Threat Inflation Going after hapless countries


of the most striking features of the working of the U.S. imperial
system and media is the regular inflation of the threat posed by
imperial targets—an inflation process that very often attains
the ludicrous and incredible. When the imperial managers want to
go after some hapless small country—Guatemala, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia,
Iraq—that for one reason or another has been put on the U.S.
hit list, the managers issue fearsome warnings of the dire threat
posed by the prospective victim. The media quickly get on this bandwagon
and suddenly give enormous attention to a country previously completely
ignored. Critical analyses of the reality of the “threat”
are minimal, and the gullibility quotient of the media escalates
in view of the alleged seriousness of the threat and need for everybody
to be “on the team.” As soon as the small target is smashed—with
great ease, despite the prior claims of its capability—and
as official attention moves elsewhere, the media drop the subject
and allow the target to return to black hole attention.

closely related feature of the threat inflation process has been
the unwillingness of the media to allow that the United States poses
any threat to the imminent victim. U.S. officials may even have
announced an intention to displace a government, they may have organized
a proxy army to invade, and positioned their own forces in the vicinity,
but any actions of the target to prepare to defend itself are considered
sinister and further proof of their menacing character. In the Cold
War era, when targets reached out to the Soviet bloc to get arms,
this added to the proof of a threat, demonstrating that they were
part of the larger Soviet threat. That they sought weapons from
the Soviet bloc because they were prevented from buying them from
the United States and its allies, and that forcing them to do this
was part of a strategy making their threat more credible, was outside
the orbit of media thought.

in the official and therefore media view, threats were and remain
unidirectional—democratic Guatemala (1945-54), Sandinista Nicaragua
(1980-90), Iraq today have allegedly posed threats to the United
States, but they themselves are not threatened by it. This results
in part from the media’s ideological and patriotic subservience.
Just as in a totalitarian society, the media here take it as a premise
that their leaders are good and pursue decent ends, so that invidious
words like “threat” or “aggression” cannot be
applied to their language and behavior. This is helped along by
the fact that the targeted leaders are quickly demonized, so that
any apparent threats from our end are a response to evil and quest
for justice (as well as countering a real threat). This exquisitely
and comically biased perspective has helped make it possible to
find that no actions by the targets constitute “self defense,”
and in effect they do not have any right of self-defense.



in the late 1940s and early 1950s offers a model case. Guatemala’s
democratic leaders had aroused suspicion by granting labor the right
to form unions back in 1947, and when in 1952 president Jacopo Arbenz
proposed taking over idle United Fruit land (with compensation)
in the interest of landless peasants, United Fruit Company and U.S.
government officials escalated the charges of a dire Communist threat.
The media, which had previously rarely mentioned Guatemala, increasingly
focused on the official target. The Communists never “took
over” Guatemala (see Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer,

Bitter Fr


but United Fruit, the U.S. government, and the media claimed that
they had, and the media became frenetic and hysterical on the subject.
This was a completely fraudulent threat to U.S. national security.

On the other
hand, the United States posed a genuine security threat to Guatemala,
openly menacing it with hostile words and organizing a “contra”
army in Nicaragua to invade Guatemala. The United States also refused
to sell arms to Guatemala and got its allies to do the same. When
Guatemala imported a small quantity of arms from Czechoslovakia
in 1953 this caused a media frenzy, and demonstrated for the media
the aggressive intent of the U.S. target. In the U.S. media the
notion that Guatemala was threatened and might be acting in self
defense in acquiring arms was outside the realm of permissible thought.
After all, could the United States be planning a proxy aggression
against Guatemala? Not for the amazing U.S. media—the tiny
target threatened us.

of the non-dictatorships in Latin America considered Guatemala a
threat, although they were closer to the U.S. target and less capable
of defending themselves from it if the threat were valid. But they
were bribed and bullied by John Foster Dulles into condemning “international
communism” in the hemisphere and the need to confront it. Did
the U.S. officials believe the malarkey about a threat? The NSC
Policy Statement on “United States Policy in the Event of Guatemalan
Aggression in Latin America” (May 28, 1954) conveys the impression
of official panic over the Guatemala menace, declaring Guatemala
to be “increasingly [an] instrument of Soviet aggression in
this hemisphere.” This was about a virtually disarmed tiny
country that had not moved one inch outside its borders, in which
the Soviet Union had invested nothing and with which Guatemala didn’t
even maintain diplomatic relations (out of fear of U.S. reaction),
whose democratic government was shortly to be overthrown by a rag-tag
proxy army, with much U.S. assistance.

