What We Knew in August, 2002


How PR Sold the War in the Persian Gulf
Excerpted from Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, Chapter 10

"If I wanted to lie, or if we wanted to lie, if we wanted to exaggerate, I wouldn't use my daughter to do so. I could easily buy other people to do it."
--Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the United States and Canada

The Mother of All Clients:

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops led by dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the oil-producing nation of Kuwait. Like Noriega in Panama, Hussein had been a US ally for nearly a decade. From 1980 to 1988, he had killed about 150,000 Iranians, in addition to at least 13,000 of his own citizens. Despite complaints from international human rights group, however, the Reagan and Bush administrations had treated Hussein as a valuable ally in the US confrontation with Iran. As late as July 25 - a week before the invasion of Kuwait - US Ambassador April Glaspie commiserated with Hussein over a "cheap and unjust" profile by ABC's Diane Sawyer, and wished for an "appearance in the media, even for five minutes," by Hussein that "would help explain Iraq to the American people."69

Glaspie's ill-chosen comments may have helped convince the dictator that Washington would look the other way if he "annexed" a neighboring kingdom. The invasion of Kuwait, however, crossed a line that the Bush Administration could not tolerate. This time Hussein's crime was far more serious than simply gassing to death another brood of Kurdish refugees. This time, oil was at stake.

Viewed in strictly moral terms, Kuwait hardly looked like the sort of country that deserved defending, even from a monster like Hussein. The tiny but super-rich state had been an independent nation for just a quarter century when in 1986 the ruling al-Sabah family tightened its dictatorial grip over the "black gold" fiefdom by disbanding the token National Assembly and firmly establishing all power in the be-jeweled hands of the ruling Emir. Then, as now, Kuwait's ruling oligarchy brutally suppressed the country's small democracy movement, intimidated and censored journalists, and hired desperate foreigners to supply most of the nation's physical labor under conditions of indentured servitude and near-slavery. The wealthy young men of Kuwait's ruling class were known as spoiled party boys in university cities and national capitals from Cairo to Washington.70


August 12: USA Today Repeats Myths on Iraq Inspectors

An August 8 USA Today article that described how Saddam Hussein is "complicating U.S. plans to topple his regime" repeated a common myth about the history of U.S./Iraq relations. Reporter John Diamond wrote that "Iraq expelled U.N. weapons inspectors four years ago and accused them of being spies."

But Iraq did not "expel" the UNSCOM weapons inspectors; in fact, they were withdrawn by Richard Butler, the head of the inspections team. The Washington Post, like numerous other media outlets, reported it accurately at the time (12/17/98): "Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad, in anticipation of a military attack, on Tuesday night."

USA Today wouldn't have to consult the archives of other media outlets to find out what happened: A timeline that appeared in the paper on December 17, 1998 included this entry for December 16: "U.N. weapons inspectors withdraw from Baghdad one day after reporting Iraq was still not cooperating." USA Today also reported (12/17/98) that "Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov criticized Butler for evacuating inspectors from Iraq Wednesday morning without seeking permission from the Security Council."

August 20: Bush's Summer Reading List Hints at Iraq

Looking for signs about President Bush's thinking on an Iraq attack? Check out his vacation reading.

This vital intelligence comes from an interview with the industrious Associated Press reporter Scott Lindlaw, who went on a brush-clearing, pickup-riding, sweating-and-bleeding tour of the Bush ranch outside Waco last week. The president disclosed that he has been reading "Supreme Command," a new book by Eliot A. Cohen, a neoconservative hardliner on Iraq with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

In his reading choice, Bush seems to be following the advice of Bill Kristol, the arch-neoconservative who has been using his Weekly Standard magazine to chide Bush for being too soft on Saddam Hussein. It is Kristol's blurb, after all, on the back cover of Cohen's book suggesting: "If I could ask President Bush to read one book, this would be it." Former Quayle man Kristol, suspected of playing puppeteer to a number of hawkish officials in the Bush Pentagon and National Security Council, appears to have added the marionette-in-chief to his act.

August 20: US pushes PR for war with Iraq

The United States, faced with a survey by diplomats showing widespread foreign skepticism about their motives, is planning a public relations offensive to build international support among foreign opinion leaders for a war against Iraq.

