Uncritical Masses

Was the public too stupid to oppose the war in Iraq?


Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, New York: J.P. Tarcher, 176 pages, $11.95

Was the public "deceived" into supporting the war in Iraq? Did President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seduce and manipulate us with bright colors and loud noises, with hypnotic morality tales about why Saddam is bad and America is good? Did some—even most—people support the war because they are "Moron-Americans" or "Moron-Brits," whose brains have been "addled by the relentless assertion…that Bush is 'honest and trustworthy'"?

For many liberal and left-wing critics, the main reason Bush got away with his Iraqi venture is that most people were won over by a campaign of mass deception. Ordinary Joes (or perhaps "stupid white men") apparently fell victim to what journalist and historian Anatol Lieven has called "a propaganda program which for systematic mendacity has few parallels in peacetime democracies." According to Brian Eno, the music producer turned political commentator, the Iraq war showed that "the new American approach to social control is so much more sophisticated and pervasive" that "it's not so much the control of what we think, but the control of what we think about." This isn't just propaganda, Eno wrote in the UK Observer: it's "prop-agenda."

Maybe I missed something, but I don't recall a history-making propaganda show in the run-up to the Iraq war. I do remember the Bush administration, Tony Blair's government, and right-wing groups flailing around for some justification for their squalid war—latching onto unconvincing claims that Saddam had links with Al Qaeda and that he could launch his weapons of mass destruction at 45 minutes' notice, even falling back on video clips of the Ba'athists' 1988 chemical attack on the Kurds of Halabja in an attempt to convince us that regime change in Iraq would be good and proper. This looked less like "prop-agenda" than a desperate cobbling together of "evidence" that might win favor for Gulf War II.

Why then, in the months since the war ended, have many on the left talked up Bush and Blair's "propaganda assault," which allegedly "duped" us all? Behind this critique of Washington and London's lies, there sometimes appears a disdain for the masses, who apparently fell for such lies, and a dodging of responsibility for having failed to challenge the war in the first place. Liberals' postwar focus on the prewar fibs shows that there's a thin line between taking leaders to task for their wartime propaganda and berating the public for being fickle and gullible. At times, some in the anti-war movement verge on blaming ordinary people for allowing the war in Iraq to go ahead, while absolving themselves of responsibility for the degraded state of public debate.

Consider Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, which has won rave reviews in America's and Britain's liberal broadsheets. This book is enlightening and infuriating in equal measure. For those of us who are anti-war, there are some explosive findings in Rampton and Stauber's research. They detail how an American public relations firm helped create the Iraqi National Congress, then promoted it as the democratic voice of Iraq; they revisit in detail the "babies thrown from incubators" story of Gulf War I, explaining how it was the creation of the P.R. firm Hill & Knowlton; and they shatter the recurring myth that Mohammed Atta, the alleged Al Qaeda kingpin of the September 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001. At its best, Weapons of Mass Deception is a powerful antidote to the opportunism of the pro-war right.

Yet Rampton and Stauber's conclusions can be unsettling. They argue that Bush's war lies had something like a hypnotic effect, taking over the American people's minds and making them think what their political masters wanted them to think. They claim the public's "erroneous beliefs" about Iraq are the result of a "steady drumbeat of allegations and insinuations from the Bush administration, pro-war think tanks and commentators." Apparently, myths are transferred into our minds through "sheer repetition," whereby, for example, "simply by mentioning Iraq and al-Qaeda together in the same sentence, over and over, the message got through," and people eventually believed that "Iraq posed an imminent peril."

For Rampton and Stauber, propaganda can sneak past our consciousness and slyly plant itself in our thinking patterns: "Since propaganda is often aimed at persuading people to do things that are not in their own best interests, it frequently seeks to bypass the rational brain altogether and manipulate us on a more primitive level, appealing to emotional symbolism." They compare war lies to TV advertising, which "uses sudden, loud noises to provoke a startled response, bright colors, violence—not because these things are inherently appealing but because they catch our attention and keep us watching." According to Rampton and Stauber, propaganda "can make people do things that they would not do if they were thinking rationally"—the implication being that, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, Americans ditched rationality and fell for the bright colors.

