Unique Threats Profitable Responses

Unique Threat – No.1:

In April 1950, the US National Security Council Directive 68 (NSC68) stated: “The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose absolute authority over the rest of the world.” The citizens of the United States, the report went on, “stand in their deepest peril,” being threatened with the “destruction not only of this Republic but of civilisation itself”.

Unique Threat No. 2:

In May 1985 Ronald Reagan declared a “national emergency” to deal with the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” posed by “the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua”.

Unique Threat No. 3:

In September 2002, Tony Blair declared: “Iraq poses a real and unique threat to the security of the region and the rest of the world.”

Profitable Responses

It is comforting to believe that threats are identified and addressed by governments on the basis of rational criteria. One of the key roles of the mainstream media is to persuade the public that leaders are basically reasonable people making rational decisions in response to ‘tough choices’. The media’s continual focus on the personal beliefs and hopes of individual leaders helps to obscure the influence of institutionalised greed in selecting both them and their policies. In truth there is nothing rational about greed, and greed is very much in control of both politics and the media that report it.

If we study the long history of “unique” and “extraordinary” threats to “civilisation itself”, we find that, to qualify, a threat must first be sufficiently plausible to generate fear in the general population. Secondly, addressing the threat must be massively rewarding to powerful vested interests. Thirdly, addressing the threat must carry minimal risks to those same interests.

As a nuclear-armed totalitarian power with an atrocious human rights record, China certainly fulfils the first criterion. Addressing China as a ‘unique threat’, however, involves considerable economic and military costs and risks for vested interests. Climate change is a very real threat. Again, however, action is deeply threatening to power, and so the same people warning of a possible Iraqi missile attack on Gibraltar are hell-bent on obstructing even trivial action to combat global warming. In the past ten years Saddam Hussein has done nothing to threaten the West. In the next ten years, according to the US National Academy of Sciences, the world could face an authentic “climate catastrophe”.

The long-standing Western tradition of creating, arming and supporting terroristic regimes, and of thereby imposing poverty and injustice in defence of Western profits on the Third World, could also be considered a grave threat to Western security. We might act to change these policies – to “drain the swamp” of global hatred – but as with China and climate change, such a ‘war on hatred’, as distinct from a “war on terror”, incurs real costs to those directing policy and so is dismissed out of hand. The logic of greed declares that high-tech bombing and D-Day-style invasions have the power to extinguish hate in the minds of millions of people (who are outraged by precisely such actions), some of whom are willing to die to unleash that hate on their enemies.

The greed-inspired irrationality of threat identification is obscured by political propaganda, aided and abetted by the media. Thus Saddam, we are ceaselessly told (without challenge), is uniquely dangerous because he has a proven track record of deploying weapons of mass destruction “against his own people” at Halabja. Dilip Hiro gives an idea of what actually happened:

“To retake Halabja from Iran and its Kurdish allies, who had captured it in March, Iraq’s air force attacked it with poison gas bombs. The objective was to take out the occupying Iranian troops (who had by then left the town); instead, the assault killed 3,200 to 5,000 civilians.” (‘When US turned a blind eye to poison gas’, The Observer, September 1, 2002)

Because the lunacy of the current course of action is so extreme, the need for intimidating propaganda is concomitantly high. Hiro’s version of events at Halabja must therefore be passed over, just as the fact that Iraq did not “kick out the arms inspectors” in 1998 is ignored, just as the CIA infiltration of arms inspectors is buried, just as the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children by sanctions cannot be admitted (or accepted as a truly monstrous decade-long waste of human life, assuming invasion is now required as claimed). All of these threaten the vital demonising propaganda that makes violence possible.

By contrast to Halabja, between 1961 and 1971, the US Air Force sprayed 20 million gallons of arsenic-based and dioxin-laden herbicides on 6 million acres of Vietnamese crops and trees, as well as vast quantities of CS gas, napalm and phosphorus bombs. An estimated 13 percent of South Vietnam’s land was subjected to this kind of attack. A 1967 study by the Japanese Science Council concluded that US chemical warfare had at that point destroyed more than 3.8 million acres of arable land in South Vietnam, killing a thousand peasants and over 13,000 livestock. According to Vietnamese estimates two million people were harmed by toxic chemicals during the war. The Director of Vietnam’s War Crimes Investigation Department stated in 1970: “We have over 50,000 children that have been born with horrific deformities: the link is clear.” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.581) Recall that the US was ostensibly ‘liberating’ South Vietnam from ‘internal aggression’ – victims were, in a sense, the US’s ‘own people’.