The Iraq Public Diplomacy Group, a U.S. interagency task force, will be launching a widespread public relations campaign this fall, targeting newspaper editors and foreign policy think tank analysts in Western Europe and the Middle East.

The task force, which includes representatives from the CIA, National Security Council, Pentagon, State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, plans to publish a brochure documenting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ability to threaten Iraqis and other peoples in the region.

One U.S. official familiar with the group's planning told United Press International Tuesday that the booklet would "document and chronicle Saddam's transgressions against international norms." These include the Iraqi leader's use of mustard and nerve gas against Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1988 in the town of Halabja, as well as new information compiled from refugees fleeing the country on the state of Iraq's prisons.

August 21: Al Qaeda Presence In Iraq Reported Baghdad Knows, Rumsfeld Says

At least a handful of ranking members of al Qaeda have taken refuge in Iraq, U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday. Their presence could complicate U.S. efforts against the terrorist network's leadership but could also give the Bush administration another rationale for possible military action against the Iraqi government.

Iraq has frequently been cited by administration officials as a haven for al Qaeda fighters who have fled the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. But what is new, officials said, is the number and senior rank of the al Qaeda members who have been mentioned in recent classified intelligence reports as being in Iraq.

"There are some names you'd recognize," one defense official said.

Alluding to these reports, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday repeated earlier assertions about al Qaeda's presence in Iraq, but he declined to elaborate on the evidence.

"I suppose that, at some moment, it may make sense to discuss that publicly," he said at a news conference. "It doesn't today. But what I have said is a fact -- that there are al Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq."

August 21: Sharing the Evidence on Iraq

ABSTRACT - Editorial says Bush administration should not be leading American people into war with Iraq on basis of intelligence evidence that it alludes to but is unwilling to make public

August 22: "Wag the Puppy" -- New Twist in Media War

Some people are suspicious that President Bush will go for a "wag the dog" strategy -- boosting Republican prospects with a military assault on Iraq shortly before Election Day. But a modified approach now seems to be underway. Let's call it "wag the puppy."

After a number of GOP luminaries blasted his administration's war scenarios, Bush claimed to appreciate "a healthy debate." The president offered assurances that he would consult with Congress rather than take sudden action. But his handlers were simply adapting to circumstances that probably make it impractical for the Pentagon to kill a lot of Iraqis prior to Nov. 5.

Before initiating vast new carnage abroad, the White House wants its propaganda siege to take hold at home. Countless hours of airtime and huge vats of ink are needed to do the trick. Like safecrackers trying first one combination and then another, the Bush team will continue to twirl the media dials till their war-making rationales click.

August 22: Protesters, Police Clash Downtown During Presidential Visit

PORTLAND - Riot police fired pepper spray at hundreds of protesters and struck some with batons on Thursday after ordering them to move from an area near a hotel where President Bush was staying.
Protesters hammered on the hoods of police cars as pepper spray wafted through the air.

Earlier in the day, several hundred demonstrators marched toward the Hilton Hotel after Bush's arrival there.

Protesting Bush's foreign policy, they chanted "Drop Bush, Not Bombs."

August 23: Dissing the Dissenters

Have "prudence" and "foresight" become dirty words in conservative foreign policy circles? You begin to wonder, watching the debate taking place on the right about what policies the United States should adopt toward Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

I share the Bush administration's enthusiasm for bringing more democracy to the Middle East, including regime change in Iraq and political reform in Saudi Arabia. But these are high-risk options for the United States -- ones that could result in many thousands of lost lives and severe economic pain. For that reason, they deserve the most sober and searching national debate -- which is precisely what the go-for-broke conservatives seem determined to suppress.

How else can one interpret the recent diktats from the thought police of the right, the Wall Street Journal editorial page? Apparently worried that rising GOP criticism of the administration's Iraq policy might cool the war fever, the Journal this week ran an editorial dissing the dissenters. Rep. Dick Armey was dismissed as a mere "libertarian," Sen. Chuck Hagel was denounced as an opportunist seeking "a fast headline," and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft was chided as an honorable but plodding "realist" whose team's "track record doesn't inspire confidence."


August 27: Saddam Does Not Have "Weapons of Mass Destruction"
Unless he already has nukes that we don't know about.

