Going after hapless countries
by Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, March 2003
One of the most striking features of the
working of the U.S. imperial system and media is the regular inflation
of the threat posed by imperial targets-an inflation process that
very often attains the ludicrous and incredible. When the imperial
managers want to go after some hapless small country-Guatemala,
Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, Iraq-that for one reason or another has
been put on the U.S. hit list, the managers issue fearsome warnings
of the dire threat posed by the prospective victim. The media
quickly get on this bandwagon and suddenly give enormous attention
to a country previously completely ignored. Critical analyses
of the reality of the "threat" are minimal, and the
gullibility quotient of the media escalates in view of the alleged
seriousness of the threat and need for everybody to be "on
the team." As soon as the small target is smashed-with great
ease, despite the prior claims of its capability-and as official
attention moves elsewhere, the media drop the subject and allow
the target to return to black hole attention.
A closely related feature of the threat
inflation process has been the unwillingness of the media to allow
that the United States poses any threat to the imminent victim.
U. S. officials may even have announced an intention to displace
a government, they may have organized a proxy army to invade,
and positioned their own forces in the vicinity, but any actions
of the target to prepare to defend itself are considered sinister
and further proof of their menacing character. In the Cold War
era, when targets reached out to the Soviet bloc to get arms,
this added to the proof of a threat, demonstrating that they were
part of the larger Soviet threat. That they sought weapons from
the Soviet bloc because they were prevented from buying them from
the United States and its allies, and that forcing them to do
this was part of a strategy making their threat more credible,
was outside the orbit of media thought.
Thus, in the official and therefore media
view, threats were and remain unidirectional-democratic Guatemala
(1945 -54), Sandinista Nicaragua (1980-90), Iraq today have allegedly
posed threats to the United States, but they themselves are not
threatened by it. This results in part from the media's ideological
and patriotic subservience. Just as in a totalitarian society,
the media here take it as a premise that their leaders are good
and pursue decent ends, so that invidious words like "threat"
or "aggression" cannot be applied to their language
and behavior. This is helped along by the fact that the targeted
leaders are quickly demonized, so that any apparent threats from
our end are a response to evil and quest for justice (as well
as countering a real threat). This exquisitely and comically biased
perspective has helped make it possible to find that no actions
by the targets constitute "self defense," and in effect
they do not have any right of self-defense.
Guatemala in the late 1940s and early
1950s offers a model case. Guatemala's democratic leaders had
aroused suspicion by granting labor the right to form unions back
in 1947, and when in 1952 president Jacopo Arbenz proposed taking
over idle United Fruit land (with compensation) in the interest
of landless peasants, United Fruit Company and U.S. government
officials escalated the charges of a dire Communist threat. The
media, which had previously rarely mentioned Guatemala, increasingly
focused on the official target. The Communists never took over"
Guatemala (see Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter
Fruit), but United Fruit, the U.S. government, and the media claimed
that they had, and the media became frenetic and hysterical on
the subject. This was a completely fraudulent threat to U. S.
On the other hand, the United States posed
a genuine security threat to Guatemala, openly menacing it with
hostile words and organizing a "contra" army in Nicaragua
to invade Guatemala. The United States also refused to sell arms
to Guatemala and got its allies to do the same. When Guatemala
imported a small quantity of arms from Czechoslovakia in 1953
this caused a media frenzy, and demonstrated for the media the
aggressive intent of the U.S. target. In the U.S. media the notion
that Guatemala was threatened and might be acting in self defense
in acquiring arms was outside the realm of permissible thought.
After all, could the United States be planning a proxy aggression
against Guatemala? Not for the amazing U.S. media-the tiny target
None of the non-dictatorships in Latin
America considered Guatemala a threat, although they were closer
to the U.S. target and less capable of defending themselves from
it if the threat were valid. But they were bribed and bullied
by John Foster Dulles into condemning "international communism"
in the hemisphere and the need to confront it. Did the U.S. officials
believe the malarkey about a threat? The NSC Policy Statement
on "United States Policy in the Event of Guatemalan Aggression
in Latin America" (May 28, 1954) conveys the impression of
official panic over the Guatemala menace, declaring Guatemala
to be increasingly [an] instrument of Soviet aggression in this
hemisphere." This was about a virtually disarmed tiny country
that had not moved one inch outside its borders, in which the
Soviet Union had invested nothing and with which Guatemala didn't
even maintain diplomatic relations (out of fear of U.S. reaction),
whose democratic government was shortly to be overthrown by a
rag-tag proxy army, with much U.S. assistance.
