A Massive US Propaganda Machine Bolstered George H.W. Bush’s War on Iraq

As the media memorializes George H.W. Bush, we look at the lasting impact of his 1991 invasion of Iraq and the propaganda campaign that encouraged it. Although the Gulf War technically ended in February of 1991, the US war on Iraq would continue for decades, first in the form of devastating sanctions and then in the 2003 invasion launched by George W. Bush. Thousands of US troops and contractors remain in Iraq. A largely forgotten aspect of Bush Sr.’s war on Iraq is the vast domestic propaganda effort before the invasion began. We look at the way US media facilitated the war on Iraq with journalist John “Rick” MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine and the author of the book Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War.

Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, a national day of mourning has been declared following the death of former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94. The Post Office and other federal agencies are closed for the day. A funeral service for Bush is being held today at the Washington National Cathedral. Former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Bush’s son, George W. Bush, will attend, as will President Trump, who was not invited to speak. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush explained why President Trump was not speaking by saying, quote, “It’s because we have a unique circumstance here. My brother was president. First dibs, as we used to say.” A second funeral will be held on Thursday in Houston, where George H.W. Bush will be buried.

Well, we continue now to look back at the legacy of the 41st president. Bush only served one term in the Oval Office, but the blowback from his 1991 invasion of Iraq is still being felt today. Although the Gulf War technically ended in February 1991, the U.S. war on Iraq would continue for decades, first in the form of devastating sanctions and then in the 2003 invasion launched by George H.W. Bush’s son, George W. Bush. Thousands of U.S. troops and contractors remain in Iraq today.

AMY GOODMAN: We look back now at a largely forgotten aspect of Bush’s war on Iraq: the vast domestic propaganda campaign that occurred in the United States before the invasion began. The story centers on a young Kuwaiti woman named Nayirah. On October 10th, 1990, the 15-year-old girl gave riveting testimony before Congress about the horrors inside Kuwait after Iraq invaded.

NAYIRAH AL-SABAH: Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, my name is Nayirah, and I just came out of Kuwait. … My sister, with my 5-day-old nephew, traveled across the desert to safety. There was no milk available for the baby in Kuwait. They barely escaped when their car was stuck in the desert, desert sand, and help came from Saudi Arabia.

I stayed behind and wanted to do something for my country. The second week after invasion, I volunteered at the Al-Adan Hospital with 12 other women who wanted to help, as well. I was the youngest volunteer; other women were from 20 to 30 years old. While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of incubators, took the incubators and left the children to die on the cold floor. It was horrifying. I could not help but think of my nephew.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nayirah’s testimony was rebroadcast across the country and marked a turning point in public opinion on going to war. President George H.W. Bush repeatedly cited her claims.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: They had kids in incubators, and they were thrown out of the incubators, so that Kuwait could be systematically dismantled.

AMY GOODMAN: Three months after Nayirah testified, President George H.W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. But it turned out Nayirah’s claims weren’t true. No human rights group or news outlet could confirm what she said. It also turned out Nayirah was not just any Kuwaiti teenager. She was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, Saud Nasser al-Sabah. She had been coached by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, which was working for the Kuwaiti government.

We’re joined now by the journalist who first revealed Nayirah’s identity, Rick MacArthur, the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, the author of the book Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War.

I mean, so, you know, as we said, this is a turning point. You have this teenager, this girl, saying she witnessed this, that Iraqi soldiers came into Kuwait and ripped babies out of Kuwaiti incubators. But she was only referred to as Nayirah at the time of the testimony; it wasn’t Nayirah al-Sabah, so you would know that she’s the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, who also testified in that hearing?

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Correct. That’s all part of the propaganda plan, is to maintain her anonymity to protect her and her family against reprisals in Kuwait. That was the cover story. But, of course, nobody bothered to try to find out who she really was. They just bought the story hook, line and sinker, even though at the time there were a couple of human rights investigators who were becoming suspicious.

I got onto the trail after the war, unfortunately, and was able to run down what really had happened, which was that Hill & Knowlton selected her as a persuasive witness to this atrocity, and it was all part of a campaign to turn Saddam Hussein, at least in the public consciousness, into Adolf Hitler. And the feeling was that they couldn’t sell the Gulf War without this. In other words, they had to cheat to win.

And that’s what interests me about the eulogies for George Bush. He’s being presented now as this paragon of kind of WASP respectability and integrity, old-school, when in fact he was a—had a violent side to him, a very angry and violent and ruthless side to him. And when you see him doing the propaganda, using the Hill & Knowlton disinformation, you see a side of a politician that’s kind of ugly. And we’re still—as Juan said, we’re still living with the consequences of our having placed troops in Saudi Arabia, because that’s what sets off bin Laden, finally.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rick, in terms of most people—it’s been over a quarter-century now. Most people don’t recall the climate then. But there was significant public opposition to the United States going into Iraq to beat back the invasion of Kuwait, and the vote to approve the military action was very close, wasn’t it? So this was crucial, this kind of—this testimony.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Precisely. You’ve got to remember, in 1990, ’91, we’re only—what?—15 years after Vietnam. And there’s still this very, very bad feeling in the country, that’s represented in Congress by senators like John Kerry, that we were conned into Vietnam, it was an undeclared war, and we weren’t going to get conned again into another phony war or a phony pretext. And so, it was clear that Bush was going to have to get congressional authorization for invading—for liberating Kuwait. And so, the vote was going to be very close. It ended up being 52 to 47. It would have been 52 to 48 if Alan Cranston, the senator from California, had come back to Washington to vote. He said he would have voted if it was close. He was undergoing chemotherapy in California.