In articulating the case for going to war with Iraq, the Bush administration emphasizes that Saddam Hussein possesses and has used "weapons of mass destruction." In an Aug. 26 speech, Vice President Dick Cheney said that Saddam wants

"more time to husband his resources, to invest in his ongoing chemical and biological weapons programs, and to gain possession of nuclear arms. Should all his ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous for the Middle East, for the United States, and for the peace of the world. The whole range of weapons of mass destruction then would rest in the hands of a dictator who has already shown his willingness to use such weapons, and has done so, both in his war with Iran and against his own people."

In the Sept. 2 New Republic, an editorial headlined "Best Case" states this more starkly:

What is it, then, about the villain in Baghdad that should provoke the United States to rid the world of him? One spectacular thing: He is the only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them. He used them against Iranian troops and against Kurdish civilians. This is what makes Saddam Hussein so distinguished in the field of evil.

The trouble with this distinction is that it rests on the long-standing dubious convention of classifying chemical and biological weapons as "weapons of mass destruction." Saddam has indeed used mustard gas and chemical agents to commit genocide "against his own people," and that is indeed a horror. Were Saddam to use them against anybody now, the U.S. would probably be justified in declaring immediate war on Iraq. But to call chemical and biological agents "weapons of mass destruction" is to blur the crucial distinction between these weapons and nuclear weapons, the use of which would be a far greater horror, both because it would kill many more people and because it would open the door to further, and deadlier, nuclear warfare.

That chemical and biological weapons don't deserve to be called "weapons of mass destruction" is a point long familiar to arms control experts. Here, for example, is Gert G. Harigel of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

The term "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD), used to encompass nuclear (NW), biological (BW), and chemical weapons (CW), is misleading, politically dangerous, and cannot be justified on grounds of military efficiency. …Whereas protection with various degrees of efficiency is possible against chemical and biological weapons, however inconvenient it might be for military forces on the battlefield and for civilians at home, it is not feasible at all against nuclear weapons.

Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky spells out the comparative lethality of nuclear versus chemical and biological weapons in the April 1998 issue of Arms Control Today, in an article headlined "Dismantling the Concept of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' ":

The weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed about a quarter of a million people, had an explosive power about one-tenth that carried by a modern nuclear weapon. … If a 1-megaton thermonuclear warhead exploded at optimum altitude over a large city, little would be left standing or alive within five miles. A firestorm could be ignited, further extending the range of destruction. In a large-scale exchange, lethal fallout would cover an entire region.

Biological and chemical weapons, though certainly very nasty, are not nearly so deadly:

If virulent BW materials were to be widely distributed over an exposed population, then the ratio of potential lethality to the total weight of the material could be comparable to that of nuclear weapons. However, for this horrifying scenario to occur, the materials cannot be dispersed by a single-point explosion, but instead must be spread by an appropriate mechanism such as spray tanks or by "fractionating" a missile's payload and dispersing separate mini-munitions over a wide area. Moreover, survival of BW material depends critically on local meteorological and other conditions which define the delivery environment. The survival of agents is generally of short duration and effects are delayed for days. … There is little question that the lethality of chemical weapons—as measured by per unit weight of delivered munitions—is lower by many orders of magnitude than it is for nuclear weapons or the undemonstrated and inherently uncertain potential of biological weapons.

Cheney's claim that Saddam "has already shown his willingness" to use weapons of mass destruction and the New Republic's claim that Saddam is the "only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them" undermine the extremely valuable concept of nuclear exceptionalism. The New Republic's claim is also just plain wrong. Saddam is the only living leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them. The only leader in the world with nuclear weapons who ever used them was Harry Truman. If you agree that biological and chemical weapons deserve to be called "weapons of mass destruction," then the New Republic's condemnation may be extended to include Woodrow Wilson and many others who deployed chemical warfare during World War I.

Is Chatterbox saying that Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson were no better than Saddam Hussein? Of course not. Saddam is a brutal dictator, while Truman and Wilson are justly admired presidents. But it remains true that Wilson and Truman allowed use of weapons in their time that today are judged beyond the pale within the international community. Quite rightly, the international consensus further holds that nuclear warfare is much more dangerous, and therefore much more reprehensible, than chemical and biological warfare. This is a distinction that the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" undermines. If Saddam has already used "weapons of mass destruction" (and, moreover, suffered little for it), what deters him from using nukes in the future? They're all "weapons of mass destruction," aren't they?

