It is a dismaying reflection that the facilitators of major violence thus far in the twenty-first century have been lies told by democratic governments. The lies are continuing to be told, about the supposed “existential” menace posed by Iran to Israel, America, and (if you believe some European leaders) Western Europe.
One can say there is nothing new about lies. I would argue that the influence of mendacious official propaganda in the western democracies is probably greater today than in the last century.
There was a certain utopian innocence in the first half of the last century. The secular utopian promises were truly believed. People were made happy by believing in the romantic futures they were told would follow the seizures of power by Bolsheviks or the Italian Fascists. In Germany, Hitler offered vengeance and vindication to his people, and a future of supremacy. Those were serious matters, but romantic notions too, used to justify the fulfillment of criminal fantasies. At the end of the century, Slobodan Milosovich promised Serbs fulfillment of the dream of a greater Serbia ruling its lesser neighbors.
One might have thought there had been a lesson in the brutal and senseless murder of millions in the World Wars to deter such ambitions. But again the wars of Yugoslav succession were inspired by lies, deliberately perpetuated, reawakened lies about the past, fictions about the malevolent ambitions of intimately related fellow-peoples of the former Yugoslavia, to produce the murder of still more of them.
One might also have thought, at the end of that century, that Mikhail (and Raissa) Gorbachev’s wisdom would provide a decisive lesson about ending the lies. Gorbachev’s first liberating proposal was glasnost—telling the truth. One might have believed that in the twenty-first century we would still be breathing the oxygen of glasnost.
It was not so. Injustice and lies in the Middle East were responsible for unnecessary new wars in the new century, in which the United States took the lead. The lies were ideologically motivated and expedient.
First, it was that Saddam Hussein bore responsibility for the September 2001 attacks on United States. He did not.
Next was the fiction that Hussein’s government, during the period of UN sanctions before 2003, was able secretly to construct nuclear weapons, despite the efforts of western intelligence to detect them or deter him, and the presence of United Nations arms-control inspectors. There were no weapons.
Another fiction was that if Saddam’s Iraq did somehow obtain weapons of mass destruction, he could and would use them to attack Israel or the United States, despite the massive retaliatory power possessed by both those states, and their evident willingness to use it to revenge any attack.
When people insist that this danger from Iraq was not the product of western propaganda, but a reality, or at least a plausibility, it becomes necessary to ask, as one does in the strategic studies business: How? Give me the scenario. Tell me how this attack could come about. Without an answer, it was necessary to conclude that Iraq was attacked for reasons having nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction.
According to the post-invasion testimony of Saddam Hussein’s associates, prior to the Gulf War he was interested in weapons of mass destruction—in order to deter an attack by Iran! He feared revenge for his own invasion of Iran in 1980, and the eight-year war that followed, in which Iraq did use poison gas, and also enjoyed favor and support from the United States. The Iraqi dictator, following the Gulf War, decided that obtaining mass destruction weapons was no longer feasible, but he deliberately cultivated an air of mystery about his intentions as a factor of deterrence of Iran.
The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was motivated by the neoconservative illusion that the Iraqi people would welcome invasion and become a force for democracy, and friends to Israel. Instead, the death of Saddam Hussein and destruction of his government, the wrecking of Iraqi urban society and the country’s infrastructure and industry, which will take years to reconstruct, ignited anarchic insurrection and sectarian conflict, delivering the country into the power and influence of a much larger and more important enemy of both the United States and Israel, Iran. Another lesson about lies, one might have thought.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is reported to have sent a secret letter to President Barack Obama last January reviewing the military options available if diplomacy and the new American attempt to intensify international sanctions on Iran fail to produce the desired halt in Iran’s effort, if that is what it is, to build a nuclear deterrent.
If Iran does pursue a nuclear capability, once again it is to deter attack. Precisely the same objection exists to theories of Iranian aggression as to the theories put forward in 2002-2003 about Iraq posing a nuclear menace to the world. Once more the threat is a polemical invention, intended to frighten American and Israeli (and European) voters and prompt a preemptive attack on Iran. The reason Mr. Gates reports his uncertainties to the president is that he too recognizes that the conflict with Iran is constructed from fictions—which, as with the lies about Iraq, may turn into another war, whose consequences are sure to be worse for all concerned than the fiasco and tragedy of America’s invasion of Iraq.
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About the Author
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).