The Newsnight Debate – Dismantling the Case For War
by David Edwards and Media Lens
February 13, 2003
In Part 1 we showed how Tony Blair profoundly misled the British public on the 'threat' posed by Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) during a recent BBC2 Newsnight interview and debate.
Blair claimed that Unscom inspectors (1991-98) were thrown out of Iraq - they were withdrawn.
Blair claimed that inspectors left in December 1998 because they couldn't do their work - Unscom achieved 90-95% success in eliminating WMD, leaving Iraq "fundamentally disarmed" by December 1998. Iraq's reward for cooperating was Operation Desert Fox - three days of air bombardment using intelligence gained during inspections - and continued sanctions.
Blair claimed that inspections failed because inspectors could not do their work - inspections were deliberately undermined by US machinations seeking conflict. (For the reasons see our Media Alert: 'Iraq and Arms Inspectors - The Big Lie, Part 1', October 28, 2002,)
Blair claimed that Iraq's alleged
anthrax, botulinum and VX nerve agent represent a serious threat to the UK - if
existent at all, they are by now harmless sludge. Iraq has no remaining nuclear
(For an overview see Glen Rangwala http://middleeastreference.org.uk/iraqweapons.html#nsumm )
The Art Of Making Things Up
Blair went on to claim that he and Bush have been merely responding to warnings from the intelligence services:
"I mean this is what our intelligence services are telling us and it's difficult because, you know, either they're simply making the whole thing up or this is what they are telling me, as the prime minister, and I've no doubt what the American intelligence are telling President Bush as well."
It was unfortunate for Blair that he ridiculed the idea that someone "might be making the whole thing up" - revelations the day after the interview showed that Downing Street, not the intelligence services, had been doing just that.
On February 7, Downing Street apologised for its failure to acknowledge that much of its latest dossier - 'Iraq: its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation' - had been lifted word for word (including punctuation and spelling errors) by Blair's spin doctors from an article written by an American PhD student ten years ago. The only changes involved the doctoring of passages to make them seem more ominous: for example, the assertion that Iraq has been "aiding opposition groups" was changed to "supporting terrorist organisations". This was the same dossier hailed as "a fine document" on worldwide TV by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, when he addressed the UN Security Council on February 5.
Professor Michael Clark, director of the International Policy Institute at King's College London, said that such "intelligence" material "invalidates the veracity" of the rest of the document. Glenda Jackson, the former Labour minister, pointed out that the government was misleading parliament and the public:
"And of course to mislead is a parliamentary euphemism for lying," she said. ('Downing St admits blunder on Iraq dossier', Michael White, Ewen MacAskill and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, February 8, 2003)
Blair went on:
"But although they're allowing the inspectors access to sites they're not actually fully cooperating with inspectors, for example, they're not allowing the experts that worked on these programmes to be interviewed properly by the inspectors, and what Colin Powell was talking about at the UN yesterday was the systematic attempt to try and conceal this, to disperse it into the country so that it couldn't be found by the inspectors."
In fact Hans Blix has said there is no evidence of Iraq trying to foil inspectors by moving equipment before his teams arrived, or of mobile biological weapons laboratories. Blix said he had inspected two alleged mobile labs - they turned out to be food-testing trucks:
"Two food-testing trucks have been inspected and nothing has been found." ('US claim dismissed by Blix', Dan Plesch, The Guardian, February 5, 2003)
The Oil Thing
A member of the audience suggested that the war was motivated by oil. Blair dismissed this out of hand:
"No, let me just deal with the oil thing because this is one of the - we may be right or we may be wrong - I mean people have their different views about why we're doing this thing. But the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it. The fact is that, if the oil that Iraq has were our concern I mean we could probably cut a deal with Saddam tomorrow in relation to the oil."
It would be interesting to see Bush and Blair trying to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein, having demonised him endlessly, and having backed a decade of sanctions costing a million lives - sanctions which would thereby be shown to have been completely pointless. Former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Denis Halliday, discussed in 2000 how all the permanent members of the security council would have supported the lifting of non-military sanctions against Iraq if the US and UK had agreed. But there was a problem for Blair and Clinton:
"All the other members would back down if London and Washington would change their position. I think that's quite clear. But unfortunately Blair and Clinton have an almost personal investment in demonising Saddam Hussein. That's very hard to get out of, they have my sympathy, but they created their own problem. Once you've demonised somebody, it's awfully difficult to turn around and say, 'Well, actually he's not such a bad guy'." (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000, www.medialens.org )
Blair is one of the few people to deem talk of an oil motive for war an absurd conspiracy theory. Fully 41 members of the Bush administration have ties to the oil industry, and both the President and the Vice President are former oil executives. National Security Adviser Condaleeza Rice is a former director of Chevron. President Bush took more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industries in the 2000 election.
