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October 28, 2004

What We Think About When We Think About Iraq

Here's a (non-funny) article of mine about the unsettling survey finding many Bush supporters still believe Iraq had WMD. Sources will be provided in a separate post.

* * *
What We Think About When We Think About Iraq
How So Many Americans Can Be So Wrong About WMD

In a functioning democracy, opinions always differ but facts remain facts—which is why a recent survey by the Project on International Policy Alternatives is so dismaying. PIPA, you've probably heard, found supporters of President Bush hold views on Iraq strikingly at odds with reality; for instance, 47% of Bush supporters believe Iraq had actual WMD, while an additional 25% think Saddam Hussein at least had a major program for developing them.

As we approach the election, this should concern everyone. No nation can be self-governing if so many of its citizens reside in a fantasy world. So how did we get here? Steven Krill, PIPA's director, points to a bond between Bush and his supporters forged by 9/11, which "makes it difficult for his supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments."

This is probably true, as far as it goes. However, America's conservative media also bear a heavy burden of responsibility. Unembarrassed by their pre-war performance, they still relentlessly promulgate a mixture of half-truths and full lies about Iraq's WMD. And the right-wing press is now so omnipresent, anyone susceptible can be swayed by their worldview—one that is superficially convincing, internally consistent, well-argued—and completely false.

Imagine a Bush supporter—let's call him Sam, after the muppet Sam the Eagle—who is honestly interested in the truth. Sam doesn't have the time or inclination to delve into the minutiae of the WMD issue, but tries to keep up.

On October 14, Sam reads a column in the Wall Street Journal by Richard Spertzel. Spertzel, a member of UNSCOM during the nineties, returned to Iraq to work for Charles Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group on the CIA's final WMD report. Thus, it's certain Spertzel knows exactly what the report says. Indeed, that's the whole point of his piece, titled "Have War Critics Even Read the Duelfer Report?" In it, Spertzel argues Iraq was an imminent threat to America, but that the liberal punditocracy refuses to pay attention to what the ISG actually discovered. For instance, Spertzel writes,

many clandestine laboratories operating under the Iraqi Intelligence Services were found to be engaged in small-scale production of chemical nerve agents, sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, ricin, aflatoxin, and other unspecified biological agents.

Huh, Sam thinks. So Iraq did have chemical and biological weapons.

What Sam doesn't know is that Spertzel, despite the schoolmarmish title of his op-ed, is glad nobody reads the report in full. In fact, he's counting on it—because while the ISG did discover clandestine labs run by the Iraqi Intelligence Services, the report states "ISG has no evidence that IIS Directorate of Criminology (M16) scientists were producing CW or BW agents in these laboratories."

The closest thing in the Duelfer report to Spertzel's assertion is scattered testimony by low-ranking Iraqis that the labs may have been planning to produce such agents at some undefined point in the future—but, the ISG says, it was "unable to corroborate" this. And of course Spertzel doesn't mention the one thing the ISG says the labs definitely were used for: testing the food of senior regime officials for poison.

Interest piqued by Spertzel, Sam rereads some columns by William Safire and John Podhoretz. Both Safire and Podhoretz have written that the British government's report by Lord Butler, released in July, vindicated President Bush's claim that Iraq "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Butler, Safire explains, determined the statement was "well-founded"—which thereby proves Iraq was actively seeking nuclear weapons.

Not so fast. What Butler decided, and Safire and Podhoretz slyly elide, is that the uranium statement was reasonable based on intelligence available at the time—that is, before coalition troops occupied Iraq and captured the regime's documents and top officials. (Butler also decided it was reasonable for Blair to say Iraq was seeking mobile bioweapons labs.) The determination about whether Iraq actually had tried to buy uranium overseas was the job of the ISG.

And what did the ISG find? Its final report states flatly: "ISG has not found evidence to show that Iraq sought uranium from abroad after 1991." Indeed, "ISG has found only one offer of uranium to Baghdad since 1991—an approach Iraq appears to have turned down."

Unfortunately, Sam doesn't know this. Neither Safire nor Podhoretz has seen fit to mention it.

Tired of reading, Sam then turns on Sean Hannity's radio show. Hannity is talking about the Duelfer report, and explains Duelfer is "out there saying today that a lot of the weapons went to Syria."

Did Duelfer say this? Nope. The ISG determined Iraq hadn't had any WMD since 1991. What Duelfer did state in his Senate testimony—under prodding from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)—was, "A lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria... But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say."

By this point, fed on a diet of untruths and misdirection, Sam believes Iraq (1) had biological and chemical weapons, (2) sent lots more to Syria, and (3) had an active nuclear program. (He's probably also wondering why "the liberal media" is ignoring all this.) But what about Iraq's intentions for the future? For that, Sam goes online.

On Glenn Reynolds', he finds a link to a story in the Scotsman claiming the ISG "found documents which showed the 'guiding theme' of [Saddam's] regime was to be able to start making [WMD] again with as short a lead time as possible."

