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Friday, July 13, 2007

Confronting Iraq: Exposing Propaganda and Overcoming Denial

Norm Solomon's War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits keep spinning us to death is coming out in video documentary form narrated by Sean Penn. I've been working my way through the book; it's packed with a littany of techniques used by American Presidents to construct a positive political reception for acts of military aggression.

Iraqi is proving a text book case of selling the war, a topic I discussed previously in regard to Bill Moyer's special on Selling the War. I'd also referenced a book an interview by Bill Moyers of Carlo Bonini, author of the book Collusion on the Niger forgery documents. The placement and processing of the Niger documents provides evidence of a conspiracy to fabricate intelligence in support of the war.

The infamous 16 Words worked their way into the State of the Union address in January 2003. Iraq had allegedly sought to buy large quantities of yellowcake in Niger, a statement attributed to British intelligence, which related to a forged letter procured in Rome. The Bonini interview exposes the dark roots of the documents, the flow of intelligence, and the manipulation which elevated the intelligence beyond scrutiny.

The release of other questionable intelligence--later designated as "faulty"--led to the 16 Words, circumventing the fact-checking role traditionally assigned to the CIA over the State of the Union.

We saw a similar parallel with WMD allegations directed at Iraq, where statements of possibility were framed as certainties of fact through an intelligence-gathering apparatus with a strong pro-war bias. Run by Cheney, with Wolfowitz, Feith, and other advocates for war, a general propaganda thrust was made by the White House Iraq Group to build the case for an Iraqi war based on 1) terror and 2) WMD.

The Administration is enduring major blowback from Iraq and the justifications made for the war are being examined in detail. The more unpopular the war, the more criticism the White House faces over its pre-war intelligence claims. Attributing intelligence mistakes to unintentional error may be insufficient cover for the scale of the intervention into and manipulation of the intelligence-gathering process by the Administration.

Avoiding Blowback

Avoiding additional damage required preemptive damage control in the lead-up to the 2004 Election. The fabricated and untested intelligence had been converted to assertions of fact in the Administration's headlong rush to war. To put one of these statements--that Iraq had been seeking yelllowcake--under scrutiny would imperil the whole of the case and worse, spotlight the White House's illicit effort to insert propaganda favorable to starting the war.

Plame's outing may have sent a message sent to government employees who might be tempted to blow the whistle on the fallacious evidence or the conspiratorial misconduct which elevated it. As insiders, Plame and others in the CIA were in position to blow open the false intelligence. As a matter of fact Plame herself had discredited a major intelligence asset used so freely by the Pentagon--most likely Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Pentagon-funded Iraqi National Congress who said we'd be "welcomed with open arms."

Assuming Plame's outing achieved the desired result--a neutering of potential internal dissent--would-be truth-tellers in the intelligence services were silenced, fearful of White House retaliation.

As the "faulty intelligence" unravels into a basket of outright lies, maintaining the cover-up--that Bush and Cheney acted in good faith--is harder. Congress must be drooling for the full-scale investigations which will be forthcoming in time for the 2008 Election.

Even the Republicans will get involved in Administration bashing should they have no choice. During the Watergate hearings, Republican crusaders led the inquiry into wrongdoing in the White House.

Revelations concerning the Administration's role in intelligence-gathering have opened up new vulnerabilities. The passage of time since the war may have done little to glaze over the magnitude of the White House's manipulations. And the progress of the war certainly can't help justify the techniques used to get Congressional support for the war.

Recent defections by Senators like Lugar may have been encourged by the conclusion that we'd entered Iraq under false pretexts fabricated by the White House. Every additional casualty brings further scrutiny of the reasons why we are in Iraq, justifications which can be directly traced to pre-war manipulation of intelligence by Republican advocates for war.

In the political arena, we are perhaps seeing the belated arrival of checks and balances crafted into the Constitution, which is designed to set off the Executive Branch against the Congress, by putting into direct competition the self-interest of the two bodies. Congress must mind the next election; to win they must not support a failed war nor Nixonian-style Presidential misconduct. Nor can Republicans afford to shelter their President's policies merely out of simple loyalty to their Party or, to be more specific, a Party led only nominally by a lame duck President in the last two years of office.

So our political process is reverting to a state of more balanced power, assuming the War will end, as it one day must in order to show that the will of the people is being followed under our system of government. Iraq could continue to damage the US as it wears on, with no appreciable benefit to continuation save unlikely potentialities.

