When Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003, countless journalists in the United States extolled him for a masterful performance — making the case that Saddam Husseinâ€™s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The fact that the speech later became notorious should not obscure how easily truth becomes irrelevant in the process of going to war.
Ten years later — with Powellâ€™s speech a historic testament of shameless deception leading to vast carnage — we may not remember the extent of the fervent accolades. At the time,
fawning praise was profuse across the USAâ€™s mainline media spectrum, including the nationâ€™s reputedly great newspapers.
TheÂ New York TimesÂ editorialized that Powell â€œwas all the more convincing because he dispensed with apocalyptic invocations of a struggle of good and evil and focused on shaping a sober, factual case against Mr. Husseinâ€™s regime.â€ TheÂ Washington PostÂ was more war-crazed, headlining its editorial â€œIrrefutableâ€ and declaring that after Powellâ€™s U.N. presentation â€œit is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.â€
Powell’s Propaganda Catalyst for Our Invasion of Iraq
Yet basic flaws in Powellâ€™s U.N. speech were abundant. Slanted translations of phone intercepts rendered them sinister. Interpretations of unclear surveillance photos stretched to concoct the worst. Summaries of cherry-picked intelligence detoured around evidence that Iraq no longer had WMDs. Ballyhooed documents about an Iraqi quest for uranium were forgeries.
Assumptions about U.S. prerogatives also went largely unquestioned. In response to Powellâ€™s warning that the U.N. Security Council would place itself â€œin danger of irrelevanceâ€ by failing to endorse a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the adulation from U.S. media embraced the notion that the United Nations could only be â€œrelevantâ€ by bending to Washingtonâ€™s wishes. A combination of cooked intelligence and geopolitical arrogance, served up to rapturous reviews at home, set the stage for what was to come.
The invasion began six weeks after Powellâ€™s tour de force at the United Nations. Soon, a search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was in full swing. None turned up. In January 2004 — 11 months after Powellâ€™s U.N. speech — the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a report concluding that top officials in the Bush administration â€œsystematically misrepresented the threat from Iraqâ€™s WMD and ballistic missile programs.â€
Left twisting in the wind was Powellâ€™s speech to the U.N. Security Council, where heâ€™d issued a â€œconservative estimateâ€ that Iraq â€œhas a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent.â€ The secretary of state had declared: â€œThere can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.â€
Nineteen months after the speech, in mid-September 2004, Powell made a terse public acknowledgment. â€œI think itâ€™s unlikely that we will find any stockpiles,â€ he said. But no gingerly climb-down could mitigate the bloodshed that continued in Iraq.
A decade ago, Colin Powell played a starring role in a recurring type of political dramaturgy. Scripts vary, while similar dramas play out on a variety of scales. Behind a gauzy curtain, top officials engage in decision-making on war that gives democracy short shrift. For the public, crucial information that bears on the wisdom of warfare remains opaque or out of sight.
Among the powerful and not-so-powerful, in mass media and on Capitol Hill, the default position is still to defer to presidential momentum for war. Public candor and policy introspection remain in short supply.
The new secretary of state, John Kerry — like the one he just replaced, Hillary Clinton — voted for the Iraq war resolution in the Senate, nearly four months before Powell went to the U.N. Security Council. During the crucial lead-up months, Senator Kerry was at pains to show his avid support for an invasion. In early October 2002, appearing for an hour on MSNBCâ€™s â€œHardballâ€ program live from The Citadel as an audience of young cadets filled the screen, Kerry said: â€œIâ€™m prepared to go. I think people understand that Saddam Hussein is a danger.â€
Since then, Kerry has publicly said that he would have voted for the war resolution even if heâ€™d known that Iraq actually had no weapons of mass destruction. But on the Senate floor, Kerry prefaced his vote for war by rhetorically demanding to know why Saddam Hussein was â€œattempting to develop nuclear weapons when most nations donâ€™t even try.â€ The senator emphasized that â€œaccording to intelligence, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons.â€
Months later, when Powell trumpeted that theme at the United Nations, the landslide of testimonials included this one from a future U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice: â€œI think he has proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them, and I donâ€™t think many informed people doubted that.â€
Meanwhile, theÂ Washington PostÂ edition with the editorial headlined â€œIrrefutableâ€ also included unanimous agreement from each of the opinion columns on the facing page.
LongtimeÂ PostÂ columnist Richard Cohen attested to Powellâ€™s unquestionable veracity with these words: â€œThe evidence he presented to the United Nations — some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail — had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasnâ€™t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool — or possibly a Frenchman â€“ could conclude otherwise.â€
Inches away, another venerable pundit held forth. Powell managed to â€œpresent the world with a convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraqâ€™s secret weapons and terrorism programs yesterday,â€ wrote Jim Hoagland, aÂ PostÂ foreign-policy specialist. He concluded: â€œTo continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I donâ€™t believe that. Today, neither should you.â€
Propaganda Now Aimed at Iran
Fast forward to the current era. What are Richard Cohen and Jim Hoagland writing — about Iran?
On February 6, 2012, exactly nine years after proclaiming that â€œonly a foolâ€ could doubt Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Cohenâ€™s column declared flatly: â€œThe ultimate remedy is Iranian regime change.â€ Four months ago, Cohen wrapped up a column by observing â€œthere is still time for Iran to back down before President Obamaâ€™s red line — no nuclear weapon — is crossed. This is a war whose time has not yet come.â€ NotÂ yet.
Hoagland — a decade after telling readers they should put their trust in Colin Powellâ€™s â€œconvincing and detailed X-ray of Iraqâ€™s secret weaponsâ€ — is now making clear that his patience with Iran is wearing thin. â€œUntil recently,â€ Hoagland wrote five weeks ago, â€œI had been relatively comfortable with Obamaâ€™s assertions that there is time to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran.â€ Hoaglandâ€™s column went on to say that military strikes on Iran â€œthreaten disastrous political and economic consequences for the world,â€ so diplomatic efforts should try to avert the need for such strikes — before they become necessary.
So goes the dominant spectrum of opinionating and policymaking for war, from eagerness to reluctance. Propaganda lead-ups to warfare are as varied as wars themselves; and yet every style of such propaganda relies on deception, and every war is unspeakable horror.
After jumping onto ghastly bandwagons for one war after another, the nationâ€™s media establishment is available to do it again. So is the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. So is the new secretary of state. Theyâ€™re old hands, dripping with blood. They have not had enough.Â Î¦
Norman Solomon is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is the founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org.