Too bad the ISG did not find such documents. Rather, the report states, "The former Regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions." Reynolds knows this, since he and I exchanged email about it. But Sam doesn't know, because Reynolds declined to post any correction.

Lastly, Sam reads a story about Mahdi Obeidi. Obeidi is the Iraqi nuclear scientist who, after the invasion of Iraq, produced uranium centrifuge blueprints and parts he'd buried in his garden. Newsmax explains Obedi was "awaiting orders from Baghdad to proceed. 'I had to maintain the program to the bitter end,' Obeidi said recently. His only other choice was death."

Surely, thinks Sam, this is hard proof of Iraq's duplicity and nefarious plans. (Sam isn't alone in this; mainstream publications like The Economist and Los Angeles Times have recently said much the same.)

But is it? When Obeidi turned himself in, Scott Ritter appeared on CNN, telling Wolf Blitzer, "I think he maintained these components and these blueprints of his own volition"—ie, without Saddam's regime knowing about it.

The ISG concurs. Obeidi, the Duelfer report says, "retained prohibited documents and components in apparent violation of the Regime's directives." Imad Khadduri, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who escaped in 1998 and now lives in Canada, also agrees with Ritter, saying Obeidi's story is implausible and that he was "well known for his dishonesty."

In fact, Khadduri compares Obeidi to Khadir Hamza—a notorious fraud who made wild claims about Iraq's nuclear program before the invasion. (Not coincidentally, Hamza is another favorite of the right-wing press.) Obeidi, Khadduri says sardonically, "is simply paying back the Americans for their refuge. Ditto Hamza, whom I assume is having tea with Mahdi."

Of course, Sam is unaware of the ISG's conclusion about Obeidi. It hasn't been reported by any news outlet, conservative or not.

And all this is, believe it or not, just a small sampling of the right-wing media's attempts to obfuscate and distort the reality of Iraq and WMD. Thus it is that Bush supporters like Sam—in perfectly good conscience—are eagerly preparing to vote for the president. After all, he kept America safe from the terrible threat Sam knows about in such detail.

What does this mean for everyone living back here on Planet Earth? Walter Lippman famously wrote about the difference between "the world outside and the pictures in our heads," and the problems this poses for self-governance. But Lippman never anticipated a time when billions would be spent each year to drive false pictures into as many heads as possible. Can democracy survive under such conditions? We may be about to find out.

Posted at October 28, 2004 10:48 AM | TrackBack

I know I manage to be a downer about such things, but I feel it has to be said. Democracy cannot continue under these conditions. This goes back to things I said earlier about the internet. While it seems to be a democratizing factor, the misinformation which the net distributes under the guise of legitimacy can only lead to a greatly misled public.

Consider anything I say in the next few paragraphs, for instance. No one reading this now knows who I am, or what credentials or research rests behind anything I have to say. Therefore, my entire apparent credibility rests only with my ability to express myself clearly and well. It doesn't really matter what I say, as long as I say it with confidence and alacrity.

These is a snake-oil salesman grading system. And in the manner of selling snake oil to the unsuspecting (and uneducated) masses, it is best that they know very little about medicine or disease. Its even better if there is a foregoing distrust of doctors, based upon the knowledge of mistakes that doctors have made in treating local residents in the past.

In such a climate, I am guaranteed to make money.

Now, in the matter of something as complex as "democracy" (and its related subjects of government, economics, philosophical ideology, law and so on), I can be sure that as a snake-oil salesman the climate is perfect for my particular brand of medicine. So I put on a show. I tell the audience what I want them to know and I omit what reduces my profit margin. I want lots of profit, so I put on a GOOD show. And then I leave town, letting the poison I've sold soak into the community without having to pay any of the consequences.

The internet is such a perfect tool for this. Anyone who knows I am selling poison identify me (beyond my name), cannot take me to task (beyond invectives which I can easily ignore) and cannot stop me from fleecing a whole new group of victims.

Democracy has always been the best climate for snake-oil salesmen. The more people willing to involve themselves in having an issue addressed, the better the opportunity for graft in the name of some group vocal enough to be recognized. The rise of said groups in the last thirty years, representing every possible issue, shows the profitability of snake-oil sales.

Media is advertising. This is a difficult idea to get across to people, as media has carefully disguised itself with the ideals of journalistic integrity. It has managed to sell this concept over the last two centuries to a buying public, using it to sell advertising--the prime focus of any newspaper, television studio, production company or internet website. Media is the epitome of the "good show" needed to sell snake-oil.

I am the media. Right now, sitting here writing this, albeit to a small (but hopefully receptive) audience. I am selling my own particular brand of snake oil, in the form of cynicism. The label on the bottle calls it exactly that. And cynicism has the bad rap that it has because it is in the interest of a great number of salesmen in the world that you do not doubt the veracity of anything they say to you.

Democracy is founded on making an informed decision. But when there is no information upon which an informed decision can be made, then all that remains are the decisions which the sickly can make. And the sickly are easily led by anyone who promises to make them feel any price.