Such arguments are deeply patronizing. They present people as blank slates onto which evil leaders project their prejudices. In this view of propaganda as a one-way relationship—where the men in charge infect the nation's collective mind with lies, damned lies, and yet more lies—something important is overlooked: Our ability to judge the evidence for ourselves, to weigh politicians' claims, and to make a reasoned assessment as to whether we should support a course of action. With their references to "loud noises" and "bright colors," Rampton and Stauber reduce the proverbial thinking man to the level of a toddler watching Teletubbies, getting excited by repetition, flashing lights, and simple messages.

This doubt about our ability to engage ideas and to reject the ridiculous ran through many debates within the anti-war lobby. In response to a June 2003 poll that found that British people appear to be more critical of Blair than Americans are of Bush, the left-leaning media watchdog Web site Media Whores Online argued: "The reason is that because of our failed national media, there is now a significantly greater proportion of Moron-Americans here than Moron-Brits there. The brains of a majority of the American people have been addled…." In a discussion forum on why a majority of Americans supported the war, one woman wrote: "I have long maintained that mush-minded Americans are no longer capable of thinking for themselves. What they think is controlled by the media who are lap dogs of the government."

Here in Britain, Blair's former secretary of state for international development, Clare Short, claimed she and the British public had been "duped all along" by Blair's famously dodgy dossiers—a dupe being a "person who functions as the tool of another person or power." Thanks, Clare. Brian Eno argues that American P.R. companies "preconditioned the emotional landscape," indulged in "large-scale manipulation of language," and helped to "create an atmosphere of simmering panic where American imperialism would come to seem not only acceptable but right, obvious, inevitable and even somehow kind." And the masses—stupid ignoramuses that we are—fell for it. Reading Eno and Company's cheap "insights" into the Iraq war brings to mind Boy George's silly 1984 ditty "The War Song": "War is stupid/And people are stupid…"

These postwar arguments not only suggest a disregard for the public. They also give the pro-war lobby more credit than it deserves. Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest did not put forward a case so convincing that people were cheering for war; rather, they cut-and-pasted anecdotal evidence with rhetorical bluster in an attempt to win our backing. The public often met their claims with a heavy dose of skepticism. Yet the left's arguments about America's all-powerful propaganda portray Bush and Rummy as mind-controlling supermen.

The left's focus on the power of propaganda also represents the worst of the "Not in My Name" approach to opposing war, in which critics throw their hands in the air at what is happening around them rather than trying to challenge the drift of events and make an impact for the better. Instead of putting forth convincing, popular arguments against American and British intervention abroad, too many opponents of the war, especially on the left, despaired over the apparently insurmountable combination of propaganda and the gullibility of the masses. If they really want to know why Bush and Blair got away with their lame war stories, maybe they should look a little closer to home.

Of course propaganda can be persuasive, sometimes even decisive, for individuals making up their minds over whether to support a war, a political party, or whatever. But the influence of propaganda is determined by the broader political climate and by the general level of public debate. In a healthy, critical climate, it is likely that Bush and Blair would have received even more ridicule for their Iraqi propaganda. But at a time when serious political debate is hard to find, our leaders can offer dodgy dossiers and half-cocked claims as if they were good coin. In short, it is often the weakness of the opposition that allows leaders to take their chances with paltry propaganda.

Liberals and the left must shoulder their fair share of the responsibility for the degraded discussion over Iraq and for the opinion polls that suggest a majority of Americans and Britons supported the war. If those who are anti-war spent less time wringing their hands over Big Bad Bush and the fickle people, and more time developing a coherent case against war, then maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we are in now. Surely the pro-war lobby is best challenged by being shouted at, rather than shouted about.