In 1997, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and other senior figures, mostly oil industry executives, created the Project for the New American Century, a lobby group demanding "regime change" in Iraq. In a 1998 letter to President Clinton, they called for the removal of Saddam from power. In a letter to Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, they wrote that "we should establish and maintain a strong US military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests [sic] in the Gulf - and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from power". (Robert Fisk, 'This Looming War Isn't About Chemical Warheads Or Human Rights: It's About Oil', The Independent, January 18, 2003, http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles/Fisk_IraqOil2.htm)
The signatories of one or both letters, Robert Fisk notes, included Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, now Rumsfeld's Pentagon deputy, John Bolton, now under-secretary of state for arms control, and Richard Armitage, Colin Powell's under-secretary at the State Department. They also included Richard Perle, now chairman of the defence science board, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the former Unocal Corporation oil industry consultant who became US special envoy to Afghanistan.
The Wall Street Journal reported on January 16th that officials from the White House, State Department and Department of Defence had been meeting informally with executives from Halliburton, Shlumberger, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and ConocoPhillips to plan the post-war oil bonanza. Ralph Nader writes:
"The Bush people and the oil moguls do agree with one another in part because they are one another." (Nader, 'Oil War?', ZNet, February 4, 2003)
In an article in the London Review of Books, Anatol Lieven, a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes:
"For the group around Cheney, the single most important consideration is guaranteed and unrestricted access to cheap oil, controlled as far as possible at its source. To destroy and occupy the existing Iraqi state and dominate the region militarily would remove even the present limited threat from Opec, greatly reduce the chance of a new oil shock, and eliminate the need to woo and invest in Russia as an alternative source of energy..." ('The Push for War', Anatol Lieven, London Review of Books, October 2002)
Nelson Mandela said recently:
"All Bush wants is Iraqi oil, because Iraq produces 64 percent of oil and he wants to get hold of it.
"Bush is acting outside the United Nations and both he and Tony Blair are undermining the United Nations, an organisation which was an idea sponsored by their predecessors... Why does the United States behave so arrogantly?... Their friend Israel has got weapons of mass destruction but because it's their ally they won't ask the UN to get rid of it. They just want the (Iraqi) oil... We must expose this as much as possible." ('All Bush Wants is Iraqi Oil, Says Mandela,' the Independent, January 30, 2003)
Blair's attempt to dismiss, out of hand, oil as a motive for war is, again, a deception. Paxman said not one word to challenge him.
Terrorist Threats And How To Exacerbate Them
Blair moved on to passionately insist that he was simply trying to face up to his responsibilities as prime minister - he had to defend Britain against terrorist threats:
"The thing to be most worried about is the link between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction."
Blair later declared:
"I keep having this mental picture in my mind of August 2001 and coming along to people and saying there's this terrorist organisation in Afghanistan, they are evil people who will try and mount major terrorist attacks on our country, we've got to go into Afghanistan and deal with them. I think people would have said to me, you know you must be crackers what on earth are you on about."
Some people think Blair is "crackers" now - senior intelligence officers, for example. The CIA informed Congress last October that they knew of no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda-style terrorism, but believed that an attack on Iraq would substantially increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks against the West. They argued that it would likely inspire a new generation of terrorists bent on revenge, and could even provoke Iraq into carrying out pre-prepared terrorist strikes.