The Democrats face unrelenting pressure to leave; they've done so little so far. Republicans in the Senate appear to be blocking antiwar legislation, but the number of defections grows to the point that a filibuster can no longer prevent debate on reducing our troop strength.

We are now stuck; according to some we must stay simply in order to prevent even worse things from happening. This is not the way to fight a war--should it need to be fought--as we are divided by domestic political competition, perhaps for good reason as our goals in Iraq are inadequately defined, and the potential for a successful outcome impossible under the approach endorsed by the President.

Iraq's Legacy

While Cheney and Bush envy Iraq's oil, the US military will face a diminished role in the long-term. More and more of the burden for Iraq's occupation will shift over to private contractors--a modern euphemism for mercenaries--whose recently revealed numbers in-country surpassed the strength of US forces. Still, with the mega-bases constructed in Iraq, a US military presence will stretch on, in large part to support the extraction of oil--the real goal of the occupation.

As more government functions privatize, more money is driven to politically connected contractors. Something like 40% of the Pentagon's budget now flows directly to the private sector. The profit potential is huge; the massive increases in budgets offer an ongoing fire-sale of government services to private contractors. A laissez faire approach among Republicans has abandoned responsibility and transparency. Any potential scrutiny is absolved by virtue of "national security" and the need for secrecy.

The arrival of Democrats to Congressional power may bode well for accountability in government, and a slowing down of privatization, but the damage has been done to our credibility, our military, and the fabric of what makes America great.

Is it too much to say that this is not how great nations behave? We've been corrupted by our hubris and the flow of federal money.

Our leaders are driven by imperial desires to make the US highest and mightiest of all the world's nations. The current absence of any rival superpower is not by itself proof of American supremacy, merely its temporarily unrivalled status.

I think America was made great by her humility not her haughtiness. Teddy Roosevelt urged us to "speak softly and carry a big stick." Instead we've resorted to unilateral military force to "solve" a problem entirely of our own making, especially if Iraq was never involved in Terror.

Our incessant meddling with other nations seems to be at the root of our problems with others. Instead of projecting power, we should be projecting peace, using our soft power like the Chinese.

Call me biased, but the America I know wants to win in the world, to throw the winning touchdown then emerge triumphant, prom queen on the arm, admired by all. She doesn't lie to get what she wants, or cheat. That America isn't content to settle for fear in others where she can't earn their respect. She wins by playing fair.

To make changes, Americans need to assume responsibility for their country. They must vote. Above all they will need to care, not only for themselves, but for how we conduct ourselves as a nation. On the military front, a presumption of victory is no longer sufficient to suspend disbelief indefinitely, or to unconditionally justify open-ended war. Internationally, we cannot presume that which makes us feared will endear us to the world which we presume to lead. Leaders don't bully; we are but one nation among many.

Wars are encouraged by our leaders and they must be responsible for them. If we don't hold them accountable, there will be no consequences, they will believe themselves beyond accountability, like kings, while we--the sheeple in their eyes--sacrifice the lives of our children and pay the bill in higher taxes.

Our political system may begin to affect some changes, but we Americans must assume the role of controlling our government, and not be content to leave that vital task unattended, or left to the self-interested parties that benefit from bloated government.


Unfortunately denial has crept into the American way of life. We've heard the term in substance abuse and addicitive disorders--it essentially means to ignore the situation that our actions have created.

Denial makes accepting an ugly reality easier. By refusing to consciously acknowledge the reality, we avoid the truth: that we must be responsible for the consequences of our actions.

Believing in the possibility of victory in Iraq is a great example of denial. George Bush claims we can still win, month after month, even as reports dooming our military to certain failure under the current approach cross the President's desk.

For average Americans, a debt trap is a good example of denial. It's all too easy to get credit. It's also supremely easy to believe that things will get better. As finances tighten, more credit can simply be found, just as more time can seem to buy the possibility of victory in Iraq. By denying the truth that Iraq can't be won the way it is being fought, if it all, belief in our own invulnerability is sustained.

The heavier the debt, or the larger the costs and consequences, the more comforting the denial. All the while the environment deteriorates until one day the drunk awakens in some jail cell, or the addict mother loses her children. Denial makes the long, tortuous path to the inevitable "hitting bottom" all the easier to take, with the steady slide into depravity so obvious to others and painful to watch.