August 28: 'A link between Saddam and bin Laden? No way'

'The idea that al-Qaeda is getting political or military support from Iraq is ludicrous. I can see no way.'

Alex Standish, editor of the UK journal Jane's Intelligence Digest - required reading for war-watchers and war-makers everywhere - thinks US intelligence officials are making 'a big mistake' on Iraq.

'They are trying to convince us of something that is highly unlikely', he says. 'If they really believe that Saddam is feeding and sustaining bin Laden's men, then they can't possibly understand the fundamental difference between Iraq and al-Qaeda.'

US officials have been playing the al-Qaeda card in relation to Iraq since the start of 2002. In March, CIA director George Tenet claimed that 'Baghdad has a long history of supporting terrorism [and] it has also had contact with al-Qaeda' (1).

In early August, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed 'there are al-Qaeda in Iraq', accusing Saddam of 'harbouring al-Qaeda operatives who fled the US military dragnet in Afghanistan' (2).

Now, as CNN reported on 22 August, the Bush administration claims that al-Qaeda members have taken refuge in northern Iraq. And the fact that Saddam doesn't control northern Iraq, which has been a US/British protected zone for Kurds since 1991? That's no excuse, says Donald Rumsfeld: 'In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near-total control over its population, it's hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what is taking place in the country.' (3)

'Iraq and al-Qaeda: is there a link?' asks a headline in this week's Time magazine. According to Time: 'As the world's two most nefarious villains, bin Laden and Saddam ought to have reasons to work together. They share similar interests - hatred of Israel, hostility toward the rulers of Saudi Arabia and, especially, enmity toward their common nemesis, the US….' (4)

'But they are diametrically opposed', insists Standish. 'Absolutely, diametrically opposed. It seems the US State Department and others do not understand the basic, big difference in ideology between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

'Saddam's Ba'ath Party regime, despite its Islamic trappings, is a deeply secular and fundamentally socialist ideology. It is an Arab nationalist regime, which clearly resents Western influence anywhere in its backyard. But that doesn't mean it shares any of the Islamic extremism of al-Qaeda, because it doesn't.'

According to Standish, Saddam may be seen as mad by many in the West, but he'd have to be literally mad to offer support to bin Laden and co. 'I can't see any reason why Saddam, coming from a Arab nationalist, fairly secular background, would have any interest in supporting or promoting an extremist and militant religious ideology that would ultimately be opposed to everything he has ever stood for.'

'You can think whatever you like about Saddam', says Standish, 'but he's not so foolish that he would threaten his own region's stability by financing the extreme and violent likes of al-Qaeda. Yet in the face of a complete absence of serious evidence, intelligence officials are suggesting that Saddam might one day provide al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction'.

As for the claims that there are al-Qaeda members inside Iraq with or without Saddam's knowledge - 'possibly', says Standish. 'But there are people in Britain who support al-Qaeda. That doesn't mean Tony Blair is in contact with Osama bin Laden.'

Standish emphasises the US intelligence services' 'confusion' over Iraq, claiming that they are 'making mistakes'. But how much are claims of an Iraqi/al-Qaeda link the result of confusion, and how much are they a desperate attempt to justify invading Iraq?

Since President Bush labelled Iraq part of an 'axis of evil' in January 2002, US officials have wheeled out argument after argument against Saddam and for 'regime change'. It started with the well-worn and evidence-lite accusation that Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction. Some officials then resurrected the age-old claim that Iraq is 'withholding information about a US Navy pilot who was declared killed in action on the first day of the Gulf War in 1991, but who has since been redesignated by the Pentagon as possibly still living and missing in action' (5).

In early August 2002, Rumsfeld even played the Nazi card, comparing the Bush administration's warnings about Saddam Hussein to Winston Churchill's stand against Hitler in the 1930s. 'It wasn't until each country [in Europe] got attacked that they said: "Maybe Winston Churchill was right. Maybe that lone voice expressing concern about what was happening was right"', said Rumsfeld (6).

Isn't the claim that Saddam and bin Laden are soulmates just another attempt to bolster support for an invasion?