the overthrow of the Guatemalan democracy in 1954 the media once
again allowed Guatemala to disappear from their sights.  A
very similar process took place following the victory of the Sandinistas
over the authoritarian Somoza regime in Nicaragua in 1980. Here
again it was the democratic government that quickly became a “threat”
to the United States, after the United States had supported dictatorship
for 45 years. Here again it organized a contra army to harass and
invade the democracy. Once again it imposed an economic and arms
embargo on the target, forcing it to acquire arms from the Soviet
bloc, and then using this to demonstrate that it was an instrument
of that bloc. Once again the nearby small countries were not frightened
by the new menace, and much of their effort was spent trying to
settle the conflict—in opposition to the Reagan administration’s
preference for the use of force.

Soviet Threat, etc., etc.


again, also, after the Sandinista government was ousted, following
a decade of boycott and U.S.-sponsored international terrorism,
the media were enthused over this triumph of democracy and U.S.
“patience” in using means other than a direct invasion
to end social democracy in Nicaragua. Once this “threat”
was terminated, the media once again moved away from Nicaragua to
focus on other good deeds by their leaders coping with other threats.
As with Guatemala, and later in the case of NATO-occupied Kosovo,
the media carefully averted their eyes from the results, which were
not in keeping with the alleged war aims and claims that beneficial
effects would follow the removal of the threat.

big threat featured in the Cold War years was that posed by the
Soviet Union, which at least referred to the challenge of a serious
rival on the global scene. But even here, the threat was misread
and hugely inflated. The Soviet Union was always a conservative
and defensive-minded regional power, its reach beyond its near neighbors
tentative, reactive, and weak. It never posed a threat to the United
States and constantly sought accommodation with the real (U.S.)
superpower—its real threat was that it offered an alternative
development model and supported resistance to the global thrust
of U.S. imperialism.

the other hand, World War II was hardly over when the United States
was funding groups trying to destabilize the Soviet Union and in
NSC 68 (1950) U.S. officials laid out an agenda for destabilization
and “regime change” in the Soviet Union as basic U.S.
policy. The United States never accepted the legitimacy of the Soviet
Union and from the invasions in 1917 to the final important assist
given Yeltsin and his apparatchiks, its aim has been regime change.

in the U.S. propaganda system it was an ideological premise that
the Soviet Union was trying to conquer the world and we were on
the defensive, “containing” it. This was confirmed when
Khrushchev said, “We are going to bury you,” a blustering
statement that was hardly on a par with the neglected NSC 68 policy
pronouncement of an intent to bury the Soviet Union. A prime fact
of Cold War history was that the Soviet Union provided a limit to
U.S. expansionism—and it was the end of that real containment
that has allowed the United States to go on its current rampage.

should be noted that throughout the Cold War U.S. officials proclaimed
Soviet advances and “gaps” that invariably proved to be
disinformation, but which the

New York Times

and its colleagues
invariably passed along as truth. Equally important, when it turned
out that the “missile gap,” “warhead gap,” or
“window of vulnerability” was a lie, the media kept this
under the rug, along with the fact that they had been propaganda
and disinformation agents. In his classic,

The Myth of Soviet
Military Supremacy

(Harper & Row, 1986), Tom Gervasi showed
how the media passed along Reagan administration claims of Soviet
superiority in weapons systems that were refutable from the Pentagon’s
own information releases, but which the

New York Times

company were too lazy or too complicit with their leaders to examine
and challenge, saying merely that figures “were difficult to
pin down” (


), which was false. As Gervasi said, “The
frequent assertions of editors…that they must strive for ‘balance’
and ‘objectivity,’ were simply an effort to hide the lack
of attempt at either, to justify wholly uncritical acceptance of
official views, and to deny that a great deal of information was
missing from public view.”