Denial is the perfect remedy for problems for which there are no easy solutions. Cessation becomes the sole method to end the descent but committing to cessation requires acknowledging error, which most of us, like our leaders, find exceptionally difficult.

Selling Terror and Iraq

TV and Media play a huge role in advertizing consumer products--is it so strange that media manipulation would become the favored method for selling a war?

Yellow journalism played a major role in all of America's previous wars. The difference today is in the sophistication of the marketing, and the amazing ability of TV to shape what we think and believe on the subconscious level.

The administration wanted to link Iraq to terror. The Office of Special Plans was set up to find linkage between Iraq and terror, their findings were passed to the White House Iraq Group who packaged them as statements of fact for the media.

By the fall of 2003, most of the premise that Iraq had sponsored terror had even been disproved. Bush himself came out and claimed that Iraq and al Qaeda had not in fact been linked--a statement that should have ended the connection for all but the most hard-core Iraqi terror conspiracy theorists. Then, just before the 2004 Election, the Administration resold the terror connection, claiming that Iraq was a central battlefront in the War on Terror. [For more, see the Sequence of Proclamations on Iraq and Terror, at the bottom.]

I found the initial admission of no connection between Iraq and terror quite surprising. Admitting no connection was really a media manipulation effort in itself, a Rovian trick which aimed to counter the clear hypocrisy of fighting terror in Iraq where there hadn't been any. In other words, the threat concocted by the OSP and White House no longer had to be concealed. The fact that Iraq hadn't been involved in terror could be allowed to emerge only after the war had been started and White House well entrenched in a second term.

Pollsters have looked at one finding on Iraq in particular--the widely held belief that Iraq was involved in terror. A high percentage of Americans still believes to this day that Iraq was involved in 9/11, or that Saddam sponsored terror. The poll question originated in 2004 as part of exit polls and follow-up on the Presidential election, researched in order to ascertain the impact of popular opinions about terror on candidate preference.

Those most scared of terror sided with George Bush, largely due to premise that Republicans were harder on terror. I've referenced Olbermann's Nexus of Poltiics and Terror to identify the coincidental timing of terror alerts; it's undeniable the incumbents could gain from instilling an atmosphere of fear in key demographics like soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads. Meanwhile, the desire of politicians to look hard on terror may emerge through history as the greatest single motivator for support for the invasion of Iraq.

In Spetember 2003 Bush confessed that Saddam and al Qaeda hadn't been linked. So why hadn't the correction made an impact? Branding. Through the Presidential pulpit, Americans had been sold the premise that Iraq had been involved in terror. They'd been told often enough, and forcefully enough that they'd become convinced.

The media has done nothing to dispel the connection; quite to the contrary they fed to the public what the White House Iraq Group had told them, without due diligence the American people had come to believe exactly what the White House wanted them to believe. Journalists with close ties to the Administration like Judith Miller dispensed WMD fables, her facts weren't checked and lies were propagated through the Paper of Record. Why would the trusted and venerable media institutions of our days threaten their credibility by admitting they'd failed to check the facts? To this day the New York Times has failed to correct any of Miller's stories.

The connection between Iraq and terror stuck in the popular perception because Saddam made a good a villain. We'd fought him before. Having lost to the US, it was easy to assume that he'd tried to get us back, and succeeded through 9/11.

And for the media, Saddam and Iraq made a much easier target than some nebulous terror organization. After 9/11, it was simply easier for many Americans to grasp the idea that Iraq had struck back, rather than confront the idea that American policies in the Middle East had birthed a stateless enemy.

And the Mainstream Media, sympathetic to Israel, could glaze over the broad-based reaction to acts of aggression which had fueled support for terror. The Media could avoid holding the US and Israelis accountable for their roles in generating terror. Saddam corralled the problem, gave an easily identified enemy, one who we could easily destroy.

So well received was the Iraq/terror connection that it lives on today. The persistency is a product not of a great sustained misinformation campaign, but rather innuendo and capitalizing on fears about 9/11, which channelled quite purposefully into the case for war in Iraq.

Branding the Masses

On selling the war, I'd said that repitition had formed the backbone of our government's case for war in Iraq, on the grounds it presented a terror threat. The act of simple repitition fostered indelibly the illegitimate premise that Iraq had posed a threat. In the same way, the war could be sold like any merchandise, fear of terror acting as the motive for taking action against Iraq.

"Bob Simon of CBS explained to Moyers that the administration used marketing techniques to sell the war, 'Just repeat it and repeat it and repeat it ... Keep that drum beat going.'"

