What a difference a few months can make. It was not so long ago that the leaders of America, Britain and Australia were continually talking up the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. We were informed, through the use of dossiers, satellite photos and defector interviews, that it was imperative to invade Iraq to rid the world of imminent nuclear, chemical or biological attack. Initial scepticism amongst the public, though, generally dissipated when the attack began and “our” troops were involved in combat. Real questions remain, however, as to the real reasons behind the war, and equally importantly, how Bush, Blair and Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, sold the war.
Weapons of Mass Deception is the first comprehensive attempt to explain the PR offensive and media complicity in selling the “necessity” of invasion. Co-authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are from the American based Center for Media and Democracy, a non-profit organization founded by Stauber in 1993 to name and shame suspect public relations campaigns as well as propaganda by multinationals and governments.
Let it be said that Rampton and Stauber weren’t one of the millions blindly accepting the symbolism of Saddam’s falling statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad on April 9. Images were beamed around the world of the Iraqis being “liberated” as a Fox News commentator said, “If you don’t have goose bumps now, you will never have them in your life.” But what if the media overplayed the significance of the event? And what if only a relatively small number of Iraqis were actually present?
The authors cleverly highlight the media’s need and apparent willingness for a happy ending by giving the startling example of John W. Rendon, a public relations consultant hired by the Pentagon and CIA on Iraq related projects. On February 29,1996, before an audience of cadets at the US Air Force Academy, he said, “I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician. I am a politician…I am an information warrior and a perception manager.” He asked the cadets if they remembered when victorious American troops rolled into Kuwait City at the end of Gulf War 1 and were met by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags, in praise of liberation. “Did you ever stop to wonder”, Rendon asked, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get held American flags, and for that matter, the flags of other coalition flags? Well, you know the answer. That was one of my jobs then.” The book is filled with these kind of eye-opening anecdotes. Take the example of Andrew H. Card Jr, White House Chief of Staff, who said that because “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” the Bush Administration couldn’t release its reasons for overthrowing Saddam in mid 2002. In other words, it was hardly co-incidental that Washington began its Operation Iraqi Freedom PR offensive to coincide with the first anniversary of Al Qaeda’s attacks on America. The background to all these facts leaves the reader with the horrible suspicion that a grand plan existed to reshape the Middle East and suitably horrific threats had to be found or conjured to fulfil these aims.
The authors systemically proceed through the claims put forward by Bush in his justification for war and debunk every one of them. The pattern that emerges is not unlike the message espoused by Mike Moore in Bowling in Columbine: if you keep the masses fearful, you can convince them to follow anything. This is where a questioning media is supposed to enter in robust democracies, but Rampton and Stauber expose the fundamental failings of virtually all media organizations in America to undertake even the most basic checking of government claims. The record in the UK and Australia is depressingly similar.
Scott Ritter, former UN weapons inspector, asked recently, “What was the basis of the affirmation by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? He said there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – nobody asked him to prove it. The press just printed it. We have now to demand the proof.” To suggest, as many pro-war advocates are now doing, that evidence of Saddam’s human rights abuses more than justifies the invasion, is highly disingenuous. Bush, Blair and Howard gave WMDs as their major reason for wanting war, with human rights almost an afterthought. This book is the first major step to holding our elected officials accountable for telling tales.