Weapons of Mass Deception
The “very dramatic” final act (CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: Frank Buckley is awaiting the president’s dramatic arrival. How dramatic will it be, Frank? Frank: It will be very dramatic, Wolf; p. 163) in which George W. Bush triumphantly proclaimed the victory over Iraq on May 1st 2003 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was the result careful set preparation which involved positioning the aircraft carrier in an ideal angle to the sunlight. “Surrounded by gleaming military hardware and hundreds of cheering sailors in uniform, and with the words ‘Mission Accomplished’ emblazoned on a huge banner at his back, he delivered a stirring speech in glow of sunset that declared a ‘turning of the tide’ in the war against terrorism.” (p. 163).
Even if many have learned to distrust such seductive television images and to filter out the most obvious propaganda plots, there were widespread expectations that there would be some “real” outcomes that would show that the war was justified. For example, the discovery of real weapons of mass destruction in the period following the “fall of the tyrant” who allegedly posed such a danger for world peace. Or of real evidence of Iraq’s support for international terrorism.
Yet the fact that even after months after “mission accomplished” no evidence has been found either of the main justifications for the war will only surprise those who have not read Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s book “Weapons of Mass Deception”.
In the book, the PRWatch editors show in detail how every step of the crusade against Iraq was accompanied by massive disinformation campaigns – all the way from the anti-Iraq posture of the hawkish Project for a New American Century (PNAC) to the current preparations for a permanent presence of US troops in the oil-rich Gulf region. A centerpiece of the disinformation campaign was the pulling down of a statue of Saddam Hussein by American troops, accompanied by the cheers of a relatively small group of Iraqis – much smaller in fact than suggested on television news. Not all of the campaigns were equally successful, though. There was, for example, PR consultant Charlotte Beer’s failed “shared values” campaign of branding America in the Muslim world. The campaign, which produced front groups such as Council of American Muslims for Understanding and was intended to show that true Muslim values could be easily reconciled with truly American foreign policy objectives, failed to counter the hostile images of the US prevalent in many Muslim countries and was called off two weeks before the first attacks.
Lies - the bodyguards of truth
One large chapter of the book is dedicated to “true lies” – lies that are not identified as such because the surrounding information landscape has been modified in such a way as to blur the difference between truth and lie, or because they are simply elevated to the status of truths by official declarations. However, simply repeating distorted or misleading information can also be very effective – in the disinformation buildup before the war, it managed to convince 79 % of the US population that Iraq was possessing, or about to possess, exactly those nuclear weapons that now no one can find. Perhaps this is a perfect illustration of what Donald Rumsfeld, quoting Winston Churchill, meant when he referred to lies as the “bodyguards of truth” (p. 54)
In order for the “perception managers” and “information warriors” such as John W. Rendon – Bush’s chief propaganda engineer for the Iraq war - to achieve their goals, a particular twist of language is required. Rampton and Stauber call this doublespeak – a fusion of the Orwellian terms doublethink and newspeak. “Axis of evil”, “coalition of the willing”, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” are all part of this category. And why say “controlling people at gunpoint” when “shaping the security environment” sounds much nicer? (p. 102) Doublespeak also ensures that weapons of mass destruction are only such in connection with the enemy, while the same artifacts qualify as “U.S. nuclear deterrent” on one’s own territory.
While there are a great many publications addressing the disinformation campaigns around the Iraq war, the merit of this book lies in its timeliness and clarity, but above all in the wealth of sources it uses and fully documents for readers to verify and pursue. The book shows how Bush’s War on Iraq was so closely intertwined with monstrous disinformation campaigns carried out by the US government with the support of PR agencies and mainstream media that it seems hard to tell whether the war itself was not merely the hardware component of the PR campaign. But in spite of all this, the book manages to avoid apocalyptic undertones, addressing its subject in a surprisingly sober language that contrasts sharply with the book’s flashy cover.
So far, this is the definitive book on the Iraq propaganda campaign of the U.S. government. And no doubt many of its readers will ask themselves whether weapons of mass deception are not to democracy what weapons of mass destructions are to peace.
Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber: Weapons of Mass Deception. The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin: New York 2003