Selling propaganda uses the same process to market to the American people as any other product. Propaganda differs only in the fact it is made for the benefit of government, ostensibly acting in the nation's best interest, as opposed to the commercial interest.

We live a mass consumption lifestyle not by choice but by the ways in which our purchases are influenced. A stream of commercial messages are thrown at us daily.

Branding is after all a revolting term: like cows we are made the property of advertizers who imprint their logos in our memories. We presume to buy products as a matter of free and independent choices while in fact our minds are being subconsciously and methodically made to choose one product over another.

Our economy and even our society have been defined as consumerism. The idea is that our purchase decisions shape every facet of our lives-they are the raison d'etre of our existence, and pattern the way we live by providing us choices in what we buy.

Calling ours a consumer society makes innocuous the manipulations at the heart of capitalism which serve the seller not the buyer. The concept that we shape our world is in fact the complete opposite of the truth: that our consumption decisions and the way we live is arranged for us by corporate advertising and branding, which in fact limit our selectivity and openess to rival brands and products, without us even knowing how our decisions are being influenced.

Consumerism hosts a parasitic process of branding through the subconscious. We buy based not on careful deliberation or true choice, but rather in ways that have been shaped for us by the sellers of what we buy. We pretend that our choices make a life for us of our choosing when in fact our choices are limited and decisions manipulated in favor of one product over another.

Imagining ourselves at the pinnacle of capitalist society, surrounded by consumption alternatives, we do have a plethora of decisions to make. The more valuable choice of whether or not we need to buy anything, at all, is made insignificant through a torrent of advertizing, throwing at us some 1,000 daily marketing messages as it does.

Teenagers and the young are especially vulnerable. Using advertizements plugged on shows used by young people, companies encourage consumption under the guise of choices. The largest companies with the broadest product lines simply know that stimulating consumers will bring more revenue--the more stimulation, the more is bought.

So sophisticated is marketing today that the actual purchaser of products--typically parents--need not be directly targetted. Instead the children whine and beg, their wants fashioned into needs. Engaged fully in the consumer lifestyle themselves, parents are reluctant to deny their children what they so desperately claim to need.

American society is beginning to show the effects of a society gone wild. Overspending brings mammoth debt loads which imperil the fiscal solvency of millions. Collectively, our borrowing ways have made the US a net importer of money. To finance our trade and federal budget deficit we must now import about $2.5 billion dollars a day.

Like the indulgent parent, China and Japan keep sending us the money so we can buy stuff and our government continue to spend well beyond its means.

Is the status quo sustainable? No. Eventually, our lenders will find the risks of continued lending higher than the interest we will pay in return--or--the interest we pay will increase to the point that our society cannot borrow enough. This latter scenario is what is called the free hand of the market: a corrective process in economics that forces the overspender to spend less by cutting off their sources of cheap money.

With so much public and personal debt, we've become dependent on more borrowing just to stay afloat. Basic living expenses and core components of federal spending like health care have become threatened.

Like compulsive spenders, we spend more and more on the things that matter less--like travel, luxury goods, and gambling--as a means of preserving the state of denial that accompanies the disease. Like all addictions, recognizing the problem is the vital first step in addressing the debt problem. Postponing acceptance of the problem suspends doing something about it.

A massive speculative bubble has been created by our spectacular denial over our overspending. Housing prices sky-rocketed; seizing on the opportunity (and fed by legions of hungry lenders eagerly advertizing home equity loans) Americans borrowed on their equity. We justified the borrowing on the flimsiest of reasons--that the price of credit was low, or that the interest charged on the credit card was so much higher. We failed to make any changes to our spending patterns, which form the root of over-borrowing. We also assume the we will be able to earn more, when if fact social mobility is decreasing in our society: X-generations Americans are forecast to make less than their parents.

Interest that we must pay on debt represents a claim on our future income, so whenever we borrow, it comes at a considerable opportunity cost in the future. By borrowing continually, the problem snowballs. Debt may not appear to be that much of an issue while interest rates are low, however Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) threaten to jack up mortage costs dramatically as rates rise.

Where are we headed? Well, our consumption-oriented lifestyle, praised for all the "choice" it offers us, shows no signs of change. Too many consumer messages are reaching us and too many brands have already been imprinted on our brain's hard-wiring to led our minds to contemplate the possibility of spending less.

