Australia invaded Iraq purely and simply to cement the alliance with the US. The purported justifications for war — preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, enforcing international law, fighting terrorism — were “mandatory rhetoric”, nothing more.
So says Dr Albert Palazzo from defence’s directorate of army research and analysis, in a secret report (released under FOI) based on multiple interviews conducted within military, and extensive access to classified material.
When Fairfax published a major feature last week about Palazzo’s research, the story made barely a ripple on the Australian political pond, probably because most people already recognise the unparalleled cynicism and dishonesty by which ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ was foisted on an unwilling nation.
Nonetheless, Palazzo’s document still matters, as much for what it reveals about the politics of today as for its insights into the chicanery of 2003.
How can Trump tell such barefaced lies? Why not ask a different question: how did Bush, Blair and Howard get away with the duplicity with which they manoeuvred us into the Iraq charnel house?
The invasion resulted in more than a million deaths; it spread refugees all over the region; it sucked over a trillion dollars (and counting) from America’s coffers. Today, Iraq remains in flames, with the rise of Daesh merely the latest (and by no means the last) reverberation of a war of choice deliberately embarked upon by our leaders.
In April 3, 2002, Tony Blair explained: “We know that he [Saddam] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons, we know that he is trying to acquire nuclear capability, we know that he is trying to develop ballistic missile capability of a greater range.”
In October 2002, George W. Bush declared : “[Iraq] possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.”
In March 13 2003, John Howard said: “We believe that it is very much in the national interest of Australia that Iraq have taken from her chemical and biological weapons and denied the possibility of ever having nuclear weapons.”
If world leaders can deceive voters about the greatest foreign policy debacle in a generation, why should a president today worry about casually lying about the crowds at his inauguration?
Not surprisingly, you can detect the faint stench of Iraq lingering behind today’s preoccupation with “fake news”.
Contrary to what’s often assumed, readers do not mistake stories from conspiracy-mongering clickbait for mainstream news. They don’t click on right-wing conspiracy site Infowars by accident: a certain audience gravitates to such sites precisely because they’re not mainstream.
Little trust in establishment
To put it another way, with trust in the establishment at an all-time low, the institutional heft of traditional media companies becomes a liability rather than an asset, enabling Trump to successfully turn the “fake news” label onto his opponents.
Much of that goes back to Iraq. “The period of time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq represents one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media,” says Gary Kamiya. “Every branch of the media failed, from daily newspapers, magazines and websites to television networks, cable channels and radio.
“Bush administration lies and distortions went unchallenged, or were actively promoted. Fundamental and problematic assumptions about terrorism and the ‘war on terror’ were rarely debated or even discussed. Vital historical context was almost never provided. And it wasn’t just a failure of analysis. With some honourable exceptions, good old-fashioned reporting was also absent.”
Let’s look at the most famous example of how the media was used to make the Iraq war happen.
On September 8, 2002, the New York Times published a major story by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller asserting that Iraq had “stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and... embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb”. The piece cited no named sources whatsoever. Rather, it attributed all its significant claims simply to anonymous US officials — and, by so doing, it helped launder the Bush administration’s talking points, lending a liberal imprimatur to unverified (and totally untrue) claims.
When the key members of the Bush administration launched a publicity blitz to make the war happen, they were able to quote the New York Times as evidence: in effect, reacting to newspaper revelations for which they themselves were responsible.
For instance, during a CNN appearance, Condoleezza Rice urged the public to support an invasion on the basis that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”. She’d lifted the phrase directly from Gordon and Miller — who’d taken it from the administration.
Elsewhere, Gordon and Miller referred to Iraq’s supposed interest in acquiring high-strength aluminium tubes as an illustration of its nuclear ambitions. Again, the claims came from Bush officials. But when, at the UN General Assembly, Bush told the story, he sounded as if he were repeating a New York Times scoop.
A similar circularity defined the propaganda campaign conducted in other countries.