Posted by: Alexis at October 28, 2004 01:55 PM

"Democracy cannot continue under these conditions."
That is one reason the founders created a Republic. A nodding acquaintance with hisotry will show that most US elections have had as much partisan propaganda as this one.
"While it seems to be a democratizing factor, the misinformation which the net distributes under the guise of legitimacy can only lead to a greatly misled public."
The same can be said for the Legacy Media. The one advantage the Net has is that many writers give sources and links you can verify yourself (or not as the mood takes you.)
While I agree with the claims of the post, I note that no citations were given, although they have at least been promised.
The one thing we are getting these days is a return to the time when all media were know to be special pleaders, so that all citizens need to use discrimination in evaluating their claims and counter claims.
"And the sickly are easily led by anyone who promises to make them feel any price." A perfect example of this is Edward's implication that Christopher Reeve would not have had to die if stem cell research were farther advanced. People - all these guys on both sides make goofy claims sometimes. Alexis' handwringing is over the top.

Posted by: Oscar at October 28, 2004 09:24 PM

Howard Zinn makes the point (far better than I ever could) that our particular brand of Democracy is subject to what might be thought of as rather violent mood swings. You see it every time we have a war: Civil Liberties are curtailed, propaganda runs rampant, people are jailed for things that would be unconstitutional in peacetime. And when the people get wise to it (oh, so slowly) the pendulum turns in the other direction, often too far. Consider the disillusionment, detachment, and disgust for all things military that followed Vietnam. Indeed, you can make the argument that Vietnam defined the use or non-use of the military until Gulf War I, when we began to think again that we were invincible.

Bush's dangerous (for him) position in the polls indicates to me that the pendulum may be swinging back; if he somehow secures the election, there will be a motivated, united opposition that will fight him tooth and nail for four years. If he loses, I look for the Republican party to devolve into increasingly shrill chaos as the more moderate elements try to reassert themselves over the right-wing freaks who destroyed their party.

I suspect that the internet is not the threat that Alexis worries about. After all, for anyone who claims that black is white there will always be someone who will say the opposite. The real power may end up lying with the arbiters of fact. Indeed, this is potentially a golden opportunity for traditional print media, and some of them are already starting to take advantage of it. Consider a trivial example, the recent revelation on dailykos about the edited Bush ad where soldiers in the audience were cloned to increase their apparent number. This was picked up and verified by mainstream media in a short period of time.

Sure, the mainstream media has already made mistakes, jumping to conclusions about things they find on Drudge or other blogs. But there does seem to be an increasingly formal process for trolling the blogs for information and then vetting it. If they get their act together, this could be very good for democracy. There will always be an audience who is tired of spin and confused about where to turn; the print media in theory has the credibility to jump into the role of fact-checker. The cable news networks have unfortunately shown themselves completely unable to do this, but maybe somebody will realize there is a market for it. They are too obsessed now with "he said she said" coverage which does nobody any good.

Posted by: Ted at October 29, 2004 12:56 PM

Ted - good points all.
One thing you say deserves comment, however,
"if he somehow secures the election, there will be a motivated, united opposition that will fight him tooth and nail for four years."
Just like the last four years, right?

Posted by: Oscar at October 29, 2004 08:05 PM

I don't think the real issue in the story of Sam the Eagle has to do with the quality and pervasiveness of the right-wing media's snake-oil salesmanship, though I do share everyone's concern for the future of democracy. Rather, the question is why so many people choose to both believe it and subscribe to the general worldview which sustains it. This is a question which left media analysts such as Noam Chomsky, Robert Jensen, and the producers of 'Outfoxed' (all of whom my sympathies are with more often than not, I should add) never seem to ask, let alone answer.

It just seems too simple, not to mention elitist, to posit a mass of generally simple-minded and gullible Joe Schmucks (don't forget the Josephine Schmucks and, come to think of it, the Samantha the Eagles ;-) ), who really can't be expected to think for themselves, and who therefore just fall victim to the barrages of right-wingery incessantly promulgated in the corporate media.

Is such an argument still valid in the 'Information Age'? The Foxes and the Clear Channels etc. may be big, but there's a plethora of other sources out there with often radically diverging viewpoints. Why doesn't Sam/Samantha go to those sources? Why give Murdoch & Co. so much credit? Why explain the PIPA report (to bring this post back to the thread's starting point) in terms of an increasingly untenable 'propaganda model'?

It's not a lack of education either - a whole slew of college-educated neocons will vouch for that. No, I think the problem being discussed here lies much deeper - somwehere in the deep-seated psychological views a critical mass of people have about America, the world, and America's role in it. Holders of such a view are often immune to being told 'the facts'. It's more a case of them NOT WANTING TO KNOW, a state of affairs which, to say the least, is both disturbing and disheartening.

Posted by: Les at October 30, 2004 02:12 AM

"Just like the last four years, right?"

Oscar, last year and a half maybe. I hang my head in shame at the cowed Democratic party that threw in the towel in 2002 midterm elections. We've come a long, long way since then.

Posted by: Ted at October 30, 2004 11:16 PM