Nuclear-armed and backed by a massive conventional army, the Soviet Union was an incomparably greater threat than Saddam Hussein. But in the case of the Soviet Union deterrence was somehow credible. The solution, then, lay in building huge numbers of nuclear warheads and expensive weapons systems to ensure the Soviets would be deterred from aggression. So why has the US – armed with 6,144 nuclear warheads against Iraq’s dilapidated Scuds – suddenly lost faith in the theory of deterrence that was so confidently espoused for half a century? Analyst John Lewis Gaddis had this to say of military strategy during the Cold War:

“To a remarkable degree, [the strategy of] containment has been the product, not so much of what the Russians have done, or of what has happened elsewhere in the world, but of internal forces operating within the United States… What is surprising is the primacy that has been accorded economic considerations in shaping strategies of containment, to the exclusion of other considerations.” (Gaddis, Strategies of Containment. Quoted Chomsky, Year 501, Verso, 1993, p.34)

The “internal forces” in question were large, high-tech corporations in the military defence sector, which were provided with a guaranteed market that ensured high output and high profits at the taxpayer’s expense. Similarly, as Media Lens has reported, the US National Missile Defence system may consume upwards of $238 billion over the next 15-25 years by failing to defend the US (the system is unworkable) against non-existent missile threats.

Elementary logic suggests that whereas deterrence was the most profitable response to the Soviet ‘threat’ hyped during the Cold War, invasion is the most profitable response now because the Iraqi threat is so minimal that deterrence can be safely discarded in favour of open aggression. In other words, invasion to crush the Iraqi ‘threat’ is feasible precisely +because+ there is no serious threat.

A desperate threat to US security, not profits, also motivated a response to Nicaragua, according to the propagandists. As ever, however, other factors were at hand. In 1983 the World Council of Churches reported:

“What we see is a [Nicaraguan] government faced with tremendous problems, some seemingly insuperable, bent on a great experiment which, though precarious and incomplete at many points, provides hope to the poor sectors of society, improves the condition of education, literacy and health, and for the first time offers the Nicaraguan people a modicum of justice for all rather than a society offering privilege exclusively to the wealthy… and the powerful.” (Quoted, Diana Melrose, ‘The threat of a good example?’ Oxfam, Oxford, 1985, p.12)

Robert Pastor, Latin American specialist under President Carter – latest winner of the Nobel peace prize – later explained why the Carter administration supported the murderous Somoza regime to the end, and why it sought to maintain Somoza’s National Guard (which it had established and trained), which was then attacking the civilian population with, as Pastor puts it, “a brutality a nation usually reserves for its enemy”:

“The United States did not want to control Nicaragua or the other nations of the region, but it also did not want developments to get out of control. It wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, +except+ when doing so would affect U.S. interests adversely.” (Quoted, ‘Control of Our Lives’, Noam Chomsky Lecture, February 26, 2000, Kiva Auditorium, Albuquerque, New Mexico. www.znet.org, original emphasis)

The Sandinistas were working to lift the yoke of imposed poverty from the poor in one Central American country, thus threatening to unleash “the threat of a good example” to other poor people in the region. In 1982-84 alone, the strategy for preventing developments from getting “out of  control” included the killing of 7,000 civilians by the Contras, the US’s proxy army. The “prime targets”, according to Oxfam, were “individual leaders and community organisers who have worked hardest to improve the lives of the poor”. (Melrose, op., cit, pp.27-9) In June 1986 the World Court rejected US claims that it was exercising “collective self-defence” in its policy towards Nicaragua and declared that the US “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the Contra forces” had acted “in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another state”. (Quoted, Holly Sklar, Washington’s war on Nicaragua, Between the Lines, 1988, p.314)

It could not be more obvious, as even the CIA advises, that Saddam Hussein might only represent a genuine threat if faced with personal annihilation. It could not be more obvious that tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of additional casualties in Iraq will lend yet more energy and support to hate-filled terrorists capitalising on anti-Western feeling to such monstrous effect, most recently in Bali. It is clear that an invasion of Iraq is not about protecting the West; it is about exposing the people of the West +and+ Iraq to massive danger for the sake of profits.

So why is all of this not, in fact, obvious to everyone? The answer is that the rapacious state-corporate interests controlling Western politics essentially also +are+ the media, and so are able to present their views to the world via politicians, who then go largely unchallenged by a media happy to define the ‘official’ version of events as ‘news’.

The Guardian/Observer – Stenographers To Power

As of October 19, 2002, the Guardian/Observer website records a large number of articles mentioning Iraq this year – 2,381 in total. The words ‘Bush and Iraq’ have been mentioned in 1,263 of them. The words ‘Blair and Iraq’ record 1,027 mentions. ‘Powell and Iraq’, 231. ‘Rumsfeld and Iraq’, 215. ‘Cheney and Iraq’, 187. ‘Jack Straw and Iraq’, 189. ‘Ariel Sharon and Iraq’, 153. ‘Duncan Smith and Iraq’, 149. ‘Wolfowitz and Iraq’, 48. ‘Perle and Iraq’, 33.

All of these mainstream leaders and commentators are strongly in favour of a war against Iraq to, variously, enforce UN resolutions, ensure “disarmament”, or to secure “regime change”. Gerhard Schroeder, the anti-war German leader, receives 9 mentions.