After the overthrow of the Guatemalan
democracy in 1954 the media once again allowed Guatemala to disappear
from their sights. A very similar process took place following
the victory of the Sandinistas over the authoritarian Somoza regime
in Nicaragua in 1980. Here again it was the democratic government
that quickly became a "threat" to the United States,
after the United States had supported dictatorship for 45 years.
Here again it organized a contra army to harass and invade the
democracy. Once again it imposed an economic and arms embargo
on the target, forcing it to acquire arms from the Soviet bloc,
and then using this to demonstrate that it was an instrument of
that bloc. Once again the nearby small countries were not frightened
by the new menace, and much of their effort was spent trying to
settle the conflict-in opposition to the Reagan administration's
preference for the use of force.
Nicaragua, Soviet Threat, etc., etc.
Here again, also, after the Sandinista
government was ousted, following a decade of boycott and U. S.
-sponsored international terrorism, the media were enthused over
this triumph of democracy and U.S. "patience" in using
means other than a direct invasion to end social democracy in
Nicaragua. Once this "threat" was terminated, the media
once again moved away from Nicaragua to focus on other good deeds
by their leaders coping with other threats. As with Guatemala,
and later in the case of NATO-occupied Kosovo, the media carefully
averted their eyes from the results, which were not in keeping
with the alleged war aims and claims that beneficial effects would
follow the removal of the threat.
The big threat featured in the Cold War
years was that posed by the Soviet Union, which at least referred
to the challenge of a serious rival on the global scene. But even
here, the threat was misread and hugely inflated. The Soviet Union
was always a conservative and defensive-minded regional power,
its reach beyond its near neighbors tentative, reactive, and weak.
It never posed a threat to the United States and constantly sought
accommodation with the real (U.S.) superpower-its real threat
was that it offered an alternative development model and supported
resistance to the global thrust of U. S. imperialism.
On the other hand, World War II was hardly
over when the United States was funding groups trying to destabilize
the Soviet Union and in NSC 68 (1950) U.S. officials laid out
an agenda for destabilization and "regime change" in
the Soviet Union as basic U.S. policy. The United States never
accepted the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and from the invasions
in 1917 to the final important assist given Yeltsin and his apparatchiks,
its aim has been regime change.
But in the U.S. propaganda system it was
an ideological premise that the Soviet Union was trying to conquer
the world and we were on the defensive, "containing"
it. This was confirmed when Khrushchev said, "We are going
to bury you," a blustering statement that was hardly on a
par with the neglected NSC 68 policy pronouncement of an intent
to bury the Soviet Union. A prime fact of Cold War history was
that the Soviet Union provided a limit to U.S. expansionism-and
it was the end of that real containment that has allowed the United
States to go on its current rampage.
It should be noted that throughout the
Cold War U.S. officials proclaimed Soviet advances and "gaps"
that invariably proved to be disinformation, but which the New
York Times and its colleagues invariably passed along as truth.
Equally important, when it turned out that the "missile gap,"
"warhead gap," or "window of vulnerability"
was a lie, the media kept
this under the rug, along with the fact
that they had been propaganda and disinformation agents. In his
classic, The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy (Harper & Row,
1986), Tom Gervasi showed how the media passed along Reagan administration
claims of Soviet superiority in weapons systems that were refutable
from the Pentagon's own information releases, but which the New
York Times and company were too lazy or too complicit with their
leaders to examine and challenge, saying merely that figures "were
difficult to pin down" (NYT), which was false. As Gervasi
said, "The frequent assertions of editors...that they must
strive for 'balance' and 'objectivity,' were simply an effort
to hide the lack of attempt at either, to justify wholly uncritical
acceptance of official views, and to deny that a great deal of
information was missing from public view.
In the buildup to the first Persian Gulf
War in 1990-1991, U.S. officials and the media conveyed the impression
that Iraq was a mighty power and huge military challenge to the
United States and its "allies," when in fact Iraq was
a Third World country exhausted by its brutal conflict with Iran
and hardly able to put up token resistance to the "allied"
assault. It was overwhelmed within a week and forced into de facto
surrender. Ironically, Iraq didn't dare to use any weapons of
mass destruction it possessed, but the "allies" blew
up a number of Iraq weapons caches, spewing forth chemicals on
allied soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The United States also used
depleted uranium "dirty" munitions, thus making the
Persian Gulf war a low level nuclear war, as it was later to do
in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Once again, following the war-or
more properly, slaughter-the media failed to reflect on either
the evidence that the threat had been inflated or the costs of
the war in terms of "friendly fire"_or rather "friendly
use of depleted uranium and release of enemy chemicals"-on
both allied soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
In the buildup to the prospective 2003
attack on Iraq, once again there has been a multi-pronged threat
inflation that the mainstream media pass along in their now standard
propaganda agency role.