'Perhaps', says Standish, 'but there is also much confusion and, I'm afraid, ignorance within US intelligence circles about parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. There is an invincible ignorance about what al-Qaeda is and how it functions, and a complete misunderstanding of the internal politics of the Islamic world.'

For Standish, the claims of an Iraqi/al-Qaeda link are further evidence that US policy 'is in danger of lumping all anti-Western Muslim movements together, and viewing the Islamic world too simplistically. The Bush administration sees "good Muslims", like Jordan and Oman, and it sees "bad Muslims", the Syrians, the Iranians and, top of the list, the Iraqis. This black-and-white approach means they miss lots of nuances and end up misunderstanding a region that they are keen to influence.'

America and other Western nations' misreading of al-Qaeda has even helped to fuel support for al-Qaeda across the Islamic world, claims Standish. 'The failure of the Western coalition to bring bin Laden to book has fuelled the myth of his invincibility. The coalition in the war against terror made this conflict personal from the outset, presenting it as a battle against one man.

'In the early days, rather than focusing on the broader al-Qaeda network we made bin Laden public enemy number one - and because it was personalised it was picked up on in the Islamic world and they now have their latter-day hero. We gave bin Laden what Margaret Thatcher would call the "oxygen of publicity".'

As the editor of an authoritative digest on the ins and outs of modern warfare, Standish is no anti-war activist - but he expresses concern about the drift of US foreign policy.

'One of the charges laid against Saddam is that he openly preaches anti-Americanism. Of course Saddam is not a democratically elected leader, but one wonders how many other countries might come in for regime change for not liking America - even countries with democratically elected leaders, like Venezuela. It sometimes seems as if we're moving towards a new era of interventionism - and that is potentially dangerous.'

According to Standish, the desire for regime change could backfire in the end. 'In Iraq there is no guarantee that if we topple Saddam we will get the regime we want. There is likely to be great instability - and possibly even an Iranian-style revolution in Iraq, which would have unquantifiable consequences.'

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

What 'anti-war' movement?, by Mick Hume

Bush's Gulf War syndrome, by Brendan O'Neill

When in doubt, attack Iraq, by Mick Hume

(1) US says Iraq linked to al-Qaeda, BBC News, 19 March 2002

(2) Iraq harbours al-Qaeda, Rumsfeld says, Globe and Mail, 7 August 2002

(3) Al-Qaeda brass in Iraq?, CBS News, 22 August 2002

(4) Iraq and al-Qaeda: is there a link?, Time, 26 August 2002

(5) Iraq accused of hiding truth about missing US pilot, Independent, 23 August 2002

(6) Iraq urges dialogue to avert war, BBC News, 28 August 2002


August 29: Saddam a threat to energy supply, Cheney tells vets

Vice President Cheney took the lead Thursday as he and President Bush continued a rhetorical offensive on the need to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein amid mounting qualms at home and abroad.
Cheney, in a speech to Korean War veterans in San Antonio, said the Iraqi leader is developing weapons of mass destruction "for the purpose of inflicting death on a massive scale."

Saddam's ultimate goal, Cheney said, is "to seek domination of the entire Middle East, to take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies and to directly threaten America's friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."

Some critics of Bush's plan to attack Iraq say United Nations weapons inspectors should return to Iraq first. Cheney said inspectors "missed a great deal." They didn't find out about Saddam's development of a deadly chemical and he tested missiles "almost literally under the noses" of the inspectors, he said.

As he did in Nashville Monday, Cheney pledged that President Bush will "proceed with care, deliberation and in consultation" with allies and Congress.

At a Republican fundraiser in Oklahoma City, Bush didn't mention Iraq. "We must not allow the world's worst leaders to develop the world's worst weapon," he said. "By being tough and strong, patient, smart and wise ... we can make the world more peaceful for generations to come."

Cheney's assertions have been greeted skeptically by world and congressional leaders. French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday before Cheney's speech that he's concerned about a "temptation to seek to legitimize the use of unilateral and pre-emptive force."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who opposes a U.S. attack on Iraq, said Bush must do more than notify allies of his intentions. "If consultations are meant seriously, they must not just be about the how and the when, but also on the question of whether this is done at all," he said.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., joined the chorus of lawmakers who say Bush should get Congress's authorization before an attack. "That is what the Constitution prescribes, and that is what the American people expect," Leahy said.


