The invasions of Grenada and Panama during the 1980s and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 were military successes, but disastrous media failures. In part, the failures were a result of military restrictions on access but the media did not react to these official constraints by moreaggressive investigative and reporting efforts in areas open to them, nor did they struggle very energetically to get the restraints removed.In the cases of Grenada and Panama, once the great military triumphs over two of the tiniest countries in the world were completed, and officials turned their attention elsewhere, the mainstream media dutifully did the same.
The Persian Gulf War was a larger-scale effort, with international dimensions, and its preparation and the war itself were of longer duration, even though the imbalance of forces between the West and Iraq was overwhelming. This meant that there was more room for debate and public discussion before the outbreak of hostilities. The main attention in what follows will be on this early period in which the media could have fostered a democratic debate on issues of war and peace.
Phase l - August 2, 1990 through January 15, 1991
Following the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq on August 2, 1990, the Bush administration very quickly decided to use this invasion for Bush's and the security state's political advantage by compelling Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait in total defeat and humiliation ("with his tail between his legs," in Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's memorable phrase), This required fending off all attempts at a negotiated settlement that would have allowed Saddam a dignified exit, and readying the public for war.

The media's role was crucial. The Reagan-Bush administration had actively supported Iraq's aggression against Iran, 1980-88 and subsequently the Bush administration continued to aid and appease Saddam Hussein through July 31,199O. On July 25,1990, a week before the invasion, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie had assured Saddam that the United States had "no opinion" on his conflict with Kuwait which was "Arab" business. And on July 31, John Kelly, the highest ranking Bush official directly concerned with Middle Eastern affairs, told a congressional committee that this country had no obligation to defend Kuwait. Numerous CIA alerts that Iraq was massing troops on Kuwait's border and that an invasion was imminent did not cause the Bush administration to issue a word of warning. This was either entrapment or colossal incompetence and blundering. It was important for Bush's freedom of action that his virtual go-ahead to the invasion, and the prior appeasement policy, be buried. The media obliged.

As Bush was allegedly taking a high moral stance against "naked aggression," it was also important that the background of Reagan-Bush support of Iraq's aggression against Iran be ignored. Furthermore, less than a year before Iraq's invasion, the Bush administration had invaded Panama, in violation of the UN and OAS Charters and in the face of a UN oppositional majority, vetoed by the United States. South Africa had been ordered to leave Namibia by UN and World Court orders from 1968, and it regularly invaded Angola from Namibia from 1975 into the 1980s. But Reagan-Bush policy in that case was "quiet diplomacy" and "constructive engagement," with the United States supporting a "linkage" between South Africa's gradual withdrawal from Namibia and the departure of Cuban troops from Angola. Israel, also, was in long-standing violation of Security Council orders to leave the occupied territories, which led to no cutbacks in massive U.S. aid, let alone sanctions or bombing. Attention to these double standards would have called into question the purity of Bush's insistence that aggression could never be allowed to stand or to pay. The media obliged by rarely, if ever, allowing these matters to surface.

Similarly, the United States had long failed to meet its legal obligations to UN financing, had withdrawn from UNESCO, and was far and away the dominant user of the veto against UN attempts to oppose violations of international law. It simply ignored a 1986 World Court decision that its attacks on Nicaragua constituted an "unlawful use of force." In the case of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, however, with the Soviet veto and military capability no longer an obstruction, the United States was able to mobilize the UN to attack this particular law violator. The double standard here, and the turnabout in treatment of UN authority, were dramatic, but were essentially ignored in the mainstream media, which reproduced the U.S. official view that the UN was finally resuming its proper role in maintaining the peace . In addition to the decontextualization of issues just described, the Bush administration depended heavily on mass-media cooperation in its various strategies for mobilizing consent, all of which involved the use of traditional propaganda techniques. One technique was the demonization of Saddam Hussein, who, like Qadaffi and Manuel Noriega in earlier years, was made into the embodiment of evil and "another Hitler." Effective propaganda here required that the mass media repeat the propaganda claims and disclose the evidence of the new villain's evil acts, but avoid mention not only of any positive features of his rule, but the fact that the villain was for a long time nurtured by the U.S. government as a valuable ally, and treated with parallel apologetics by the mainstream media (a "pragmatist," with the evils now featured then glossed over). Demonization was accompanied by new atrocity stories, often inflated and sometimes wholly fabricated. A classic was the alleged Iraqi removal from incubators of several hundred babies in Kuwaiti hospitals following the occupation. This story, created by a Kuwait-financed propaganda operation, was accepted and transmitted without verification by the mainstream media, and was still repeated by CNN and others long after it had been shown to be a complete fabrication.