Debt has become a giant component of our economy. In short, we've become addicted to spending so we must continue to spend to sustain the economy.

Our government's first instruction after 9/11 was, after all, to shop. Why? To preserve our way of life, so the terrorists don't win.

While the notion of patriotic shopping sounds canned, like the faux terror warnings which were to spring out in the years following, the call to shop does acknowledge our dependence on retail shopping. So much of our manufacturing capacity has been lost, so this call in large part endorses buying Chinese-made products sold by retailers led by Walmart.

There's been a "CNN effect" on consumption, a startling and immediate decline in consumer activity corresponding to wall-to-wall coverage of major news events. A stream of news doesn't serve any commercial interest; commercials aren't even run much if at all. People simply sit on their couches to watch the news. Media conglomerates have yet to learn how to profit from news. Celebrity journalism is far better suited to promoting media products sold by entertainment divisions.

Does our way of life revolve around shopping? Apparently we must shop to be American. The elite that lead our nation must have no problem with the reality that much of what we buy isn't American at all. Cheap, foreign imports dominate our stores. Shopping may be great for the retail business but buying more will do little to help the wages of people working in the industry--sustaining their mcjobs, yes, but making substantive improvements in their quality of life, no.

Sequence of Proclamations on Iraq/Terror Link

Acknowledging the absence of a connection has done little to reduce the widely held belief that Iraq had sponsored terror. Even today a large percentage of Americans--perhaps over 40%--hold that Saddam had been involved in 9/11.

foxnews from Sept. 2003:
"...recent public opinion polls indicate that 70 percent of Americans think there is a tie between Iraq and the attacks."

More from that article (beware if you go to the link, it is "mined" with links):

...Rice, asked about the same poll numbers, said, "We have never claimed that Saddam Hussein had either direction or control of 9-11."

She continued: "What we have said is that this is someone who supported terrorists, helped to train them, but most importantly that this is someone who, with his animus toward the United States, with his penchant for and capability to gain weapons of mass destruction, and his obvious willingness to use them, was a threat in this region that we were not prepared to tolerate."

This also from September 2003:
"Bush Flatly Declares No Connection Between Saddam and al Qaeda:

Then a change, in June 2004, just before the election:
"Bush takes issue with finding that 'no credible evidence' exists of link between Iraq and al-Qaeda"
...and "Bush backs Cheney on assertion linking Hussein, Al Qaeda"

Including Iraq in the war on terror (or making it the "central front") blurs the distinction between the two. The link also sustains justification for the occupation by nurturing the misperception that Iraq was linked to al Qaeda. The inadequate occupation has by this time spawned radical Islamic terror, reinforcing the idea terror was in Iraq when it was our occupation, not Saddam's rule, that had brought it.

The Media has spun the terror and Iraq connection, not only failing to dispel it but trying to support the premise. This from Pierre Tristam:

It could briefly be played up as a significant number, and the New York Times is certainly trying to headline it as such: 51 percent of Americans see no link between the terror war and the Iraq war But it isn’t significant. It’s closer to pathetic, like taking heart from the fact that 51 percent of Americans don’t think the Apollo 11 Moon landing was staged, or that 30 percent don’t think angels exist. That 51 percent who see no link between Iraq and terror still means a proportion approaching half, half, still think there is a link. That’s the sort of proportion that also saw a link between 9/11 and Saddam, or that Saddam was ready to nuke the Empire State Building with drones. And you still have a 55 percent approval rating for the way President Bush is handling the terror war, which essentially nullifies that a majority that see no terror-war link with Iraq, since Bush’s entire focus of the terror war is on Iraq, and only—only—53 percent of those polled said it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq in the first place. Statistically, that means half the country still believes the war was justified from the start, and it renders irrelevant whether they think Iraq is linked to the war on terror or not.

Tristam's final opinion:

"We have a nation still wholeheartedly willing to be deceived, as if the possibility of a sham would be too much to bear—too implicating, in the end, of the public’s complicity, to not say stupidity."

H.L. Mencken said that no one could ever go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. The public's gullibility on Iraq has proven just how easily the American people are deceived. Perhaps the future holds hope as Americans sour on the war and our system of government slowly responds to popular opinion.

Until Americans become willing to critically examine the issues, and hold our leaders collectively responsible by voting them out, we will be vulnerable to militarized solutions that resolve nothing, and the people who would launch and exploit wars for profit or political gain.



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