August 29: Bush wrong to use pretext as excuse to invade Iraq
By James Bamford

As the Bush administration raises prospects of war with Iraq, USA TODAY asked experts to explore critical military, diplomatic and political factors involved and the possible consequences. This is part of that occasional series.
Vice President Cheney's speech this week showed that the administration has no new evidence to support its claim that Iraq poses an immediate threat to the United States. Instead, Cheney used standard, vague terms: "no doubt" Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction or will acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon." The administration also points to the possible presence of fleeing al-Qaeda members in northern Iraq, perhaps of senior rank. But it has difficulty tying them directly to Saddam because the area is largely under the control of Kurdish opposition leader Jallal Tallabani, who has worked with the Bush administration against Saddam.

Without convincing evidence of imminent danger, administration officials have been dusting off old cases that hint at Iraqi plots and conspiracies, but are unsupported by facts. Many worry that such incidents will be exploited as pretexts to justify pre-emptive strikes. The Navy, for instance, is considering changing the status of a pilot shot down over Iraq during the Gulf War from missing in action to captured. But, given no known physical evidence to support that possibility nor any new facts, some see this as one more cynical political pretext for invasion.

Bush administration officials also have been reviving the old story that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met in the Czech Republic capital of Prague with an Iraqi agent five months before the attacks — a possible link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. An unnamed senior administration official told the Los Angeles Times that evidence of such a meeting "holds up." A federal law enforcement official, the Times reported, said the FBI has been reviewing Atta's records with "renewed vigor" for a possible link to Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently added at a news conference that Iraq "had a relationship" with al-Qaeda.

But senior U.S. intelligence officials have discounted the meeting. "We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on," said FBI Director Robert Mueller. The records revealed that Atta was in Virginia Beach during the time he supposedly met the Iraqi in Prague.

While the administration is under increasing pressure to make its case for invasion, using as pretexts supposed instances such as these carries grave dangers. The past holds lessons about pretext and making the right — and wrong — decisions.

One of the most outrageous uses of pretext took place during the Kennedy administration after the failed Bay of Pigs operation, in which the CIA wrongly underestimated the amount of internal support for Fidel Castro.

With the CIA out of the picture, the Joint Chiefs of Staff saw a grand opportunity for the military to launch an all-out war against Cuba. But they needed a pretext. The answer was Operation Northwoods: The Joint Chiefs would secretly launch a war of terror on the U.S. public — then blame it on Castro.

According to long-hidden top-secret documents I obtained from the National Archives, Operation Northwoods called for innocent people to be shot on U.S. streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk; for waves of terrorism in Washington, Miami and elsewhere. Using phony evidence to blame Castro, the Joint Chiefs would get their needed pretext.

Each member of the Joint Chiefs signed off on the plan. Then the chairman hand-carried it to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara — who promptly rejected it.

Two years later, U.S. generals were looking for another pretext to go to war, this time in Vietnam. In the summer of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sought to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam's civil war. The decision was made to launch hit-and-run attacks against coastal North Vietnamese targets while a slow-moving destroyer, the USS Maddox, sat just off the shore in international waters. Knowing the North Vietnamese would associate the nearby warship with the attacks, the Pentagon likely hoped to provoke a retaliatory strike against the vessel — the perfect pretext for a declaration of war.

Indeed, North Vietnamese patrol boats fired torpedoes at the ship — but missed. The Maddox sailed safely away. McNamara ordered the largely useless coastal attacks to continue and sent the ship back to its original dangerous position.

Two nights after the first attack, the USS C. Turner Joy, escorting the Maddox, sent messages to Washington indicating the ship was under attack. It was later found that no such attack took place; the messages were blamed on nervous crewmembers and radar "ghost images." But it was the excuse Johnson and McNamara sought. They pressed Congress for a declaration of war. Captured by the moment's hysteria, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. An incident that never took place became the pretext for expanding a war that would claim the lives of more than 50,000 Americans as well as a million-plus Vietnamese.

"Many of the people who were associated with the war were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing," recalled George Ball, at the time a State undersecretary. "The sending of a destroyer up the Tonkin Gulf was primarily for provocation. ... There was a feeling that if the destroyer got into some trouble, that it would provide the provocation we needed."

