Insinuation as War Propaganda

In 2002 and early 2003, the Bush administration made its case for war with Iraq. There were assertions given about Saddam’s maintenance of weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda. What was never said explicitly, however, was that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. Yet by late 2003, seventy percent of polled Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally behind 9/11. Bush’s Republican voters were especially convinced of this.

Yet Bush and his officials never said this. And after the multiple disasters of the Iraq war began to present themselves with great clarity, the Bush officials were questioned about their pre-war intel. Yet they could say, strictly speaking, one thing they never claimed was Saddam was behind 9/11.

Condoleezza Rice had said something about the attacks originating in the same region or area as Iraq. There was all sorts of insinuation that Saddam might have been involved. And surely the Bush team never put an ounce of effort into disabusing the American people of the completely false notion that Saddam was behind 9/11. The vast majority of Americans believed it—indeed, at times, more Americans thought Saddam was behind the attacks than believed the Iraq War was just!—yet it was not only completely untrue, but not directly rooted in any explicit assertion given by the administration. Various pro-war commentators had said it, but Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell—none of them ever did.

Fast forward a decade to the current day. Seventy-one percent of Americans—almost exactly the percentage that thought Saddam was behind 9/11—think that Iran has nuclear weapons. It’s a small sample, but it is consistent with polls over the last couple years, each one showing a majority believing Iran already has nukes, and almost nine out of ten Americans sure that Iran is seeking them.

Indeed, talking with “respectable” liberals—the type who listen to NPR and watch Jon Stewart—I find repeatedly that even folks who don’t want to go to war assume that every reasonable American knows that Iran is on the brink of having nukes, if the regime doesn’t already have them.

What’s bizarre about this, other than the fact that there is no credible evidence that Iran has nuclear weapons, is that no one in a position of official authority is claiming it either! Every report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, even when framed in a way to make Iran seem ominous, confirms the “non-diversion” of nuclear materials to weaponization purposes. The CIA and intelligence community have consistently stood by the National Intelligence Estimate findings that Iran has not sought a nuclear weapon since 2003 (and Iran doing so back then is only suspected based on very scant evidence produced by the Israeli government).

What’s more, in the last week or so, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stressed that not only does Iran not have nuclear weapons; there is no evidence that Iran even wants nuclear weapons!! 

Even if Iran wanted to make nuclear weapons, it would probably take three or more years. Iran is reportedly attempting to enrich its uranium to 19.75% LEU. Nuclear weapons require 95%—and there is no evidence that Iran has the means to do this. It is even more dubious to believe a nuclear-armed Iran would be some sort of unprecedented threat for the United States, but that’s neither here nor there.

So what’s the deal? The Obama administration (and the Bush administration, and the UN) have all had the same official position: Iran doesn’t have nukes, and the Iranians probably aren’t looking to get them. Yet seven out of ten Americans think Iran already has them. Meanwhile, every Republican presidential candidate except Ron Paul warns about the unparalleled threat of a nuclear Iran, and the Obama White House punishes the country with tighter sanctions and ever more threats.

Indeed, Obama has thrived on the insinuation that Iran has nukes. When he acted tough back in 2009 because Iran had been caught red-handed with its fledgling nuclear facility at Qom—a civilian nuclear facility that Iran readily alerted the international community to, consistent with its continuing adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory—he did so against a backdrop of insinuation that of course everyone knows Iran wants nuclear weapons. He did this even though all that existed at Qom, according to an IAEA official, was a “hole in a mountain.” Why didn’t the president remind the public instead that there is little to worry about, since the entire Defense Department and intelligence community confirm that Iran has no nuclear weapons program?

If a war begins with Iran, it will largely be on the basis of propaganda believed by the public, propaganda that the government has never officially articulated. In the past, the U.S. thrived on outright lies for war: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Kuwaiti babies being ripped from incubators, and so forth. There has long been a fair share of unsubstantiated allegations involved behind major U.S. wars—the USS Maine being sunk by the Spanish, the Zimmerman Telegram posing an actual threat to the United States, the Serbians committing genocide of ethnic Albanians, killing many tens of thousands of civilians in the late 1990s, and so on.

Yet today lies and unproven allegations are not enough. The U.S. warfare state appears to thrive on insinuation in its war propaganda. The U.S. war machine’s top brass never outright declare the most provocative claims about U.S. enemies. That way, when the war goes south and people begin accusing the political class of misleading them, the empire’s defenders can easily say (accurately in word if not in spirit): “Bush never claimed Saddam was behind 9/11! Obama never claimed Iran had nuclear weapons!”

But don’t think for a moment that our rulers aren’t glad the American people believe what they do. It makes wars so much easier to wage when the public buys into all sorts of nonsense. The plausible deniability that insinuated propaganda gives the ruling class is just icing on the cake.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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