A high-level task force of the Council on Foreign Relations recently released a report warning of likely terrorist attacks that could be far worse than September 11, including possible use of weapons of mass destruction within the US, dangers that become "more urgent by the prospect of the US going to war with Iraq". (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, 'Confronting The Empire', Dissident Voice, February 1, 2003)
Daniel Benjamin, who served on the National Security Council (NSC) from 1994 to 1999, wrote on September 30 2002, in the New York Times:
"Iraq and al-Qaeda are not obvious allies. In fact, they are natural enemies." An investigation by the NSC "found no evidence of a noteworthy relationship" between the two, Benjamin said. In fact, al-Qaeda militantly opposes the secular Iraqi government and Hussein's Ba'ath Party. (Quoted, Anthony Arnove, 'Fact and Myth', ZNet, October 24, 2002)
A recently leaked document from British intelligence, mentioned by Paxman, said that any contacts between Saddam and al-Qaeda had "foundered" due to conflicting ideologies. The BBC reported a "growing disquiet" in British and US intelligence agencies over the "politicisation" of their work, which they believe is being distorted to support a war. A CIA employee claimed that the Pentagon was pressurising the CIA to "cook the books" in support of war. (Today, BBC Radio 4, February 5, 2003)
In a letter to the Guardian, Lt Cdr Martin Packard (rtd), a former intelligence adviser to Nato's Comedsoueast, writes:
"In the case of Iraq the urgency for military action appears to arise not because of a gathering Iraqi threat but because of political and economic considerations in America. Scepticism over US-UK spin on Iraq is validated by the number of senior military officers and former intelligence analysts who remain unconvinced that war at this stage is justified. Many of them believe that the threat to UK interests and to regional stability will be increased by a US-led attack on Iraq rather than diminished." (The Guardian, Letters, February 8, 2003)
Blair is therefore not even supported in his assessment of what is 'best for Britain' by the intelligence services, of whom he says:
"I mean this is what our intelligence services are telling us... and I've no doubt what the American intelligence are telling President Bush as well."
Exactly contradicting Blair's argument on the best method of dealing with terrorism, prominent US hawks warn that a war in Iraq might lead to the "greatest proliferation disaster in history", arguing that if Iraq does have chemical and biological weapons, the dictatorship at least keeps them under tight control.
According to Douglas Hurd, former Conservative Foreign Secretary, war on Iraq runs "the risk of turning the Middle East into an inexhaustible recruiting ground for anti-western terrorism". (Financial Times, January 3, 2003)
Saudi Arabia's former oil minister, Sheikh Yamani, said recently of the proposed war on Iraq:
"What they are going to do if they embark on this is to produce real terrorists. I think sometime in the future Osama bin Laden will look like an angel compared to the future terrorists." (Newsnight, January 30, 2003)
Noam Chomsky comments on the extraordinary extent of the opposition to war within the US establishment:
"It is... rather striking that strong opposition to the coming war extends right through the establishment. The current issues of the two major foreign policy journals feature articles opposing the war by leading figures of foreign policy elites. The very respectable American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a long monograph on the war, trying to give the most sympathetic possible account of the Bush administration position, then dismantling it point by point." (Ibid)
The Bush/Blair strategy, Chomsky notes, "has caused shudders not only among the usual victims, and in 'old Europe,' right at the heart of the US foreign policy elite, who recognise that 'commitment of the US to active military confrontation for decisive national advantage will leave the world more dangerous and the US less secure'." There are, Chomsky points out, no precedents whatever for this kind of establishment opposition.
Anatol Lieven writes that the Bush administration is pursuing "the classic modern strategy of an endangered right-wing oligarchy, which is to divert mass discontent into nationalism," inspired by fear of lethal threats. Lieven warns, ominously, that America "has become a menace to itself and to mankind".
Blair repeatedly cited the many arrests made in Europe as evidence of the immediacy of the terrorist threat and the need for urgent action against Iraq:
"There are arrests being made, there have been something like 3,000 arrests made in 90 different countries over the past few months. If you hide away from this issue you're not going to stop being a threat."
Mike Berry of the University of Glasgow Media Group has pointed out that in the aftermath of many of these high-profile arrests, the suspects are usually released without any charges being brought, as was the case with the UK Bournemouth arrests. But by then the operations have already served their propaganda purpose by generating widespread fear in support of war.
Most recently, the arrest of 28 Pakistani men said to have been plotting terrorist attacks in Naples, and declared a breakthrough against al-Qaeda, has resulted in the Pakistani government formally complaining to the Italian ambassador in Islamabad that the men, "did not have any terrorist links". When police raided the flat in a rundown part of Naples, they found the 28 men sleeping amid piles of clothes and old mattresses. Sources close to the investigation say the evidence of a link between alleged terrorist materials seized and the 28 men was scanty. Pakistan's ambassador in Rome, Zafar Hilali, said Pakistanis had been randomly arrested in Italy in recent months with no grounds for suspicion.