An important part of the Bush war program was to place a large U.S. contingent in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, to get the media focused on military maneuvers and to bond them and the public with our fighting men facing a ruthless enemy. This was accomplished, first, by claiming that Iraq was planning to invade Saudi Arabia. This claim was a propaganda lie, as Iraq not only denied any such intention, it had insufficient troops and supplies for such an operation, and such action would have been a suicidal declaration of war against the United States. The U.S. mainstream media nevertheless accepted the offtcial version without question and quickly urged vigorous military action against Iraq.

Having gotten a large U.S. force in place, the Bush team enlarged it substantially immediately after the November elections. With "our boys" over there, the media cooperatively spent a large fraction of their organizational resources in exploring military deployments, possible scenarios of war, and the conditions and opinions of our boys. This not only diverted attention from real issues, it readied the public for war. The most important official lie and greatest media service to the War policy was on the question of diplomacy. It was crucial to the Bush strategy that a diplomatic solution be averted - as noted by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times of August 22, 1990, the dipIomatic track must be blocked lest negotiations "defuse the crisis" while allowing Iraq "a few token gains." The administration therefore carefully subverted an early Arab effort at resoIution of the crisis. Iraq itself, taken aback by the Bush administration's furious reaction, made at least five diplomatic approaches and proposals, all summarily rejected by the United States. The French and Russians also tried to open diplomatic lines, to no avail. In this process, the mainstream media not only served administration policy by giving these diplomatic efforts and their immediate summary rejection by the United States minimal attention, in the end, when the Bush administration kept repeating that the United States had tried and exhausted the diplomatic option, the media accepted this lie as true.

The significance of this Big Lie and its media support is highlighted by a national public opinion poll reported in the Washington Post on January 11, 1991, which indicated that two-thirds of the public favored a conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict if that would lead to an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The poll was biased against a positive response, as it indicated that the Bush administration was opposed to the proposal. As it happens, about one week earlier a diplomatic proposal had been floated by the Iraq government, supported by the Iraqi democratic opposition, which embodied the elements of the resolution supported by at least two-thirds of the U.S. public. The Iraqi proposal was flatly rejected by the Bush administration, and went virtually unreported by the U.S. mass media. That is to say, the media suppressed and failed to allow or encourage a debate on a political solution favored by the public; instead it allowed the administration to pull the country into war, based on a media-sustained lie that all the diplomatic routes had been exhausted.
It was important for Bush's freedom of action that his virtual go-ahead to the invasion, and the prior appeasement policy, be buried. The media obliged.
Demonization was accompanied by new atrocity stories, often inflated and sometimes wholly fabricated.
In the end, when the Bush administration kept repeating that the United States had tried and exhausted the diplomatic option, the media accepted this lie as true.
The War - January 16 through February 27,1991

During the War proper, access to military personnel was closely controlled by a pool and censorship system, causing exceptional reliance on government handouts. The aim was to get the media to focus on the new weaponry, to convey the image of a clean war, to minimize images of human suffering, and to give the impression of warmakers in excellent control of the situation.

The result was one of the great successes in the history of war propaganda. The media were incorporated into a system of serious censorship with only mild protests, focused throughout on precisely what the censors wanted them to, and helped produce a genuine war hysteria. The control of information by government "couldn't have been better," stated Michael Deaver, the number two image-making official in the Reagan administration. Douglas Kellner, in his extensive examination of media coverage, concludes that the mainstream media:

    [P]resented incredible PR for the miIitary, inundating the country with images of war and the new high-tech military for months, while the brutality of war was normalized and even glamorized in the uncritical media coverage. Throughout the Persian Gulf TV War, the culture of militarism became US mainstream culture after a period when war and the military were in disfavor.

