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[casi] The Observer : Lessons in how to lie about Iraq

Lessons in how to lie about Iraq

The problem is not propaganda but the relentless control of
the kind of things we think about

Brian Eno
Sunday August 17, 2003
The Observer

When I first visited Russia, in 1986, I made friends with a
musician whose father had been Brezhnev's personal doctor.
One day we were talking about life during 'the period of
stagnation' - the Brezhnev era. 'It must have been strange
being so completely immersed in propaganda,' I said.
'Ah, but there is the difference. We knew it was
propaganda,' replied Sacha.

That is the difference. Russian propaganda was so obvious
that most Russians were able to ignore it. They took it for
granted that the government operated in its own interests
and any message coming from it was probably slanted - and
they discounted it.

In the West the calculated manipulation of public opinion to
serve political and ideological interests is much more
covert and therefore much more effective. Its greatest
triumph is that we generally don't notice it - or laugh at
the notion it even exists. We watch the democratic process
taking place - heated debates in which we feel we could have
a voice - and think that, because we have 'free' media, it
would be hard for the Government to get away with anything
very devious without someone calling them on it.

It takes something as dramatic as the invasion of Iraq to
make us look a bit more closely and ask: 'How did we get
here?' How exactly did it come about that, in a world of
Aids, global warming, 30-plus active wars, several famines,
cloning, genetic engineering, and two billion people in
poverty, practically the only thing we all talked about for
a year was Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Was it really that big a
problem? Or were we somehow manipulated into believing the
Iraq issue was important and had to be fixed right now -
even though a few months before few had mentioned it, and
nothing had changed in the interim.

In the wake of the events of 11 September 2001, it now seems
clear that the shock of the attacks was exploited in
America. According to Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in
their new book Weapons of Mass Deception , it was used to
engineer a state of emergency that would justify an invasion
of Iraq. Rampton and Stauber expose how news was fabricated
and made to seem real. But they also demonstrate how a
coalition of the willing - far-Right officials, neo-con
think-tanks, insanely pugilistic media commentators and of
course well-paid PR companies - worked together to pull off
a sensational piece of intellectual dishonesty. Theirs is a
study of modern propaganda.

What occurs to me in reading their book is that the new
American approach to social control is so much more
sophisticated and pervasive that it really deserves a new
name. It isn't just propaganda any more, it's 'prop-agenda
'. It's not so much the control of what we think, but the
control of what we think about. When our governments want to
sell us a course of action, they do it by making sure it's
the only thing on the agenda, the only thing everyone's
talking about. And they pre-load the ensuing discussion with
highly selected images, devious and prejudicial language,
dubious linkages, weak or false 'intelligence' and selected
'leaks'. (What else can the spat between the BBC and
Alastair Campbell be but a prime example of this?)

With the ground thus prepared, governments are happy if you
then 'use the democratic process' to agree or disagree -
for, after all, their intention is to mobilise enough
headlines and conversation to make the whole thing seem real
and urgent. The more emotional the debate, the better.
Emotion creates reality, reality demands action.

An example of this process is one highlighted by Rampton and
Stauber which, more than any other, consolidated public and
congressional approval for the 1991 Gulf war. We recall the
horrifying stories, incessantly repeated, of babies in
Kuwaiti hospitals ripped out of their incubators and left to
die while the Iraqis shipped the incubators back to
Baghdad - 312 babies, we were told.

The story was brought to public attention by Nayirah, a
15-year-old 'nurse' who, it turned out later, was the
daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and a member of
the Kuwaiti royal family. Nayirah had been tutored and
rehearsed by the Hill & Knowlton PR agency (which in turn
received $14 million from the American government for their
work in promoting the war). Her story was entirely
discredited within weeks but by then its purpose had been
served: it had created an outraged and emotional mindset
within America which overwhelmed rational discussion.

As we are seeing now, the most recent Gulf war entailed many
similar deceits: false linkages made between Saddam,
al-Qaeda and 9/11, stories of ready-to-launch weapons that
didn't exist, of nuclear programmes never embarked upon. As
Rampton and Stauber show, many of these allegations were
discredited as they were being made, not least by this
newspaper, but nevertheless were retold.

Throughout all this, the hired-gun PR companies were busy,
preconditioning the emotional landscape. Their marketing
talents were particularly useful in the large-scale
manipulation of language that the campaign entailed. The
Bushites realised, as all ideologues do, that words create
realities, and that the right words can over whelm any
chance of balanced discussion. Guided by the overtly
imperial vision of the Project for a New American Century
(whose members now form the core of the American
administration), the PR companies helped finesse the
language to create an atmosphere of simmering panic where
American imperialism would come to seem not only acceptable
but right, obvious, inevitable and even somehow kind.

Aside from the incessant 'weapons of mass destruction',
there were 'regime change' (military invasion), 'pre-emptive
defence' (attacking a country that is not attacking you),
'critical regions' (countries we want to control), the 'axis
of evil' (countries we want to attack), 'shock and awe'
(massive obliteration) and 'the war on terror' (a hold-all
excuse for projecting American military force anywhere).

Meanwhile, US federal employees and military personnel were
told to refer to the invasion as 'a war of liberation' and
to the Iraqi paramilitaries as 'death squads', while the
reliably sycophantic American TV networks spoke of
'Operation Iraqi Freedom' - just as the Pentagon asked them
to - thus consolidating the supposition that Iraqi freedom
was the point of the war. Anybody questioning the invasion
was 'soft on terror' (liberal) or, in the case of the UN,
'in danger of losing its relevance'.

When I was young, an eccentric uncle decided to teach me how
to lie. Not, he explained, because he wanted me to lie, but
because he thought I should know how it's done so I would
recognise when I was being lied to. I hope writers such as
Rampton and Stauber and others may have the same effect and
help to emasculate the culture of spin and dissembling that
is overtaking our political establishments.

íP c Brian Eno 2003
A longer version of this article will appear in the new
literary magazine, Zembla. Weapons of Mass Deception by
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber is published by Robinson at

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