Play me like a fiddle: American media on American foreign policy

The same anecdote keeps coming up again and again in articles decrying the United States’ attitude toward Iraq. In 1996, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave an interview with 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl regarding U.S. sanctions in that country. Asked whether the sanctions were worth the death of half a million Iraqi children since the end of the Gulf War, Albright responded quite infamously, ‘We think the price is worth it.’

Lesley Stahl didn’t do a thing. She didn’t challenge the secretary on the issue, and actually just went on with the interview. The same thing happened last month when U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was interviewed by PBS’ Jim Lehrer. Rumsfeld made seriously inaccurate statements regarding the how and why of U.N. weapons inspectors’ withdrawal/expulsion from Iraq in December of 1998. Lehrer simply let the points stand, never questioning the accuracy of Rumsfeld’s account. More and more, it seems the American media is simply restating official policy and toeing the line when it comes to the upcoming war.

War, after all! When do the American people get to hear the real reasons behind the possible invasion of Iraq, a war one seasoned weapons inspector calls ‘sheer lunacy’ and ‘utter chaos?’ Instead of digging for the real story, mainstream journalists and reporters seem to be taking the government’s word at face value at every opportunity.
They probably won’t hear anything different from CNN, even though Wolf Blitzer is on TV every day at noon with his ‘Showdown: Iraq’ feature. During a typical should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-go-to-war debate on the program, both the pro-war pundit and the anti-war pundit wanted to go to war. The only difference was that the guy arguing less for war was actually worried about the long-term consequences. The CNN mediator did not even question the pro-war pundit’s statements, even though he was clearly fudging facts regarding public opinion polls, and calling people and regimes ‘evil’ left and right.

Blitzer, by the way, became famous during the Gulf War for reporting on U.S. air strikes from a Baghdad hotel room with his then-colleague Arthur ‘Scud Stud’ Kent. In fact, the whole of CNN got put on the map 11 years ago when the young cable news network was the first to have reporters on the scene. Even though the major networks caught up to CNN with regard to angles and reportage, they simply could not compete with its literally round-the-clock coverage of the conflict. It was the first example in history of a news-athon. It was, as one expert puts it, ‘probably the biggest, most expensive, and most sustained undertaking in the history of the television news divisions.’ People all over North America and the world (even Saddam Hussein himself) tuned into CNN all day long. You may remember the same sort of spectacle during the OJ Simpson trial. That circus never would have happened were it not for the precedents set during the Gulf War.

So, there was plenty of media coverage. But, what purpose did it serve other than to show North Americans a lot of nighttime footage of flashing anti-aircraft fire? If you believe the experts, the purpose was precisely to gain support for the war. The coverage was one-sided and misleading (don’t mention the P-word: propaganda). Much has been made of the various difficulties of reporting from Iraq in peacetime, let alone during Operation Desert Storm, but there is nothing to support a claim that fewer restrictions would have meant better reporting. An article by Michael Massing in the Columbia Journalism Review states that ‘access was not really the issue.’ He continues: ‘The pools, the escorts, the clearance procedures were all terribly burdensome, but greater openness would not necessarily have produced better coverage.’

The reason, of course, is that reporters during the Gulf War were for the most part happy with whatever Washington told them. Pete Williams, the man in charge of the media for the Pentagon during Desert Storm put it best: ‘The reporting has been largely a recitation of what Administration people have said, or an extension of it.’ Former media aides for presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter have compared the media during the Gulf War to a PR firm. There simply is no better tool other than the media to spread government gospel, and it was used perfectly.

For example, has any other person in history been vilified in the media more then Saddam Hussein? He was the devil’s lover in the South Park movie, for crying out loud. If you were to ask an American kid to name an evil man, he or she would probably say Saddam Hussein first and Osama bin Laden second, or maybe the other way around. Speaking of which, no mainstream media outlet has questioned the government’s view that Iraq, as a ‘rogue state,’ part of the ‘axis of evil,’ could, would, maybe is harbouring terror cells. Truthfully, this argument for war—the terror angle—is brand new. George W. Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq in January of 2001, way before the attacks on New York and Washington. Every time he or Donald Rumsfeld mentions that Iraq could possibly be helping al-Qaeda, just remember that that argument for war is absolutely tacked-on. The only real connection between Iraq and the attacks is a fiscal one. Scott Ritter reiterated that following September 11th, the Bush administration was given basically a blank check to wage war on terror, so by tying terrorism to Iraq, it makes it easier to spend the money. That’s not to say that Bush wouldn’t have gone to war anyway, but the American people are scared stiff of terrorism, and somehow placing the two most hated men in the world (by our side, anyway) in cahoots helps the push.

Not to downplay the potential seriousness of Saddam Hussein’s threat to the civilized world, but according to some experts, his arsenal is, or was, dismantled almost entirely. When weapons inspectors were expelled from Iraq in 1998, 90% of Saddam’s weapons programs had been destroyed or accounted for. Former UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) ‘alpha dog’ weapons inspector Scott Ritter has stated that all that was left four years ago were ‘vestiges of past programs which in their totality mean nothing.’ Also, four years is a very short time to develop weapons of mass destruction, especially for a state facing crippling U.S. sanctions. The sanctions were to be lifted under a U.N. directive once Iraq passed inspections, however the inspections were never completed, partly because Iraq is stubborn but mostly because they don’t trust the U.S. While mainstream media outlets have played up this standoff (involving access to areas such as palaces, and chaperoning procedures), the truth is that Iraq has every right to be suspicious of American inspectors. In 1999, it was revealed that the CIA used spies posing as weapons inspectors. It was front-page news. But since then, the attitude has changed, and newspapers which at the time had headlines about the spy caper have begun using the word ‘alleged’ to describe the incident (

Another topic being treated as taboo is the most obvious one. Iraq is the second-leading oil producer in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. The untapped oil in Iraq has been described as ‘legendary.’ Conspiracy theory or not, the Republican oilmen in the White House have been very interested in the area since Bush Sr. was in office. Vice President Dick Cheney, another Texas oil millionaire, actually recommended pursuing regime change in Iraq in a federal energy report. A strong American presence in Iraq, ie. military occupation following a U.S. victory, would allow clear passage for oil from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. The U.S. would be able to set up a puppet government as it has in the past, set the price of oil, and have a powerful presence in the Middle East. It’s not as farfetched as it seems. It is a well-known fact that the U.S. did have and still does have plans to assassinate Saddam Hussein. But, doing so and forcefully moving in to town would likely destabilize the Middle East and bring further hatred toward the United States.

What happened 11 years ago is happening again. News bureaus seem to be content acting as the government’s sounding board. Why are they asking the wrong questions? There have been no reports from Iraq; no one is digging around to broadcast live from there. Nothing has been made of the fact that Bush Sr. had Saddam by the throat following the short ground war at the end of the Gulf War, but failed to finish the job for fear of U.S. casualties in a risky urban battleground. Now, Bush Jr. is trying to do exactly that, albeit after softening up Baghdad with bombs first.

There has been very little said about the consequences on the world stage of such an unprecedented action by a modern-day superpower. The story of an anti-war rally in London in late September that drew close to half a million people was buried in back sections of American newspapers. For a president whose stated intentions are to build a strong international coalition to go to war, Bush Jr. is certainly not paying much attention to such a giant demonstration in the only European nation willing to back him.
For a country so concerned with security and peace, the U.S. government and media are not really exploring the possibility that this sort of outward foreign policy action (don’t mention the C-word: colonialism) is just the thing that made extremists like bin Laden and al-Qaeda hate America in the first place.
On a related note, by the time you read this I will be wearing a helmet in a bunker somewhere.