How To Legitimise War – Iraq and the British Media

In our society, choices decrease to the extent that they matter. When it comes to chocolate bars, the options are impressive – supermarket shelves are filled with them. When it comes to political parties, foreign policy and the media, choices merge, narrow and disappear to nothing.

Defenders of the mainstream media tell us there is a wide spectrum of views – we have, for example, a choice between the ‘right-wing’ Times and the ‘left-wing’ Observer, they say. George Orwell took a different view:

“I really don’t know which is more stinking, the Sunday Times or The Observer. I go from one to the other like an invalid turning from side to side in bed and getting no comfort which ever way he turns.” (George Orwell, quoted, Bernard Crick, George Orwell, A Life, p.233, Penguin Books, 1992).

As regular readers of our Media Alerts will know, the bedsores are as irksome now as ever they were in Orwell’s day.

In his outstanding work, The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945 – historian Mark Curtis tells us a little about our choices when it comes to deciding who to kill and exploit in foreign countries:

“Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy human rights and economic development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power. This has had grave consequences for those on the receiving end of Western policies abroad.” (Curtis, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)

Selecting freely from options pre-selected to serve the same interests +is+ a choice but it is a meaningless one.

Today, Tony Blair and Tory leader Ian Duncan-Smith are as one in lining up with George Bush in pushing for “action” against Iraq. Blair insists that “Iraq poses a real and unique threat to the security of the region and the rest of the world.” (Patrick Wintour, ‘Blair: Saddam has to go’, The Guardian, September 4, 2002)

This is the same Iraq that had its infrastructure systematically demolished by 88,500 tons of bombs – the equivalent of seven Hiroshima-size atomic bombs – during the Gulf War. The infrastructure has continued to collapse and decay, along with its suffering people, under a decade of murderous sanctions. We are expected to believe that the West’s thousands of nuclear warheads were sufficient to deter the Soviet superpower for forty years, but not a smashed Third World nation.

Duncan-Smith informs us that Iraq has ballistic missiles with the capacity to strike Europe, the UK included. This is part of what he describes as the “clear and growing danger” represented by Saddam Hussein.

A permanent feature of media reporting is that the words of Western leaders are reported at face value, while the hidden agendas behind the words of our ‘enemies’ are remorselessly sought out and exposed. On BBC’s News At Ten O’Clock, John Simpson (of Kabul) described a visit to Johannesburg by Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. Simpson said:

“What they [the Iraqis] want to do is to give the impression that they are being reasonable and sensible… in order to show that they are innocent. Because they know that works, that really does schmooz people here. Tariq Aziz has been schmoozing people ever since he arrived, and doing it very satisfactorily from his point of view.” (Simpson, September 3, 2002)

This was delivered by the urbane Simpson in his usual self-assured, well-educated voice – we would not readily associate him or his words with burned and mutilated bodies. But consider this: would Simpson or any other BBC or ITN reporter +ever+ describe Colin Powell or Jack Straw, or Bush or Blair, as trying hard “to give the impression that they are being reasonable and sensible… Because they know that works, that really does schmooz people here”?

The answer is a flat ‘no’ – Western leaders must always be treated with due deference and respect. It is because of this deep bias (unnoticed because omnipresent) presenting the reasonable good guys, ‘us’, pitted against the ludicrous bad guys, ‘them’, that Western nations are able to kill and maim thousands of Third World people with massive military violence, comparatively unhindered by public dissent. Our point is not that the Iraqi’s are reasonable; it is that our leaders should not be reflexively portrayed as reasonable.

Also on BBC News, Matt Frei described Tariq Aziz as Saddam’s “chief lieutenant”, who was tirelessly “trying to woo the world”, and that he had just that day “popped up on Good Morning America”. (Frei, BBC1 News At Ten O ‘Clock, September 3, 2002) Again, the Iraqi’s are painted as absurd comedy figures crudely trying to trick the world into taking them seriously – ‘But we won’t fall for that!’ is the message being subliminally delivered to the public. When the bombs start to fall, the public will likely be convinced that the Iraqis had it coming to them.

Again, Frei does not appear to have much to do with violence and death – like most TV reporters, he is a well-dressed, well-spoken, educated, middle class white man (the epitome of ‘respectability’ in our society). But, again, we should make the association, because words of this kind are crucial in making violence possible.

Consider, by contrast, a recent report by ITN’s Washington Correspondent, Robert Moore. Concluding his report, Moore referred to Bush’s urgent need to make a decision on whether to attack Iraq, adding ominously:

“As Dick Cheney, his vice president warned, Iraq may soon be armed with a nuclear weapon.” (August 27, 2002)

No sense here that Cheney and Bush are “trying to give the impression that they are being reasonable and sensible… Because they know that works, that really does schmooz people here”.

It is impossible to imagine that Moore might refer to the response of Scott Ritter, senior UN weapons inspector in Iraq for seven years, to the comments Cheney made that day:

“That’s a deeply disturbing comment that the vice president made because it reflects either the fact that he’s totally ignorant of the reality of what was transpiring, or if he is truly cognizant of what happened, he lied to the American public. And I’d hate to think the vice president is lying.” (National Public Radio (NPR) Show: Talk of the Nation, NPR August 28, 2002 Wednesday. Headline: ‘Threat that Iraq poses to the United States’)

There was no prospect of Moore seeking a hidden agenda behind Cheney’s allegations. We cannot conceive of ITN or the BBC mentioning that Vice President Cheney has intimate ties with Lockheed Martin, the largest US defence contractor, and that his wife Lynne Cheney served on the Lockheed Martin board from 1994 through January 2001, accumulating more than $500,000 in deferred director’s fees in the process. Hidden agendas are fine for official ‘enemies’, but the good guys can be taken at their word, no matter how absurd and compromised their word might be, no matter how awful their actions.