Most important, there is the pretense
that if Iraq possessed WMD it would pose a serious threat of using
them offensively and against the United States in particular.
To make this plausible the officials-media phalanx stress what
a bad person Saddam is and the fact that he used WMD in the 1980s.
What the phalanx avoids discussing are: (1) that Saddam only used
those weapons when supplied and supported by the United States
and Britain-he did not use them in the Persian Gulf War; (2) that
the sanctions and inspections regime has made him far weaker now
than in 1991 when he failed to use such weapons; (3) that his
use of them offensively against either the United States or any
U.S. client state would be suicidal; and (4) that it follows that
if he possessed them they would only be serviceable for defensive
The idea that he poses a serious threat
to the United States, claimed by President George Bush and his
associates, is therefore absurd. But it is reported in the media
as real and is essentially unchallenged. It is certainly never
called absurd, as it is. Saddam does pose a possible threat to
U.S. forces if attacked, but only then. We get back to the fact,
however, that a target of U.S. enmity, from Vietnam to the Sandinista
government of Nicaragua to Iraq has no right of self-defense in
the media propaganda system.
Further arrows in the war-makers quiver
are the facts that Saddam is a cruel dictator and that he has
been less than completely cooperative with the inspections process
designed to assure the elimination of his WMD. The former is true
but irrelevant and its use is hypocritical. The United States
and Britain supported this dictator when he served their interests
and it continues to support others who are amenable, as Saddam
appeared to be in the 1980s. International law and the UN Charter
do not allow "regime change" of dictatorships by military
intervention and actions with such design constitute straightforward
aggression. "Helping" people by warring on them is also
profoundly hypocritical and there is every reason to doubt any
humanitarian end in Bush administration war planning.
It is also true that Saddam has not been
fully cooperative with the inspections system, but why should
he be when the United States has repeatedly admitted that inspections
are a cover for an intent to dislodge him from power and have
been used in the past to locate war targets? (The same motive
of regime change underlies the genocidal sanctions regime that
has killed over a million Iraqi civilians.) Furthermore, the inspections
regime is a U.S.-British imposition that reflects their domination
of the Security Council and their political agenda, it has nothing
to do with justice. Israel is allowed to have WMD and ignore UN
Security Council rulings because it is a Western ally and client,
but Israel not only threatens its neighbors, it has repeatedly
invaded Lebanon and is currently carrying out a ruthless program
of repression and ethnic cleansing in occupied Palestine, in violation
of UN rulings and the Fourth Geneva Convention. But the U.S. mainstream
media ignore this, and have gotten on the bandwagon, proclaiming
Iraq's lack of full cooperation with the
inspections regime is intolerable.
A number of critical writers have stressed
that while Iraq poses no threat to the United States, the attack
on Iraq will create a threat in a feedback process. Thus Dan Ellsberg
points out that: (1) "the number of recruits for suicide
bombing against the U.S. and its allies...will increase a hundred-fold;"
(2) "regimes with sizeable Muslim populations (including
Indonesia, the Philippines, France and Germany...) will find it
politically almost impossible to be seen collaborating with the
US on the anti- terrorism intelligence and police operations that
are essential to lessening the terrorist threat..."; (3)
Iraq under attack, and possibly even segments of the Pakistani
army, may finally share WMD with Al Qaeda and other terrorist
groups (Dan Ellsberg on Iraq, Weblog Entry, Jan. 23, 2003, www.ellsberg.
net/weblog/ 1_23_03. htm).
Once again the mainstream media have cooperated
in a ludicrous threat inflation, which has prepared the ground
for their country to wage a war of aggression. That war will not
reduce a threat from Iraq, which was negligible, but it will produce
serious threats as a consequence of the attack. However, this
may well be what some of Bush's advisers want, as it will justify
further U.S. militarization and warfare, intensified repression
at home, and provide a cover for further Bush service to his business
constituency here and for Sharon's accelerated ethnic cleansing
and transfer in Palestine.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, author,
media analyst, and a regular contributor to Z since 1988.
S. Herman page