During the War, the media passed on innumerable rumors and official and unofficial fabrications concerning Iraqi atrocities, the size of Iraq's forces in Kuwait and chemical and other arms capabilities, alleged exclusive Iraqi responsibility for oil spills, the number of Iraqi hostages taken from Kuwait in the final Iraqi exodus, and the legitimacy of U.S. targeting and "turkey shooting. "Although it was clear from official statements during the War that the United States was deliberately destroying the infrastructure of Iraq beyond military necessity, the media never picked this up or discussed its compatibility with the UN mandate or international law and morality. When U.S. officials adamantly claimed that an infant-formula milk factory destroyed in Baghdad actually made biological weapons, the U.S. media accepted this as true, despite the fact that Peter Amett's and Iraqi officials' denials were confirmed by numerous independent sources.

When the U.S. military engaged in its final orgy of massacre on the Highway of Death, destroying many thousands of fleeing Iraqi soldiers and, almost surely, thousands of Kuwaiti hostages and other refugees, the U.S. media provided an apologetic cover: averting their eyes to a maximum degree; failing to discuss the use of napalm, fragmentation bombs, and fuel air bombs; stressing that the fleeing Iraqis were "looters" and ignoring the large numbers of hostages and refugees slaughtered along with the Iraqis (although they had given close attention to the earlier claims of Iraqi hostages taken from Kuwait); repeating the official explanation that it was important to destroy Iraq's military capability, while failing to note the limited UN mandate and international law condemning the slaughter of completely helpless and fleeing soldiers and burying large numbers of them in unmarked graves. After discussing what he calls "probably the most appalling episode" in the War, and quoting an Air Force officer that "it was close to Armageddon," Kellner says: "And that's it. Armageddon for the Iraqis but no details, no follow ups, and certainly no outrage.

The control of information by government "couldn't have been better," stated Michael Deaver, the number two image-making official in the Reagan administration.
And that's it. Armageddon for the Iraqis but no details, no follow ups, and certainly no outrage.
The Aftermath - February 28, 1991 28,199l to the Present

The euphoria following the pulverizing of a completely over-matched Third World country continued for some months, but eventually faded as neglected internal problems came to the fore later as the results of the War came under closer scrutiny. Belated attenton was given to the earlier appeasement policy and the Bush administration's role in building up Saddam Hussein's military establishment, although almost nothing was said of the administration's virtual enticement of Iraq to invade Kuwait and its subsequent complete refusal to allow a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. The fact that the "allied" military effort stopped short of removing "another Hitler," but left him with just enough arms to crush dissident and oppressed Kurds, Shiites, and any democratic opposition, was noted, but its full implications were not discussed. There was some slight publicity given to the fact that Bush and the CIA had encouraged the Kurds to fight, but virtually none was given to the administration's refusal to provide arms to those fighting Saddam Hussein.

The fact that the United States was again selling arms to the Middle East on a massive scale was barely noted in the media, and was certainly not contrasted with earlier pious claims about bringing a new era of peace to that area. The media touched lightly on the fact that the fight for principle did not include bringing democracy to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, and little attention was paid to the retaliatory killings in Kuwait, which may have exceeded the inflated and indignantly publicized executions in Kuwait by Iraq .

Most notable in the aftermath coverage was the continued attention to Iraq's obstructions and refusals to allow inspections, over-flights, and destruction of its military resources. This was the basis for the continued limitations on Iraqi trade and oil sales, and made more difficult its recovery from the "near apocalyptic conditions" reported by a UN team in June 1 9 9 1 . In perfect accord with the U.S. foreign policy agenda, the media paid almost no attention to Iraqi civilian hunger, sickness and death, but focused unrelentingly on Iraq's alleged foot-dragging on weapons control.

In sum, in the three phases of the Persian Gulf War, U.S. mass-media coverage was to an extraordinary degree a servant of official policy. In the crucial months before the War, the mainstream media allowed themselves to be managed in the service of war mobilization, and failed to provide the factual and opinion basis for public evaluation. Then and later the mass media served ongoing government policy, not the democratic polity.

-Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1993

Edward S. Herman is a leading economist, media scholar, and dedicated radical democrat. His book Triumph of the Market (in which this essay appears) is available from Black Rose Books.

You can also buy this book online right now.

Edward S. Herman

Front Page News Fiction Reviews Rhymes Zines

Resources Declassified Future Shock

Copyright © 1995-1998 Circuit Traces Communications. All rights reserved.