Big Lies and Small Ones

Adolph Hitler, everybody's favorite evildoer, once wrote (in his 1925 political testament Mein Kampf), "The great masses of the people ... will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one." The pronouncements of the Bush administration over recent months fall squarely into that infamous category of public deception. Today, of course, we use a different terminology to describe what's being attempted; we call it "spin," but it's really the same old sordid game. Truth being the first casualty of war, the conflict in Iraq and its aftermath have provided a natural venue for an apparently inbred White House duplicity.

The foremost war-related example of the administration's big-lie propensity is the spurious claim that the fall of Iraq constitutes a victory over Osama bin Laden and his terrorist cohorts. The president himself issued this particular whopper during his choreographed, pseudo-heroic appearance "at sea" (30 miles off San Diego) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Said the commander in chief with straight face, "We've removed an ally of al Qaeda." There has never been any solid, confirmed proof for the claim of an Iraqi-al Qaeda connection; only the flimsiest circumstantial evidence exists, such as vague reports placing bin Laden operatives in Baghdad on occasion. (Where haven't they been?) Furthermore, the mutual dislike of secularist Saddam Hussein and religious fundamentalist Osama bin Laden precludes the likelihood of any past alliance.

George W. Bush and company know this full well, but they're capitalizing on the fact that many Americans don't, in order to create a popular justification for their war. Polls continue to show that half or more of our fellow citizens believe Saddam exported terrorism and Iraqis planned or participated in 9/11. This is largely because administration spokesmen directly or indirectly suggested as much and because Americans like to trust their leaders. (They wouldn't send us to war if there wasn't a good reason, would they?) These misrepresentations have played directly into the sad reality that all Arabs seem alike to undiscriminating Westerners.

The war's second big lie, also conjured up to justify the US invasion, is the assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed an immense cache of weapons of mass destruction (primed nuclear warheads, canisters of poison gas, vials of lethal biological germs) and that moreover he would use what he had against Americans. This tale was told repeatedly by Bush loyalists in the runup to war, and it's still being told -- they're there, by God, and we'll find them, if we have to sift every grain of sand between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Excuse my suspicion that the weapons will, indeed, be found in some form, even if they have to be figuratively recreated out of whole cloth -- or, rather, chemically compatible components. Too much is riding on their existence -- specifically that George W. Bush saved us from them -- for it to be otherwise.

Still another big wartime lie is that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was aimed at replacing a despotic regime with genuine, Jeffersonian-style democracy. This went down well with the American people, who naturally prefer to believe their wars are undertaken only for the best of motives. Implanting democracy certainly fits that bill. Just one problem: Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has let slip that, despite widely publicized presidential assurances to the contrary, it won't happen. In a moment of hubristic candor, Field Marshall Rummy announced that Iraq's majority Shi'ites, who appear to want an Islamic state, won't be allowed to have one. Democracy in Iraq will apparently guarantee that Iraqis can freely elect any government the Bush administration approves.

The search is on, in order words, for a more presentable, more amenable, more pro-American Saddam, a cooperative strongman willing to suppress Muslim clerics and (equally important) replace Iraq's Ba'ath party socialism with corporate free enterprise. That new, improved Saddam may be exile leader Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraq National Congress, a corruption-tinged businessman who barely escaped imprisonment in Jordan for Enron-like banking activities. He's the Bush crowd's kind of guy, the favored candidate of Rumsfeld, Cheney and the White House neoconservatives. It was Chalabi who, according to The Nation's Alexander Cockburn, figured prominently in another of the calculated untruths, albeit a smaller one, that emerged from the Iraq war.

A prominent myth, cultivated by the prosecutors of the war, is that of the "happy Iraqis," the former subjects of Saddam who uniformly reveled in his departure and spontaneously welcomed American troops with open arms (thus reinforcing our self-image as liberators). This purported mass reaction was most memorably exemplified by the now-famous photos and videos of supposedly typical Baghdad citizens savaging a toppled statue of the dictator upon the city's fall. The deliriously happy crowd, writes Cockburn, numbered 150 participants at most (a fact not revealed by complicit US news media) and consisted primarily of Chalabi supporters who, along with their leader, were whisked into the country by Bush officials and a cooperative Defense Department. Most real Iraqis were still sequestered in their homes and were more apprehensive than joyful.

Cockburn's account was confirmed in its essentials by journalists of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), whose daily reports were somehow allowed to filter into American living rooms via C-SPAN -- perhaps because they didn't deliver their news in French. One on-scene CBC observer of the anti-Saddam revelers remarked that the celebrating crowd was remarkably small for a city (Baghdad) of five million. That the Bush White House would cheerlead this contrived spectacle is fully understandable. What is less understandable -- contemptible, in fact -- is that American television networks and print outlets went along for the ride.

Was the desire for expanded viewerships and readerships so powerful that elaborate lies had to be visually reinforced by a profit-hungry corporate media anxious to please a stateside public equally hungry for positive outcomes? Apparently so. Now that the news from Iraq is no longer quite so edifying (looting, anti-American demonstrations, US troops shooting civilians), we seem to be getting a lot less of it.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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