has been a longstanding way of getting
official claims “confirmed” and publicized. (The most
famous case dealing with Soviet diplomat Arkady Shevchenko was written
up by Edward Epstein under the title “The Spy Who Came in To
Be Sold,”

New Republic

, July 15-22, 1985.) The media
have always cooperated and today as in the past they never suggest
that the witnesses—now Iraqi scientists—are extremely
vulnerable to pressure, and that their “evidence” cannot
be taken seriously without independent support. 


New York Times

, which has regularly fallen for propaganda
lies in the past (see its own self-serving confession in its editorial
with the revealing title “The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down,”
January 18, 1988), has set a new standard for gullible propaganda
service with Judith Miller’s front page article, “Illicit
Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert”
(April 21). Miller didn’t even talk with the scientist, but
merely passed along statements he allegedly made to U.S. government
agents. He says everything the government would like him to say:
that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons destroyed just before the
war (no explanation by him, or discussion by Miller, of why they
didn’t choose to use the weapons); some had been sent off to
Syria in the mid-1990s; and “more recently Iraq was cooperating
with Al Qaeda.” Miller doesn’t discuss the credibility
problem—the possible gain to some Iraqi from saying what the
government wants said or the record of fabrications by the Bush
administration (and its predecessors). This is propaganda that is
almost surely disinformation, but the

New York Times

it front page space, in its great tradition of pushing convenient
lies. (It often doesn’t shoot them down even with a time lag—the
paper has never acknowledged that its pushing the Bulgarian-KGB
link to the shooting of Pope John II in 1981 was a lie; it suppressed
the 1991 revelation by CIA official Melvin Goodman that the CIA
knew it was a lie because they had penetrated the Bulgarian secret

the WMD not found after a month-long search and any that might appear
belatedly and under pressure—and those claimed by confessing
scientists—possibly not convincing to a suspicious world, the
“coalition” has put ever increasing stress on the aim
of giving the Iraqis their freedom. The media have supported this
new stress by featuring evidence that Saddam Hussein was a brutal
ruler and by giving prominence to Bush administration claims and
promises regarding a democratic Iraqi future. Equally important
has been the media failure to give context and ask questions: Didn’t
the U.S. and Britain support Hussein for many years; and if so,
doesn’t this suggest that Iraqi liberty is unlikely to be a
driving motive? Why not liberty for Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Palestinians?
Is concern for Iraqi welfare compatible with having smashed its
infrastructure, killed and wounded many thousands, and allowed its
great cultural heritage to be destroyed? Does the U.S. record in
other places where it has intervened heavily, such as Guatemala,
Vietnam, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, suggest that it
will bring liberty and contribute to nation-building? Are its contracts
and threats to freeze out countries like France and Germany from
Iraq operations compatible with the free choice of Iraqis? Are its
plans, as spelled out in government documents and earlier statements
of objectives and its recent suggested intention to maintain military
bases in Iraq compatible with Iraqi freedom? 

focus on such questions is incompatible with the normalization of
aggression and occupation and the propaganda system skirts past
them. It postulates the right of the United States to aggress, occupy,
decide who are good and bad Iraqis, organize the reconstruction—first
and foremost of the oil industry—and decide, at least for now,
on Iraq’s direction, very possibly toward privatization of
the oil industry and integration into the global market as a U.S.
client state. Whether the Bush administration can get away with
this is not certain, but it will try and its media will continue
to do their best to put this aggression and occupation bringing
“liberty” to the Iraqis in a good light. 

Edward S. Herman
is an economist, author, and media analyst.