In August 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney told attendees at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us”.
Two months later, President Bush presented this frightful image to an audience in Cincinnati: “Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud”.
And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was unequivocal at a December 2002 Department of Defense news briefing: “Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction”.
It didn’t matter that these claims were all untrue; they were effective nonetheless. As White House officials had hoped, their warnings and alarmist predictions succeeded in persuading most Americans of two things: Iraq’s dictator had WMDs, and ‘preventive’ military action was therefore necessary. Indeed, Bush knew he already had won over a majority of Americans when he sat before the television cameras in the Oval Office 16 years ago and announced that US forces had invaded Iraq.
After the invasion, when WMD stockpiles couldn’t be found, the Bush administration simply shifted gears a bit. It continued to feed the public’s fears by linking the war in Iraq to the larger ‘global war on terror’. Speaking at the National Lawyers Convention of the Federalist Society in Washington, DC, in 2006, Cheney offered this: “On the morning of September 11th, we saw that the terrorists need to get only one break, need to be right only once, to carry out an attack. We have to be right every time to stop them. So to adopt a purely defensive posture, to simply brace for attacks and react to them, is to play against lengthening odds, and to leave the nation permanently vulnerable”.
When debate over the correct course in Iraq intensified even more the following year, the president yet again resorted to ‘It’s a Dangerous World’ appeals. Bush warned of looming catastrophe with public statements like this: “If we do not defeat the terrorists and extremists in Iraq, they won’t leave us alone – they will follow us to the United States of America. That’s what makes this battle in the war on terror so incredibly important”. The fearmongering didn’t stop when Bush left office. In a 2010 Veterans Day speech in St Louis, General John Kelly – most recently Donald Trump’s chief of staff – insisted: “Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus, and that is either kill every one of us here at home or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp”.
Today it’s clear that Iraq did not have an active WMD program. Yet many Americans – including more than half of Fox News viewers – continue to erroneously believe that such a program was found. So too, in a 2011 poll almost half of Americans believed that Iraq either gave substantial support to al-Qaeda or was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Neither claim is true. The persistence of these false beliefs demonstrates the staying power of manipulative psychological appeals designed to exploit our fears.
But despite the devastation wrought, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Iraq War created its share of winners too. Corporations garnered huge war profits through no-bid defense contracts, oil sales, environmental cleanup, infrastructure repair, prison services, and private security.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Stoking Fear: We Must Remember How the Iraq War Was Sold’.