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Tomorrow never dies
The End of Saddam Hussein: History Through the Eyes of the Victims by Prem Shankar Jha

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

Reams have been written about the ethics of journalism in relation to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the larger question of how the media influence foreign policy itself remains. Analyst Prem Shankar Jha's new book goes to the heart of this matter. In the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, a maniacal media baron orchestrates wars with the objective of world domination by his newspaper, Tomorrow. Jha's meticulous account is less cinematic, but equally gripping.

The media played a sinister role in the Anglo-Saxon mutilation of Iraq. Thus, the world media have to accept partial responsibility for the rioting, looting, sectarian terrorism, violence against women, utility blackouts and rampant unemployment that have engulfed Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. "The destruction of Iraq was not accidental, but cold-bloodedly intentional" (Introduction, p X), arising from the combination of Washington's paranoia, awesome military power and misuse of the media for propaganda or "spin". A constant tussle between the state and the media in the era of information technology laid constraints on foreign policy, culminating in Iraq's "civilization being torn to pieces" (Robert Fisk).
When he was in his early 20s, Saddam was integral to an American plot to overthrow Iraq's then-dictator, General Abdel Karim Kassem. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) installed him in an apartment on al-Rashid Street in Baghdad to observe the ruler's movements. But after a botched assassination attempt in 1959, the Americans whisked Saddam away to Cairo, Egypt. The 1963 coup against Kassem was a redux of the anti-Mosaddeq coup in Iran, planned to perfection by the CIA. American agents then provided Saddam with lists of "communists" who were subjected to mass summary executions. The CIA station chief of the time regarded it as "a great victory".

In the Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980, the US delivered battlefield intelligence, food, loans, dual-use technologies and cluster bombs to Saddam's Iraq. Prior to this, the US had mildly encouraged Iraq to invade Iran, meanwhile, hushing up its resumption of diplomatic ties with Baghdad due to fear of media suspicions. The rupture of Iraq's relations with Washington started before the 1990 occupation of Kuwait, thanks to persistent media coverage of Iraq's deteriorating human rights situation and the barrage of criticism regarding president George H W Bush administration's closeness to Saddam. It was from the Israeli-influenced US media that Saddam learned of the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was the media that mainly discredited the US-Iraqi friendship. "Revelations in the US media created a sense of betrayal, isolation and desperation in Iraq" (p 20), and triggered the fatal invasion of Kuwait.

Once Kuwait was occupied, the Bush administration embarked on a demonization campaign against Saddam, who was suddenly re-labelled "the butcher of Baghdad". With the US government now backing the vilification, tales of Iraq's purges and mass graves flooded the media. Meanwhile, severe violations of humanitarian law by coalition forces went unreported during the first Gulf War.

The cat-and-mouse weapons inspection game that ensued during Bill Clinton's presidency was also affected at various junctures by the clever use of psychological warfare planted in the media. By 1998, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) had eliminated 90 percent to 95 percent of all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but the US and United Kingdom's cruel and self-defeating policy of retaining sanctions continued. In the media-driven politics of the 1990s, sowing doubts, and convincing the world that Saddam was irrational and could not be trusted, counted for more than the truth. In February 1998, Clinton's press relations machine launched a public relations blitz advocating war on Iraq, a move that was narrowly averted by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's intervention.

Smear operations and leaks to the press hustled the UN Security Council and US public opinion into retaining economic sanctions, crippling Iraq's infrastructure. Cooked-up stories about Iraq's weaponization of VX gas, and UNSCOM chief Richard Butler's questionable use of press conferences, national radio and television in order to serve American viewpoints, pointed to the power of misinformation serving vested interests. Operation Desert Fox, four days of intense pounding of alleged Iraqi WMD installations, was "not simply at attack on Iraq but the United Nations itself" (p 55). It was aided by a pliant media, setting a precedent for President George W Bush's own unilateralist wars two years later.

By December 2001, thanks to the pretext of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bush was more or less convinced of the need to invade Iraq immediately. His new National Security Strategy that confused "preemption" with "prevention", and "capability" with "possibility" needed a laboratory. "Iraq was chosen to be the first guinea pig" (p 87). Justice and fairness again became the victims of a media jamboree. War plans were leaked to newspapers on the eve of any compromise solution that Kofi Annan or chief weapons inspector Hans Blix had cobbled together.

Five weeks after the United Nation's Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the successor to UNSCOM, admitted to finding "zilch" in Iraq, Britain and the US manufactured consent by reiterating crude falsehoods in the media and declaring that Iraq was in "further material breach" of UN resolutions. Deliberate abuse of intelligence was known, but rarely dissected dispassionately in even the so-called "liberal" media outlets.

