Threat Inflation

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. national security.

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 threatened us.

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 purposes.

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 that

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.

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