We have to go to war with Iraq, we are told, because Saddam Hussein is a monster – no right thinking person could stand by while he lives to threaten the world. Hiding in the shadow of the media’s ‘big question’ – should we or shouldn’t we attack Iraq? – lies a second, forbidden question consigned to the margins of debate. The question is this: What actually is the moral track record of the Western powers claiming that they intend to use mass violence to make the world a better place? Let’s consider some of the evidence.

We have to attack Iraq, we are told, because Saddam Hussein is a man who gassed his own people at Halabja. William Shawcross writes in The Guardian:

“The last time Iraq was open to the outside world in the 1980s opposition to Saddam was brutally repressed – who can forget Halabja?” (‘Let’s take him out – The threat to the world posed by Saddam Hussein’s rule of terror is too great to ignore any longer. There is only one solution, argues William Shawcross – military action’, August 1, 2002)

Who can forget Halabja? The true question is: Who can remember the West’s role in Halabja? Dilip Hiro fills in some of the missing details about what actually happened, and about the ‘us’ of Shawcross’ title, “Let’s take him out”:

“To retake Halabja from Iran and its Kurdish allies, who had captured it in March, Iraq’s air force attacked it with poison gas bombs. The objective was to take out the occupying Iranian troops (who had by then left the town); instead, the assault killed 3,200 to 5,000 civilians. The images of men, woman and children, frozen in instant death, relayed by the Iranian media, shocked the world. Yet no condemnation came from Washington… [I}nstead of pressuring him [Saddam] to reverse his stand, or face a ban on the sale of American military equipment and advanced technology to Iraq by the revival of the Senate’s bill, US Secretary of State George Shultz chose to say only that interviews with the Kurdish refugees in Turkey and ‘other sources’ (which remained obscure) pointed towards Iraqi use of chemical agents. These two elements did not constitute ‘conclusive’ evidence. This was the verdict of Shultz’s British counterpart, Sir Geoffrey Howe: ‘If conclusive evidence is obtained, then punitive measures against Iraq have not been ruled out.’ As neither he nor Shultz is known to have made a further move to get at the truth, Iraq went unpunished.” (‘When US turned a blind eye to poison gas’, The Observer, 1 September, 2002),6903,784125,00.html

On August 18, the New York Times carried a front-page story headlined, ‘Officers say U.S. aided Iraq despite the use of gas’. Quoting anonymous US “senior military officers”, the NYT “revealed” that in the 1980s, the administration of US President Ronald Reagan covertly provided “critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war”.

It may have occurred to readers that the use of poison gas is not uniquely awful; not significantly worse than, for example, carpet bombing peasant villages in Vietnam, or spraying depleted uranium around Southern Iraq. Beyond the propaganda, we find that this obvious thought has also occurred to the warriors against terrorism. Retired US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) officer Walter Lang, told the New York Times that “the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern”. Rather, what concerned the DIA, CIA and the Reagan administration was halting the spread of Iran’s Islamic revolution to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Who can forget Halabja? Almost everyone.

The background to Washington’s support of Iraq was the January 1979 popular uprising that overthrew the pro-US Shah of Iran. The Iranian revolution threatened the West’s control of oil. This brings us to another aspect of our second question regarding the West’s moral track record: the issue of “regime change” in Iraq. What kind of regime would our ‘moral crusaders’ likely install after the fall of Saddam? Journalists take it for granted that it would be a major improvement. Writing in 1999, John Sweeney declared:

“Life will only get better for ordinary Iraqis once the West finally stops dithering and commits to a clear, unambiguous policy of snuffing out Saddam. And when he falls the people of Iraq will say: ‘What kept you? Why did it take you so long?’ (Sweeney, ‘The West created a monster. Now it’s time to destroy him. As a good liberal, I personally vote for obliterating Saddam’, The Observer, January 10, 1999)

That was not quite what the people of Iran cried out when US-supplied armoured cars took to the streets of Iran, Iraq’s neighbour, in 1953, deposing the nationalist Mussadiq and replacing him with the Shah. According to then CIA agent Richard Cottam, “…that mob that came into north Teheran and was decisive in the overthrow was a mercenary mob. It had no ideology. That mob was paid for by American dollars and the amount of money that was used has to have been very large”. (Quoted, Curtis, op., cit, p.93)

Under the Shah, Iran had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture” which was “beyond belief”, in a system in which “the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror”, according to Amnesty International. (Martin Ennals, Secretary General of Amnesty International, cited in an Amnesty Publication, Matchbox, Autumn 1976)

After the CIA’s coup in Iran, total US and multinational aid and credits to the Iranian monster it had created increased nine-fold: “The more dictatorial his regime became,” US Iran specialist Eric Hoogland comments, “the closer the US-Iran relationship became.” (Quoted, Curtis, op.,cit, p.95)

This does not bode well for a ‘liberated’ Iraq.

A rational discussion of the reasons for and against going to war must be based on the likely beneficial and adverse human consequences both for ourselves and others. Quite obviously, this question cannot be discussed seriously unless we are willing to discuss the nature and motives of the dominant political, corporate and military forces wielding Western military power. Marginal hints at the existence of enormous forbidden truths aside (the article by Dilip Hiro, for example), this is a question our media will not allow us to address because the media are part of the establishment status quo that has evolved to support, and benefits from, the silence.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to:

Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:

Email: [email protected]

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian:

Email: [email protected]

Roger Alton, editor of The Observer:

Email: [email protected]

Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent

Email: [email protected]