The Skeptics

Deception and the Iraq War: Another Take

The author's views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

I cannot help but weigh in on the discussion that fellow National Interest bloggers Paul Pillar and Trevor Thrall have started on the subject of propaganda and the Iraq War, as it touches on issues that are central to my research.

I just have a few points to make. First, the accounts provided by Pillar and Thrall are more compatible than one might initially conclude. In response to Pillar’s argument that presidents can utilize propaganda to generate public support for adventures like the Iraq War, Thrall responds—rightly in my view—that the effects of propaganda are mediated by two factors: public ignorance and ideology. But doesn’t this mean that presidents are pushing on an open door when they go to hawk their wares? If a sizeable minority (at least) is predisposed to buy what their fellow Republican or Democrat is selling and the remainder does not have the intellectual firepower at their disposal to push back very hard against the official message, then what’s to stop a determined president from threat inflating through sheer repetition?

This brings me to my second point: the crucial role that the political opposition plays in fomenting debate. As academic treatments of the marketplace of ideas have made clear, the political opposition plays an outsized role in generating debate or not. If the political opposition chooses to acquiesce in the official message, then even members of the public that are predisposed, by way of partisan affiliation, to be skeptical of what is coming out the White House are likely to swallow the official line. But if the political opposition—in the Iraq case, the Democrats in Congress—chooses to push back against the war-party’s messaging, then space is created for more widespread dissent.

The problem is that the opposition party’s calculations about whether to support or oppose a potential war are only loosely connected to the merits of the case being made for war by the party in power. In the Iraq case, I suspect, most congressional Democrats understood that the Bush administration was inflating the threat but chose not to make much of an issue out of it for two reasons.

First, the administration’s feint toward the United Nations allowed Democrats to argue that, by supporting the administration, they were bolstering the chances of coercive diplomacy working and thus lessening the chances of war. I find it hard to believe that any Democrat could hold this position sincerely—as the Bush administration’s determination to unseat Saddam was widely known—but it did provide a politically palatable way for Democrats to vote for the use of force while not doing so at the same time. It is for this reason, I would add, that the administration’s feint toward the UN was as important politically as its propaganda about the Iraq threat.

Second, and the importance of this point cannot be overstated, Democrats expected any Iraq War to be short and to result in a decisive victory. This meant that they would be opposing a war that would ultimately turn out to be popular and successful, putting Democrats on the wrong side of history. This was not an experience Democrats wanted to repeat after the Gulf War.

When these considerations are taken together, the timid response of congressional Democrats to the administration’s fearmongering becomes explicable, as does the stillborn nature of the debate in the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003. The marketplace of ideas could hardly operate when the supply of dissenting views was scarce, and the demand for those views was underwhelming.

As for how long-lasting the damage has been from Iraq-era propaganda, Pillar focuses on the fact that significant numbers of Americans still harbor misperceptions about the nature of the threat that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed in 2002-2003. While the polling on these questions is discouraging when taken on its own terms, it needs to be paired with evidence collected by John Mueller that an “Iraq Syndrome” has taken hold, reducing public enthusiasm for wars of choice. Some learning has clearly gone on. But how long the Iraq Syndrome will persist is the great, open question.