History is layered with the bodies of those who have died when someone mistakes zealotry for patriotism and pretext for truth. If the Bush administration does embark on a bloody war in the Middle East, it should be based on certainty, not pretext.


August 30: Not So Fast Bush Will Invade Iraq ... Eventually

With reams of disinformation spewing from Washington—much of it designed to keep the odious Saddam Hussein off-balance, some of it scripted to torpedo resumption of U.N. arms inspections—it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in the administration’s plans for Iraq. But one thing is clear: Bush is bent on war.

Tom DeLay’s hyper-jingoistic August 21 speech—“The question is not whether to go to war, for war has already been thrust upon us ... the only choice is between victory and defeat”—was, according to pundit Mark Shields, prepared in careful collaboration with Condoleeza Rice, the president’s hawkish national security adviser. And Dick Cheney’s August 26 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars—mocking the notion of resumed inspections and all but declaring (without any supporting evidence) that Saddam has nukes—made it crystal clear to any doubters that Dubya and his civilian cronies in the military-industrial complex have made up their minds.

That the superhawks won the debate within the administration has been clear ever since early June, when the White House dumped its principal military anti-terrorism counselor, Deputy National Security Adviser Wayne Downing, over his opposition to a long and destructive air-and-ground campaign in Iraq. But history will undoubtedly record the defining moment as Bush’s Iraq-driven June 1 speech at West Point, which has received insufficient attention. In it, Bush outlined the most radical change in military doctrine since the dawn of the Cold War, consigning deterrence and containment to the dustbin and affirming the U.S. readiness to take “pre-emptive action” (a euphemism for aggression). The result of a year-long reflection by the Bushies, the speech prefigured the Cheney and DeLay’s first-strike drum-beating. (For a brilliant dissection of this speech, see “Pre-emption: A Nuclear Schieffen Plan?” on the indispensable Web site of Defense and the National Interest, a consortium of disillusioned military officials and analysts at www.d-n-i.net.)

Wth Bush decided on a “pre-emptive” war, the only question is: When?

Despite musings in some quarters about a November Surprise, or an all-out military campaign next spring, there is every reason to believe that the war on Iraq will be timed for maximum effect on Bush’s re-election in 2004. The White House reasons that a full-scale invasion of Iraq—the only way to secure its professed goal of “regime change”—will reignite the nationalist fervor unleashed by the 9/11 attacks, guaranteeing the continued quiescence of the Democrats and sending the president’s approval ratings (now around 65 percent in most polls) back into the stratosphere.

The tanking of the economy—too slow so far to offer any measurable improvement of the Democrats’ chances in November, but likely to have accelerated by 2004—and the nagging Harken and Halliburton scandals’ residual potential to tarnish the Bush-Cheney ticket together mean that Bush will need to keep in reserve the option of lighting the counterfire of war fever to ensure his victory. (That’s what Dubya meant when he proclaimed from Crawford, “I’m a patient man.”)

The economic consequences of the war—including soaring oil prices—at the time of a metastasizing budget deficit (the Democratic-controlled Senate Budget Committee is already projecting a deficit of $400 billion-plus without the war) cannot be allowed to hit voters’ pocketbooks until Bush’s second term is assured. Nor can the stream of body bags inevitable in the kind of air-ground campaign envisioned be allowed to give pause too soon to voters used to the infinitesimal U.S. casualty rates of the Gulf and Afghanistan wars.

This is the most poll-driven administration in U.S. history— even more so than during Clinton’s Dick Morris period—and the Bushies’ readings of the numbers tell them the public is not yet ready for war. For example, the August 13 Washington Post/ABC poll showed that, when asked if war on Iraq meant “significant” U.S. casualties, support for it plummeted to 40 percent, while opposition rose to 51 percent. A CBS survey days later produced similar results. And the CNN poll taken near the end of August showed a one-month drop of almost nine points in support for the war.