Few Know What You Are - A Note On Blair
Blair is an accomplished and persuasive politician. As we saw above, when dismissing the issue of oil as a motive for war, Blair said, "we may be right or we may be wrong - I mean people have their different views about why we're doing this thing...".
This willingness to admit fallibility, and to step outside of an argument to acknowledge conflicting perspectives - "people have their different views about why we're doing this thing" - is powerfully suggestive of sincerity and honesty. When discussing the difficulty of persuading the British public of the need for war, Blair said:
"I understand it is not an easy task because I think the very first point that Jeremy was making to me is the point that is most difficult for people, what is, you know, why now are we suddenly doing this? And my answer to that is actually..."
"Now hang on a minute. I just want to finish this thing. Because this is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing, even though I know that it is difficult and unpopular in certain quarters."
By repeatedly acknowledging and empathising with public scepticism in this way, but then passionately asserting his own view, Blair gives the impression that he has carefully considered the arguments from all angles before coming to a reasoned conclusion. This is exactly the kind of language we associate with honesty and sincerity. In its reviews of the Newsnight interview, much of the media did declare Blair impassioned and sincere.
But there is a problem. How can we reconcile Blair's apparent sincerity with the reality that his arguments are often completely fraudulent, relying not just on major distortions and omissions of key facts, but on complete reversal of the truth? It is not possible to believe, for example, that someone in Blair's position is simply unaware of the basic facts of why Unscom inspectors left Iraq in 1998.
Instead, we believe that Blair consciously sets out to deceive the public while obscuring his deceptiveness behind an appearance of sincerity. If this sounds like wild speculation, recall that it has in fact been standard political practice since the time of Machiavelli:
"A Prince should therefore be very careful that nothing ever escapes his lips which is not replete with the five qualities... so that to see and hear him, one would think him the embodiment of mercy, good faith, integrity, humanity, and religion. And there is no virtue which it is more necessary for him to seem to possess than this last; because men in general judge rather by the eye than by the hand, for every one can see but few can touch. Every one sees what you seem, but few know what you are... For the vulgar are always taken by appearances and by results, and the world is made up of the vulgar, the few only finding room when the many have no longer ground to stand on." (Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513, Dover publications, 1992, p.47)
All of the facts in this two-part Media Alert were readily accessible to us - part-time, unpaid writers - and yet almost none of them were raised by Jeremy Paxman - a full-time, professional journalist backed up by a large BBC research team - nor in the press in the days following the interview.
These omissions are obviously not the result of incompetence - it takes no competence at all to seek out well-known, credible sources, even via the web. Lack of resources is also clearly not a limiting factor. Nor can lack of significance explain these oversights - what could be more vital than to establish the basic facts challenging a prime minister's fraudulent case for war?
Instead, these omissions, we believe, are the result of a long-standing, institutionalised media aversion to seriously challenging establishment power of even the most ruthless and cynical kind. The reason is not complex: the liberal media so often trusted by the public - the Guardian/Observer, the Independent, the BBC, ITN - are all very much part of, and deeply dependent on, that same system of power.
We have a stark choice: we can continue to be deceived by the illusion of a free press, in which case many thousands of people will continue to be killed in our names but in the cause of profit and power. Alternatively, we can expose and challenge the 'liberal' propagandists stifling democracy. Journalists, even admired radical ones, may choose to maintain their silence to protect their hard-won reputations and lucrative careers - it's up to the rest of us simply to tell the truth.
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 Newsnight:
Write to Jeremy Paxman
Write to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:
Why, in the recent Newsnight interview with Tony Blair (February 6, 2003), did the BBC fail to present even the most basic counter-arguments to Blair's case for war? Why did you not mention that Iraq had been "fundamentally disarmed" by 1998, according to chief UN arms inspector Scott Ritter? Why did you not mention that Iraq's nuclear capability had been 100% destroyed? Why did you not raise the fact that limited shelf-lives mean that any residual Iraqi chemical and biological weapons must by now be harmless sludge? Why did you not refer to the many credible and authoritative voices arguing that war on Iraq is about oil and will have the effect of exacerbating the terrorist threat against the West?
Please copy all your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: email@example.com. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org