Papers like the Guardian claim they are performing a democratic service by informing the public of the views and decisions of their leaders, so that the public can then pass informed judgement on leaders’ policies come election time. The reality is strikingly different.

In the first three weeks of campaigning for the 2001 general election, the communications research centre at Loughborough University found that “there has been little sign of real issues” in media election coverage, where “few issues make the news” (Peter Golding, ‘When what is unsaid is the news’, the Guardian, May 28, 2001). Issues like the environment, foreign policy, poverty and defence were “all but invisible” (Golding, email to David Edwards, June 10, 2001). Defence, for example, comprised 0.6 percent of media reporting. There was no mention of New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy” deception, no review of the non-existent “genocide” used as a pretext for Blair’s bombing of Serbia, of his silence as East Timor burned, or of the immense suffering inflicted on Iraq. The fact that senior UN diplomats had resigned in September 1998 and February 2000, describing New Labour’s policy on Iraq “genocidal”, was not deemed relevant for voters judging New Labour’s performance since 1997. Loughborough University reported that this media performance closely followed the pattern of the 1997 and 1992 elections. The report was mentioned in a small article in the Guardian’s media section and forgotten.

About this extraordinary scandal, the Guardian, like the rest of the media, has nothing to say. The media, normally so concerned to inform readers of the views of their leaders on the need for military action, so eager to poll the public as war looms, regularly allow elections to be held in the absence of +any+ serious debate of foreign policy issues.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we take a moral view of our actions as human beings and journalists. This means abandoning a convenient professional naivety and accepting the long and grim history of official manipulation of public opinion for cynical ends. Given this awareness, a moral definition of ‘professional’ media performance must surely include allocating space to the most honest voices not pursuing the corporate (including the corporate

media) dollar, not seeking the status and privilege of corporate-sponsored high office, not deeply mired in corrupt systems of politics and power, as so many of our much-reported mainstream leaders are. How does the Guardian/Observer fare by this more moral standard of reporting on Iraq in 2002? The tally makes grim reading:

‘Scott Ritter and Iraq’, 43 mentions. ‘Noam Chomsky and Iraq’, 20 mentions. ‘George Monbiot and Iraq’, 16 mentions. ‘John Pilger and Iraq’, 12 mentions. ‘Harold Pinter and Iraq’, 13 mentions. ‘Gore Vidal and Iraq’, 7 mentions. ‘Howard Zinn and Iraq’, 2 mentions. ‘Milan Rai and Iraq’, 4 mentions. ‘Hans von Sponeck and Iraq’, 4 mentions. ‘Ramsey Clark and Iraq’, 2 mentions. ‘Edward Herman and Iraq’, 1 mention. ‘Denis Halliday and Iraq’, 0 mentions. ‘Mark Curtis and Iraq’, 0 mentions.

These are our most important dissident writers and authoritative voices on Iraq – mustering between them some 124 mentions out of 2,381 articles. To be sure, few of these mentions communicate the opinions of dissidents as comprehensively and accurately as do the reams of commentary on exactly what Bush, Blair, Powell, Rumsfeld et al said, felt, hoped and intimated. There are other voices – admirable mainstream politicians like George Galloway (59

mentions) and Tony Benn (23) – but dissident intellectuals with the power to counter the tide of propaganda are all but out of sight. Why are we focusing on the Guardian? For the simple reason that it is the best, most honest mainstream newspaper – this, unfortunately, is as good as it gets.

The figures above are hardly scientific but they do, we believe, give an indication of how the mainstream’s presumption that its primary role is to faithfully report the words and opinions of ‘elected’ leaders ends up ensuring that we are bombarded by dishonest propaganda with very little challenge from more honest sources. Given this context, the fact that so many people are opposed to war on Iraq is truly remarkable.

Finally, in the more than 2,300 articles mentioning Iraq this year, the word ‘Saddam’ appears 1,096 times in the Guardian/Observer, or 50% of the time. The words ‘the Iraqi people’ appear 76 times, or less than 4% of the time. ‘Iraqi society’ appears 3 times. ‘Iraq and civilian casualties’ appear 29 times. ‘Iraqi civilian casualties’ appears 3 times. The words ‘Iraq and collateral damage’ appear 21 times. ‘Iraq and malnutrition’ appear 5 times. ‘Iraq and child deaths’ appear in one dismissive article by John Sweeney in The Observer, as discussed in earlier Media Alerts.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

Ask him why Guardian coverage focuses so heavily on the views of mainstream politicians, while affording such tiny amounts of coverage to dissident voices. Why, for example, has the Guardian carried just five articles by Noam Chomsky in the four years since September 1998?

Email: alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

Write to Observer editor, Roger Alton:

Email: roger.alton@observer.co.uk

Copy all your letters to editor@medialens.org

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