Numbers like these suggest a significant political opening that the Democrats are failing to exploit against Bush. The Democrats refuse to behave like the opposition party they’re supposed to be. By continuing to hew to the mantra “don’t criticize Bush’s war on terrorism,” the Democrats are not only ignoring a chance to attract increasingly uneasy voters and improve their chances for this November’s issue-less congressional elections, they are sidestepping an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a solid challenge to Bush’s leadership in the presidential elections just two years hence. Of course, they’re also abandoning any claim to moral leadership (an irrelevant quibble with the cynicism that dominates domestic political calculus these days). When they’re not bleating their support for all-out war on Iraq, as Dick Gephardt has done, the Democrats’ silence on Iraq is, to borrow Talleyrand’s famous dictum, worse than a crime—it’s a mistake.

Furthermore, the Bush administration will wait because the United States is not ready for this war, either diplomatically or militarily. Those like James Baker who argue that U.N. approval must be sought for any war on Iraq are whistling in the wind—it would certainly be scuttled by a Security Council veto from China or Russia (unlikely to approve war on a country with which Vladimir Putin has just signed a huge long-term trade deal). Bush will thus be forced to cobble together a coalition outside U.N. auspices. But with whom?

The only solid anti-Saddam ally until now has been Tony Blair. But British support for the war is weakening under public pressure—a U.K. poll released August 28 shows support for the Bush-Cheney line on Iraq has fallen to just 30 percent, with 56 percent of Labour Party supporters opposed to the war. Numbers like these explain why British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw publicly plumped for a political solution based on resumed inspections of Iraq the day after Cheney’s speech rejected them.

Among other NATO allies, Spain’s Jose María Anzar and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Bush’s arch-conservative pals—are going no further than generalized condemnations of Saddam, without committing themselves to war. France’s Jacques Chirac is opposed to anything but a political solution. Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder has scored points campaigning as an anti-war candidate, forcing his formerly hawkish opponent Edmund Stoiber to advocate U.N. approval before an attack and favor a “European common attitude” toward the war—inevitably a negative one. The smaller European countries are all against military action.

Turkey, with its U.S. bases, would be a critical component of the anti-Saddam coalition. But the lame-duck administration of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has already proclaimed its opposition to the war; and the most likely product of this November’s parliamentary elections—a coalition government of the Islamist party and ultra-right nationalists—would be even more unlikely to allow Turkish soil to be used to launch an attack on Iraq.

According to Aviation Week and Space Technology (noted for its Pentagon sources), planning for the war includes three projected bases in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. But Washington has assured Ankara there will be no independent Kurdish state once the war is over—so there’s little incentive for the Kurds (already betrayed by the United States during the Gulf War) to see the autonomous zone they’ve won destroyed by Bush’s bloodthirsty adventure. They’re getting rich from the handsome rake-offs on nearly all trade with Iraq, for which the territory under their control is the principal route.

Even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—America’s lavishly paid client—has thundered that in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, “not one Arab leader will be able to control the angry outburst of the masses” if the United States attacks Iraq. That leaves an unsavory gaggle of corrupt and despotic sheikdoms as our allies in the “war for democracy”: the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Yet the Kuwaitis, like the Saudis, are opposed to the war because they’re worried Saddam’s forces will blow up their highly vulnerable oil fields, as occurred in the Gulf War. And the huge new U.S. base just south of Doha in Qatar—designed to replace America’s Saudi base in al-Kharg (which the Saudis won’t let us use for the war) as headquarters for the U.S. air command—has not yet been completed. But Qatar’s foreign minister has said his country will follow the Saudis: no use of its bases. (It’s curious that this new base, unlike al-Kharg, is not being constructed with bunkers or other systematic protections against chemical and biological warfare—which would seem logical if U.S. claims about Saddam’s weapons capacity were really true). This helps explain Bush’s repulsive late-August boot-licking of the corrupt and repressive Saudi royal family, in a vain effort to win Saudi support for the war.

Given all this, war with Iraq is more than unlikely before 2004—meaning there’s still time to convince the U.S. electorate that it’s a foolhardy project, illegal under international law, that will only manufacture new generations of terrorists throughout the Islamic world. Such a war would vitiate our preachments on no pre-emptive war to countries with nukes like India and Pakistan and would leave the planet’s only superpower further isolated in world opinion as an aggressor nation.

That makes the Democrats’ decision to leave the education of the American people about the dangers in Bush’s war plans to a handful of members of Bush’s own party even more indefensible. This reprehensible caution will prove, in the end, to have been self-defeating. All together now: Four More Years!