The never-ending story: 45 minutes from Niger By William Bowles

28 June 2003

Will it never end? Obviously not, because in upping the ante, the government has introduced yet another layer of dissembling in trying to shift the focus from the government’s web of lies onto its spin doctors, headed by Alistair Campbell. So if and when the shit hits the fan, it’ll be Campbell who gets covered, not the ministers in government, principally Blair and Straw, at least that’s the theory. What is critical about the display we’ve been subjected to over the past week, is what it reveals about the nature of what passes for governance in this ‘new’ imperialist epoch.

The dossiers of September 2002 and February 2003 are revealing for a number of reasons. Firstly, they illustrate just how unsure the government was about its ability to convince an extremely skeptical public and the lengths it was prepared to go to in order win us over. First of all, the publication of the first dossier was unprecedented (the less said about the February dossier, the better). Prior to this, suitably ‘authoritative’ statements from on high were considered sufficient to sway an unconvinced electorate. And it was also an electorate that consisted of a minority of those eligible to vote, which had previously informed the political classes that they could rely on them not to be overly concerned about events in some far off place, especially when it was ruled by the “nastiest dictator of the modern age”. Convincing a politically disengaged population was considered to be a ‘pushover’. How wrong they were.

Moreover, unlike other imperialist/colonialist wars of the past, in the public mind, this was a situation clearly based on the ‘rule of the law’, the UN. And people were all too aware of the state of the Iraqi population after 12 years of sanctions in spite of the unrelenting propaganda war conducted by the USUK over the ‘oil for food’ issue.

It’s also clear that the September dossier was targeting first and foremost, the media. After all, how many people were actually going to download the pdf file or phone up the government printing office and ask for a copy, and having done so, what would they have made of it? Out of the 55 pages the dossier contained, less than a page actually contained anything remotely like a proverbial ‘smoking gun’. It would be interesting to know whether or not the drafts prior to the September 9 release contained the Niger references, because if it did (and it must be assumed that it did), then prior to the inclusion of the ‘45 minutes’, aside from the Niger fakes, the document contained nothing that wasn’t already known, consisting as it did, of an extremely incomplete and very selective record of Iraqi military power. For example, it contained no mention of the UK/US sales of WMDs to Iraq during the 1980s. If anything, the references to WMD facilities destroyed between 1990 and 2002, revealed that Iraq’s ability to launch any kind of war was negligible.

A victim of its own ‘success’
Yet of course, the Blair government was forced to follow the UN line largely by its own population and was a victim of its own ‘success’ in pushing the UN agenda, and indeed, as events unfolded, it was clear that the potential for a ‘fault line’ existed between the UK and the US, principally over the issue of ‘legality’ and the role of the UN. But with the passing of time, the UK became even more the captive of US foreign policy, regardless of whether or not it could convince a skeptical public of the need to invade Iraq.

And as the UN inspection team continued in its fruitless quest for WMDs, both the US and the UK got ever more desperate in their search for a ‘smoking gun’. Even Colin Powell’s impressive theatrical display at the UN, was an utter flop, its contents being panned by the critics within days of its premiere. There was no repeat performance.

By the time March came around, it must have come as something of a shock to Blair to see a couple of million people marching against an invasion in spite of the propaganda machine operating flat out for six months. Then of course, the French-German opposition just added another layer of complexity to winning over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the British population. A new round of propaganda was unleashed, this time attempting to exploit the latent xenophobia of the population, but to no avail. And as the invasion was a done deal anyway, the Blair government knew that only the ‘fallback’ position of actually getting ‘our boys over there’ when the patriotism card could be played, would work. But even this has proved to be a short-lived solution, as the much vaunted ‘welcome’ that ‘our boys’ were told they would receive, hasn’t worked out either. If anything, as could have been predicted, it has only served to increase peoples skepticism over the reasons for the invasion.

Cold War solutions for a ‘new world order?’
The critical issue here is that the Iraqi invasion was the first of its kind to take place after the end of the Cold War and having failed to establish any kind of link between al-Qu’eda and Saddam, the UK government was in a bind. Its only trump card, ‘terrorism’ couldn’t be played. And failing an enemy that corresponded to the days of the ‘Evil Empire’, when the ‘Red Menace’ card could be played with relative ease, the UK government was forced to rely on information that came largely from US sources and much of that came from the Iraqi National Congress, not the most reliable of sources as events subsequently proved.

Even the predictable ‘terror alerts’ including one on the day of the massive March demonstration were total failures. Indeed, they had the opposite effect to the one intended. Effectively then, the government’s argument for war was in tatters. Then came the ‘leak’.

‘There’s a hole in my bucket’
There are some who have suggested that the ‘leak’ was designed to divert our attention away from the central issue by putting the blame on bad ‘intelligence’. If this was so, then it failed dramatically, as all it did was open a can of worms and got people scrutinising in even more detail, those elements that supposedly constituted the ‘smoking gun’. The ‘leak’ from someone in the British security establishment is interesting as it reveals a fundamental weakness in the government’s ability to manage its own propaganda machine, a machine that was honed for use in a different epoch. Unlike the US propaganda machine, which had the wholehearted cooperation of the mass media, and especially the electronic media, the British situation is very different, insofar as claims of ‘objectivity’ have at least ‘lip service’ paid to them.

But for those of us who had been following the run up to the war, the ‘leak’ told us nothing we didn’t already know. Indeed, the ‘revelations’ represented just the tip of an iceberg that had been poking out above a sea of disinformation for some time.

Blair and co have committed several cardinal sins in conducting their propaganda war: firstly, they underestimated the intelligence and concerns of the public; secondly, they thought nobody was looking and lastly, and probably the worst thing any student of Goebbels can do is to believe your own propaganda. This is borne out by the increasingly shrill and ultimately irrational position adopted by Blair and his PR department. Exhortations, for example to express outrage that anyone could dare challenge the ‘honesty’ of a politician, ring hollow even in the columns of the corporate press, which in spite of everything, has refused to fundamentally ‘rock the boat’ and upset the relatively cosy relationship between the press and the political classes.

It’s worth noting that at the time of the massive anti-war demonstration in March, that the corporate press were getting extremely nervous about the way events were unfolding and even expressing concerns that opposition to war could “bring the government down”, the last thing the ruling elite wanted at such a critical period.

But every attempt at ‘damage control’ has revealed just how unprepared the government has been at handling events. So for example, the ‘revelation’ that Downing Street has a ‘story development officer’ reveals that the idea that one can sell a war the same way you sell a box of soap powder, is fundamentally flawed, especially when the product is utterly useless. The events of the past weeks and months have proved that the slick PR methods that may have worked in dealing with an utterly discredited and moribund Tory party, are wholly inadequate when it comes to overturning a world which has been almost a century in the making.

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