the buildup to the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991, U.S. officials
and the media conveyed the impression that Iraq was a mighty power
and huge military challenge to the United States and its “allies,”
when in fact Iraq was a Third World country exhausted by its brutal
conflict with Iran and hardly able to put up token resistance to
the “allied” assault. It was overwhelmed within a week
and forced into de facto surrender. Ironically, Iraq didn’t
dare to use any weapons of mass destruction it possessed, but the
“allies” blew up a number of Iraq weapons caches, spewing
forth chemicals on allied soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The United
States also used depleted uranium “dirty” munitions, thus
making the Persian Gulf war a low level nuclear war, as it was later
to do in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Once again, following the war—or
more properly, slaughter—the media failed to reflect on either
the evidence that the threat had been inflated or the costs of the
war in terms of “friendly fire”—or rather “friendly
use of depleted uranium and release of enemy chemicals”—on
both allied soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

the buildup to the prospective 2003 attack on Iraq, once again there
has been a multi-pronged threat inflation that the mainstream media
pass along in their now standard propaganda agency role.

important, there is the pretense that if Iraq possessed WMD it would
pose a serious threat of using them offensively and against the
United States in particular. To make this plausible the officials-media
phalanx stress what a bad person Saddam is and the fact that he
used WMD in the 1980s. What the phalanx avoids discussing are: (1)
that Saddam only used those weapons when supplied and supported
by the United States and Britain—he did not use them in the
Persian Gulf War; (2) that the sanctions and inspections regime
has made him far weaker now than in 1991 when he failed to use such
weapons; (3) that his use of them offensively against either the
United States or any U.S. client state would be suicidal; and (4)
that it follows that if he possessed them they would only be serviceable
for defensive purposes. The idea that he poses a serious threat
to the United States, claimed by President George Bush and his associates,
is therefore absurd. But it is reported in the media as real and
is essentially unchallenged. It is certainly never called absurd,
as it is. Saddam does pose a possible threat to U.S. forces if attacked,
but only then. We get back to the fact, however, that a target of
U.S. enmity, from Vietnam to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua
to Iraq has no right of self-defense in the media propaganda system.

arrows in the war-makers quiver are the facts that Saddam is a cruel
dictator and that he has been less than completely cooperative with
the inspections process designed to assure the elimination of his
WMD. The former is true but irrelevant and its use is hypocritical.
The United States and Britain supported this dictator when he served
their interests and it continues to support others who are amenable,
as Saddam appeared to be in the 1980s. International law and the
UN Charter do not allow “regime change” of dictatorships
by military intervention and actions with such design constitute
straightforward aggression. “Helping” people by warring
on them is also profoundly hypocritical and there is every reason
to doubt any humanitarian end in Bush administration war planning.

is also true that Saddam has not been fully cooperative with the
inspections system, but why should he be when the United States
has repeatedly admitted that inspections are a cover for an intent
to dislodge him from power and have been used in the past to locate
war targets? (The same motive of regime change underlies the genocidal
sanctions regime that has killed over a million Iraqi civilians.)
Furthermore, the inspections regime is a U.S.-British imposition
that reflects their domination of the Security Council and their
political agenda, it has nothing to do with justice. Israel is allowed
to have WMD and ignore UN Security Council rulings because it is
a Western ally and client, but Israel not only threatens its neighbors,
it has repeatedly invaded Lebanon and is currently carrying out
a ruthless program of repression and ethnic cleansing in occupied
Palestine, in violation of UN rulings and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
But the U.S. mainstream media ignore this, and have gotten on the
bandwagon, proclaiming that Iraq’s lack of full cooperation
with the inspections regime is intolerable.

number of critical writers have stressed that while Iraq poses no
threat to the United States, the attack on Iraq will create a threat
in a feedback process. Thus Dan Ellsberg points out that: (1) “the
number of recruits for suicide bombing against the U.S. and its
allies…will increase a hundredfold;” (2) “regimes with
sizeable Muslim populations (including Indonesia, the Philippines,
France and Germany…) will find it politically almost impossible
to be seen collaborating with the US on the anti-terrorism intelligence
and police operations that are essential to lessening the terrorist
threat…”; (3) Iraq under attack, and possibly even segments
of the Pakistani army, may finally share WMD with Al Qaeda and other
terrorist groups (Dan Ellsberg on Iraq, Weblog Entry, Jan. 23, 2003,

again the mainstream media have cooperated in a ludicrous threat
inflation, which has prepared the ground for their country to wage
a war of aggression. That war will not reduce a threat from Iraq,
which was negligible, but it will produce serious threats as a consequence
of the attack. However, this may well be what some of Bush’s
advisers want, as it will justify further U.S. militarization and
warfare, intensified repression at home, and provide a cover for
further Bush service to his business constituency here and for Sharon’s
accelerated ethnic cleansing and transfer in Palestine.

S. Herman is an economist, author, media analyst, and a regular contributor


since 1988.