The invasion of Iraq in May 2003 was "a straightforward exercise in brute power with no international sanction whatsoever" (p 113) . More than 500 eminent international jurists declared that this unprovoked attack on a tired and weakened nation would go against every principle of international law. However, the virtual war for "hearts and minds" through the media ensured that five months after the war was declared over, 69 percent of Americans still thought Iraq had a hand in the September 11 attacks.

Due to the crisis facing American hegemony, Jha reasons that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were prepared to go so far in the media to convince the public of a case for war. Hegemony is not purely dominance but requires an extra moral dimension to confer legitimacy on the exercise of power. Exaggerations, distortions and suppression of the truth were essential for the US to maintain moral leadership over a world that was increasingly skeptical of American empire building.

The hegemonic discourse in the media continued after Iraq was occupied, using the "liberation" jargon. Determined Iraqi resistance fighters and nationalists were depicted as "irregulars", "Ba'ath Party fanatics", "Saddam loyalists" and "terrorists". Never were they described as people outraged by the violation and occupation of their country. In order to enshrine the myth of liberation, US forces stood by and allowed for the ransacking of national treasures as an expression of "freedom". International media were instructed to act as legitimizers of this "liberation" by denying victims of coercive action - the Iraqi people - a voice. Hardly anyone presented the Iraqi side of the story to readers (Pepe Escobar of Asia Times Online was one of the very few. See The Roving Eye, the best of Pepe Escobar ).

Jha gives two examples of gross misrepresentation of Iraqi sentiments. Private Jessica Lynch's "rescue" was a hoax that the press swallowed. Iraqi soldiers had left the Nasiriyah hospital where Lynch recuperated two days before the so-called daring commando raid. No threat existed on the premises and canards that Iraqis abused and tortured Lynch were absurd. The Pentagon, advised by Reality TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, went further in the episode by surrounding the demolition of Saddam's statue in Baghdad's Firdous Square. BBC and CNN used close-up shots to convey the impression of a huge crowd cheering the statue's fall. In fact, only 150 to 200 supporters of Ahmed Chalabi, the dissident exile, were present on the occasion, and several of them were hired just for the occasion. An American motorized vehicle, not jubilant Iraqis, pulled down the statue.

Television networks and wire services carried accusations as facts, without disclaimers. US military confessions that 70 percent of the bombs dropped on Iraq missed their targets were seldom reported. The media treated the war like a "video game's demon to fight, hi-tech weapons to fight him with, it was all over quickly and 'we won' (p 135)". Technology's ability to reduce modern warfare to a bloodless video game was a falsity that served militarism as a doctrine. When tough questions needed to be asked about civilian casualties, all the hacks did was swap impartiality for patriotism. Instead of critiquing the Chalabi-directed mismanagement of post-occupation Iraq, all readers were told was that terrorists hate Iraq's rebuilding.

Embedded journalists on the front lines gave the Anglo-American military new opportunities in news editing. Pentagon guidelines separated the media into the "good guys" (embedded) and the "bad guys" (independents and Arab TV channels), creating a blatant new caste system among journalists. Seventeen journalists were killed in the three-week war by the US military, a majority of whom were independents. According to Reporters Sans Frontieres, "the US army deliberately and without warning, targeted journalists" (p 159).

After the fall of Baghdad, when an army of more than 1,000 American scientists came up with absolutely nothing in terms of Iraq's proscribed WMD, it was a stinging reminder of the UN's representative to Iraq Mahmoud al-Doury's protest that "an empty hand has nothing to give. You cannot give what you don't have." However, the mainstream English media fell for the incredulous alibi put forth by Blair and Bush that Saddam was "bluffing" and "pretending" he possessed WMD to deter an invasion and that this was further proof that the dictator was an unreliable fox.

The rising chorus of worldwide disbelief and disagreement could not have been prevented despite this sickening marriage of state and press. Jha concludes that "in the case of Iraq, the truth was buried from the very beginning in layer upon layer of 'spin' (p 196)". A monstrous injustice has been done to the people and the state of Iraq, thanks to the complex interplay of foreign policy and the media, known also as the Fourth Estate. James Bond's Tomorrow both influenced policymakers and got suborned by them in the horror story called Iraq.

The End of Saddam Hussein: History Through the Eyes of the Victims by Prem Shankar Jha. Rupa & Co: New Delhi, 2004. ISBN: 81-291-0362-1. Price US$ 9.50, 222 pages.

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May 6, 2004

Confronting the demons of urban warfare (May 5, '04)
Who let the dogs out? (May 4, '04)

Iraq's future: Dreams and nightmares (Apr 30, '04)


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