As the United Nations Security Council considers the brief against Iraq prepared by George W. Bush, its undecided permanent members should ask themselves a basic question: How much of what the President says is actually true?
The French, Russian and Chinese ambassadors would do well to recall that the Bush presidents, father and son, have a poor record of truth-telling when it comes to war and the UN — that they often cheat when they can’t win an argument on its merits.
Twelve years ago, to sell the first war against Iraq, Bush I and his ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering, sponsored an audio-visual presentation at the Security Council that purported to prove egregious human-rights abuses by Saddam Hussein’s legions in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. The most spectacular charge was that Iraqi soldiers had pulled babies from incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals, and stolen the incubators. The story was false, but wasn’t completely refuted until well after the war in the Persian Gulf had run its 100-hour course.
The atrocities propaganda had a tremendous impact on public opinion, blunting the criticism that Bush I was fighting to control the Persian Gulf oil supply, rather than to uphold principle. Once Saddam Hussein became Hitler, the job of vote-getting in the U.S. Senate, as well as in the Security Council, became a good deal easier.
But if the image of Mr. Hussein as Hitlerish butcher was useful, that of Mr. Hussein as Hitlerish empire-builder was almost as important in obtaining congressional and UN backing for war.
In August, 1990, before any votes had been taken, the White House asserted the existence of military satellite photographs that showed Iraqi troops massed on the Saudi Arabian border — preparing, said the White House, to invade that kingdom and extend Mr. Hussein’s conquest. (The purpose for sending U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia in the first place, according to Bush I, was defensive, not to evict Mr. Hussein from Kuwait.)
These photos have never been made public, probably because they don’t exist. Genuine commercial-satellite photographs of the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border from that time, published in the St. Petersburg Times, showed no Iraqi troops along the frontier. These pictures have the ring of truth, given what little resistance U.S. troops encountered when they crossed the border into Kuwait in February of 1991.
Analyzing Bush I’s propaganda campaign helps us analyze Bush II’s rhetoric (most completely laid out in his speech in Cincinnati), for here the two campaigns begin to merge in ways that reveal a theme. Early on in the Cincinnati speech, Bush II made the broad assertion that “the Iraqi regime has violated all [its] obligations” under the agreement in March, 1991, to end the gulf war (including its defiant, continuing program to acquire or build nuclear weapons). Bush II said: “The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program. . . . Satellite photos reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past.”
Uncorroborated accusations such as these form part of a pattern of deception. When Bush II met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sept. 7, both men referred to an apparently “new” report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that had found Mr. Hussein trying to rebuild, as Mr. Blair put it, at his “former nuclear-weapon sites.” Mr. Bush elaborated, citing an IAEA report that Iraq was “six months away from developing a weapon. I don’t know what more evidence we need.”
The IAEA responded that not only was there no new report, “there’s never been a report” asserting that Iraq was six months away from constructing a nuclear weapon — not in 1998, not in 1991. White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan evidently didn’t persue his Nexis search far enough to find Andrew Rosenthal’s front-page analysis in the Sept. 26, 1991, New York Times stating that “American officials, including Gen. Colin L. Powell . . . acknowledged . . . that [Iraq’s nuclear threat] is not any real threat — in the short term or even medium term.”
Thus, when Bush II says Mr. Hussein “is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon,” he is, for all practical purposes, lying. When he says, “the longer we wait, the stronger and bolder Saddam Hussein will become,” he sounds very much like Bush I, who said: “Each day [that] passes means another day that Saddam Hussein can work toward perfecting his chemical and biological weapons capability. Another day of atrocities for Amnesty International to document.”
Speaking of atrocities, what about Mr. Hussein’s real human-rights record? In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi dictator’s campaign killed many thousands of Kurds, often with poison gas. The Reagan-Bush administration cast a blind eye on these horrors, because it was providing military aid to Mr. Hussein’s commanders in the war with Iran.
In May of 1990, Bush I’s Pentagon leaked an analysis of the massacre of 4,000 Kurds at Halabja to the Washington Post. The Post’s Patrick Tyler wrote that the Pentagon study assembled conclusive intelligence that “the [Halabja massacre] was caused by repeated chemical bombardments from both [Iraqi and Iranian] armies.” This was Bush I spin control at its finest: The administration was just then trying to extend a program of grain-export credits to its friends in Iraq over determined congressional opposition, and thus “Kurds Killed in Crossfire” was a preferable headline to “Saddam is New Hitler.”
So when Bush II tells the cheering throng in Cincinnati that “On Saddam Hussein’s orders, opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured,” should we believe him?
Maybe: Mr. Hussein is a very bad actor. Last week I called Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (in my opinion the most reliable of the human-rights watchdogs) for a comment on the lurid passage cited above. Mr. Roth knows how vile Mr. Hussein’s regime has been to Kurds, Shiites and garden-variety political foes. But Human Rights Watch has no documentation of the President’s most spectacular accusations. As for decapitations, they are widespread in Muslim countries, including our “moderate” ally Saudi Arabia. “This war,” says Mr. Roth, “is clearly not about human rights, because if Saddam was replaced tomorrow by an equally repressive dictator who would co-operate with the inspectors, there would be no invasion.”
The “facts” cited by the White House are beginning to look like so many hanging chads.
John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, is author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War.