Ramesh Thakur highlights how a biased coverage of the war on terror and the Iraq War by the US media eroded US soft power.
The war on terror and the Iraq War Part 1 of 2
John Menadue in this blog has drawn attention to the uncritical, and occasionally even fawning, treatment by the West’s English language media of unsubstantiated and often very dubious claims by Western leaders against the Hitler du jour, from Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi to Kim Jong-un. Menadue’s list of examples included the 2003 Iraq War and its enduring pernicious consequences.
It is worth looking at that in more detail, for the global credibility of the British and US media suffered a steady erosion because of their coverage and analyses of the war. Sections of the media became cheerleaders for the humanitarian warriors. In her book Howard’s War (2004), Alison Broinowski tellingly notes that ‘of Rupert Murdoch’s 174 newspapers worldwide, not one editorially opposed the war; and, once the invasion began, many of their commentaries became hysterically supportive’.
In effect, patriotism supplanted journalism through such questionable techniques as ‘embedded’ reporters. The US and British security services repeatedly planted fabricated stories in the all-too-gullible mainstream media, which failed to carry out any sort of due diligence on government claims. Media critics were held accountable for minor flaws and gaps in stories, but officials whose lies and incompetence caused immeasurable loss of life in an unnecessary war got Congressional medals of freedom.
The war on terror
A necessary geopolitical backdrop to this is the global war on terror declared after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – the event that gave the neocon warriors the pretext go after Saddam Hussein as unfinished business from the 1991 Gulf War. The giants of American media collaborated in an Orwellian redefinition of common understandings of torture. A group of journalism students at Harvard University analysed the usage of key terms by The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. Their report was entitled Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media (2010).
In the seven decades before 2002, these media outlets routinely described water-boarding as torture (81 and 96 per cent for the NY Times and LA Times respectively). After 2002, when the United States itself began to engage in the practice of water-boarding under official sanction and approval from the administration, the LA Times, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today called it torture in only 4.8, 1.4, 1.6, and 0 per cent of cases, respectively. But when other countries engaged in water-boarding, the LA Times and NY Times still called it torture in 86 and 91 per cent of their articles.
A similar bias is all too evident in exaggerating the deaths and injuries inflicted by the other side while understating or dismissing allegations of excessive deaths and abuse by Western troops. The Iraq War offers one of the worst examples of this deadly bias. The cumulative direct confirmed toll from bullets is around 200,000. But in an intense conflict as in health disasters, other techniques for estimating the total fatality count is standard practice. The net Iraq body count should include fatalities from ‘war-related causes’ and ‘excess deaths’: factors such as people not being able to leave their homes under war conditions to seek medical help, hospitals being overwhelmed with people suffering from violent injuries, flight of health professionals, degraded medical-supply distribution networks causing scarcity of urgently needed medicines, power outages, etc. Unless commentators are lazy, incompetent, or intimidated, they should say ‘between 200,000 and one million Iraqis have been killed or have died as a result of the 2003 war’.
It is fair enough for journalists, analysts and officials to insist on the strict body count rather than the best available scientific estimates of excess deaths, provided they are consistent in applying this stricture to all conflicts. What the rest of the world sees is when the victims die from US violence, the lowest confirmed toll is used. But for anti-Western regimes, the phrase ‘up to X thousand may have been killed’ is substituted to plant the upper end of casualty estimates in the public consciousness, with a wiggle room of deniability should that be proven wrong.
‘In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is’, observed Yogi Berra in his infinite wisdom. The optimistic assumptions behind Washington’s Iraq folly can be summed up as: the people of Iraq will welcome and love the Americans as liberators with the ouster of Saddam Hussein; the United Nations will fall flat on its face and the countries of the world will flock to join the coalition as soon as Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction are found and displayed; and Iraq will virtually rebuild itself with petrodollars. All were proven wrong. Instead Iraq vindicated Bismarck’s supposed bon mot that ‘A preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death’.
US media and soft power
An essential element of US global sway has been it its soft power. A crucial component of US soft power that expanded behind US military and economic dominance, and in turn helped to reinforce the position of the United States as the unrivalled power of the last several decades, has been the powerful and influential US media. However, by remaining inward-focused in values, orientation and worldviews, the giants of the US media will steadily lose touch with the rest of the world and miss out on the most likely sites of market growth. This risk will be doubled if they should come to be seen as irremediably biased against the rest of the world.
The growing loss of US media credibility translates into a corresponding erosion of US soft power. As Joseph Nye, the author of the concept, observes in his chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (2013) that I co-edited: ‘Soft power depends upon credibility…. [It] may appear less risky than economic or military power, [but] it is often hard to use, easy to lose and costly to re-establish’.
The NY Times commented in an editorial on 13 January 2005: ‘What all our loss and pain and expense in the Iraqi invasion has actually proved is that the weapons inspection worked, that international sanctions — deeply, deeply messy as they turned out to be — worked, and that in the case of Saddam Hussein, the United Nations worked’. This is more than The Australian has ever conceded about the UN vis-à-vis Iraq.
Yet the major American print and electronic media returned to a credulous rather than an essentially sceptical stance in most subsequent international crises, accepting Western government and intelligence claims on Russia’s nefarious mischief in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, condemning North Korean missile tests while merely reporting those by the US, and applauding Trump’s airstrikes on Syria without any proof being offered of the regime’s culpability for chemical weapons use.
Déjà vu all over again indeed. Or, as the Americans say, fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. Fool us repeatedly, we’ve gotta be Aussies?
Ramesh Thakur is Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy ANU