Paul Pillar

The Iraq War and the Power of Propaganda

It is extraordinary that the makers of the Iraq War in the George W. Bush administration got so many people to go along with such an ill-conceived project of such a small number of zealous proponents (a “cabal,” in Lawrence Wilkerson's phrase). Being able to exploit the national anguish and anger over 9/11 was a critical ingredient, of course. But the success of the war-selling campaign was testimony to what a determined use of the opinion-molding capabilities of the government of the day, including the bully pulpit of the presidency, can accomplish. The dragging of even many Democrats and liberals into going along with the project was less a matter of instilling any specific mistaken belief than of instilling a mood and momentum. It was a matter of sending a war train hurtling down the track and daring anyone to get in the way.

The manufactured issue of an “alliance” between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda demonstrated the manipulative potential involved. Unlike the sales campaign's companion issue of weapons of mass destruction, there was no logical or historical basis for believing that such an alliance existed. The postulation of such an alliance also contradicted judgments of the U.S. intelligence community and other experts inside and outside government. Getting many members of the public to believe that such an alliance nonetheless existed was partly a matter of touting phony evidence such as a nonexistent meeting in Prague and of making highly tendentious interpretations of other reporting. But promoting this belief was at least as much a matter of rhetorical themes as of manipulated evidence. The belief was cultivated by repeatedly uttering “Iraq,” “9/11” and “war on terror” in the same breath. The cultivation was so successful that by the peak of the war-promoters’ sales campaign in late 2002 a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein not only was allied with al-Qaeda but also had been directly involved in the 9/11 attack.

Now there is evidence of how long-lasting such assiduously promoted falsehoods can be. Majorities may no longer believe in such untruths, but large minorities still do. In a new poll directed by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, 38 percent of Americans polled said that the United States had “found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.” In a somewhat differently formulated question, 15 percent said that “Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11th attacks” and another 31 percent—for a total of 46 percent—believed that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 but had given “substantial support” to al-Qaeda. Perhaps in an age when major presidential candidates doubt that natural life on earth has evolved or that human activities affect the climate, we should not be surprised at such officially instigated ignorance. But with nearly a decade having passed, with all that has been brought to light about the war-makers' sales campaign, and with all the costs and agonies of the Iraq War itself (and even allowing for some dissonance-reduction along those who supported the war and want to believe they did so for a good reason), these poll results are still remarkable.

A couple of implications follow about the present. One is that when an administration sets out to manipulate truth and falsehood as shamelessly as the promoters of the Iraq War did, the damage is not limited only to adoption of whatever policies the manipulators are promoting. The substantial lingering misconceptions among the public make for broader damage. The persistent mistaken beliefs among more than a third of Americans about Iraq and al-Qaeda greatly inhibit public understanding about terrorism, about the Middle East, and about how their own government has operated.

The second implication is that the government of the day, if applying enough single-minded determination, has tremendous power to sway the populace and generate support for new initiatives. This power could be used for good and not only for ill. Just imagine, for example, if the kind of concerted sales campaign that made it possible to do something as extraordinary as launching a major offensive war were to be applied to an all-out U.S. effort to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an effort still would run up against resistance from a strong lobby, but unlike with the Iraq War, selling the effort would not require manufacturing any issues or manipulating any falsehoods. Lack of resolution of the conflict really does hurt U.S. interests, and one could explain that while sticking totally to the truth.

Image by Deutsche Fotothek