“No serious figure in the debate anywhere believes Iraq does not have [weapons of mass destruction],” proclaimed the Australian’s Greg Sheridan in March 2003. He was certainly right about that. In 2002 and 2003, journalistic “seriousness” over Iraq was defined by participation in the feedback loop between the pro-war reporters and the pro-war politicians, who leaned upon each other like drunks at closing time, repeating and amplifying the (largely untrue) claims of the Bush and Blair administrations.
Rapport with right-wing media
We can see in that an obvious antecedent for Donald Trump’s bizarre relationship with the media today.
Even as Trump and his surrogates take aim at mainstream outlets, they’ve established a rapport with the new, right-wing media that mimics the curious symbiosis between Bush and the New York Times’ Judith Miller, with Trump relying on his alt-right journalistic enablers to reinforce and amplify his “alternative facts”.
“You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” declared Trump in a speech in Florida. “Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden!”
When puzzled Swedes explained that nothing out of the ordinary had happened, Trump cited the screening of a Fox News documentary about refugees. Meanwhile, far right websites everywhere doubled-down on Trump’s claim. Suddenly, Sweden — a country to which most conservatives had previously paid almost zero attention — was held up throughout the Trumposphere as a cautionary tale about immigration.
Within the closed ecosystem of the far right media, you could thus hear a weird echo of Greg Sheridan on Iraq: “no serious figure in the debate anywhere doesn’t believe Sweden to be a crime-ridden hell hole.”
As the catastrophic incompetence of Bush and his cronies became more and more obvious, most of the “progressive” journalists and pundits who’d backed the Iraq invasion walked (or perhaps tiptoed) back their support.
So where Bush cultivated certain elite liberals (the late Christopher Hitchens comes to mind) to sell his programme, Trump, by necessity as much as by choice, identifies as an opponent the mainstream media in its entirety — “the enemy of the people”, as he recently put it.
Yet that rhetoric still draws on the hysterical, threat-laden discourse that accompanied the march to war in Iraq.
“I accuse the media in the United States of treason.”
That’s not Steve Bannon or another Trumpite writing today. It comes from a Washington Post op-ed published in 2002 by Dennis Pluchinsky, a senior intelligence analyst working for the US Department of State.
Back then, that sort of stuff was remarkably common. Recall the fate of the Dixie Chicks, boycotted and subjected to a barrage of abuse for daring to criticise Bush. Recall NBC dumping Phil Donahue for “presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and sceptical of the administration’s motives”. Recall the FBI’s systemic surveillance of anti-war activists and organisations. Recall White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responding to critics by explaining Americans “need to watch what they say, what they do. This is not a time for remarks like this; there never is” and attorney-general John Ashcroft telling civil libertarians: “Your tactics only aid terrorists — for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”
If we’ve forgotten that period, it’s probably because many of those who once urged Bush to crack down on dissenters now worry that, under President Trump, they might be targets themselves.
For instance, the American essayist Andrew Sullivan recently declared Trump “literally delusional, clinically deceptive” and warned that the President “responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance.”
But in 2002, Sullivan was one of the many Bush supporters engaged in precisely that kind of intimidation against those who opposed the march to war.
“The middle part of the country — the great red zone that voted for Bush — is clearly ready for war,” he wrote. “The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead — and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.”
The extremity of the Trump presidency tends to recast past administrations in the pastel glow of nostalgia, providing an opportunity that the politicians of yesteryear have been quick to grasp. Blair’s been nosing around the British Labour Party once more, Bush spoke up to defend the media against Trump and Howard, when he’s not championing western civilisation, says Trump emerged as a response to political correctness.
In that context, it’s important to emphasise that many of the worst things Trump promises (torture, racial profiling, detention without trial, etc) were implemented during the Bush years. Trump’s aggressive bluster might threaten a catastrophic war — but Bush, Blair and Howard actually delivered one.
To put it another way, these men created the conditions in which Trumpism emerged. Have a look at the Palazzo report, and the extraordinary cynicism with which our leaders embarked on armed conflict. Such people are part of the problem: they’re not any kind of solution.
— Guardian News and Media Limited
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster, and an Honorary Fellow at Victoria University.