And it’s clear that, I mean, numerous representatives and senators cited the baby incubator atrocity, which was false—it never happened—as a reason for voting for the Gulf War resolution. In other words, these are people who said, “Well, look, we could figure out other ways to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait—economic sanctions, negotiations.” There was a feeling that this was about oil, it wasn’t about principle, even though Bush posed it as a matter of international law. But these people said, finally, “Look, if he’s really Hitler, if he’s really capable of having an army that slaughters”—and it got to hundreds of babies by the time Amnesty International gave its official seal of approval to the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, that’s—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and I recall the front—

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: It was inflated. It got even bigger.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s very, very important—

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —about Amnesty International and the roll that it played.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: It wasn’t just Nayirah.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Wasn’t just Nayirah. Human Rights Watch fell for it. They were neutral officially. But Amnesty International actually put the number over 300 babies. There weren’t that many incubators in Kuwait City hospitals. Now, if you want to go back over the record, you’ll see how badly the media, how badly the press failed in all this by not asking questions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I remember that my newspaper, the New York Daily News, had a front page: “They killed babies!”

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so, the media uncritically accepted this story—

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —without any kind of check.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: And if he’s a baby killer, then, well, you know, reasonable people can disagree about how to enforce international law, how to prevent countries from invading other countries, but we have to draw the line at baby killing.

And after the war—it’s not just me—it’s John Martin who did the really good reporting. He went around to all the hospitals—

AMY GOODMAN: For ABC.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: For ABC News—did what a reporter should do, unfortunately too late: interviewed hospital personnel, doctors—did a very thorough job. Nobody could cite one instance of a baby being pulled from an incubator by Iraqi soldiers and killed. There were babies killed because of neglect and because of the American bombardment of Kuwait and of Iraq, because a lot of hospital personnel fled. There were casualties. There were infants who died. But there were no babies killed by being pulled from incubators. It never happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this was, I think, as you note, the beginning of a new effort at the—or increased effort at the propaganda campaigns of our government to justify war.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right. And this is something that hasn’t been explored enough. Again, we go back to George Bush’s alleged WASP integrity and respectability. Well, he’s also the father of George W. Bush, who took the propaganda campaign a couple steps further with Saddam’s fake atomic bomb program—never happened, never existed, in the time that we said it was going on. He may have had ambitions before, but there certainly was no atomic bomb program in 2002, 2003.

But we’ve now gotten so used to debating whether we should go to war or not based on fake news—I’m sorry to quote Donald Trump—but false information, that we don’t know how to discuss these subjects anymore. And the war-making power has been taken out of the hands of the people, almost been taken out of the hands of the Congress. It’s almost quite—somebody said to me earlier, “Why did Bush bother to ask Congress for permission to invade Iraq in 1991?” Well, back then, we were still a little bit more of a constitutionally ruled country. And there was this bitter memory of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Vietnam and the fact that we fought an undeclared war on false pretexts.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. The beginning of your book, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War, is—the first chapter is called “Cutting the Deal.” And you start with a quote of Earl Shorris saying, “Some men are pleased to give orders and some men are pleased to take orders.” It’s really the beginning of the embedding process.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain this highly unusual meeting, August morning in 1990, eight days after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, of the four, at the time—you know, the media landscape is so different—the four Washington bureau chiefs of the major U.S. television networks presenting themselves where?

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Well, they present themselves at the home of Prince Bandar, who is the Saudi fixer in the United States. He’s the sort of majordomo of everything that happens Saudi-related in the United States. And he’s the guy that the reporters have to ask for favors. That’s who you go to for help, because the White House and the Pentagon had decided, from the beginning, we’re not going to have another Vietnam. In other words, we’re not going to have another situation where reporters are permitted to go anywhere they want, take pictures of corpses, take pictures of burning buildings or helicopters crashing. We’re not going to—because the belief was—the revisionist belief was that we lost Vietnam because the American public was demoralized by all the bad news coming back on CBS Evening News and in Newsweek. So we’re not going to let this happen again.

And the decision was made to pool reporters and to censor them. In other words, you’d send groups of five to the front, wherever the Pentagon decided the front happened to be that day. They would get to take pictures and describe things, in theory, but their report would have to be shared with everybody else—there’d be no competition—and it would have to be vetted by Pentagon censors. So, obviously, the American public saw nothing. The reporters were permitted to see nothing. And it was kind of comical, finally, to see hundreds of reporters in Dhahran, which is where the press center was, recycling censored reports from the front which showed nothing.

There were two or three honorable reporters—Chris Hedges, Bob Simon of CBS—who went off the reservation, so to speak, and saw a little bit, but these were the exceptions. Susan Sachs from Newsday was another person who tried to do a good job.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t they go to the Saudi ambassador’s home, sent there by the Bush administration, even though the Bush administration was sending soldiers into Saudi Arabia? When it came to the press getting permission—

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —they said, “You’ll have to get permission from Saudi Arabia.”

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Well, this was a way to lobby the Saudis for favors. It was still going to be the Pentagon that decided who got to go where when. But the feeling was, among the networks, was, if we can get Prince Bandar to cut us some—give us some—do some favors for us, cut us some slack, maybe he can use his influence with the Bush administration to give us better access than the competition.

And this brings us back to the present day. I mean, we’re in bed with the Saudi Arabians, going back a long way. And the idea of the American media begging for favors from a Saudi prince, well, it’s an ugly—it’s an ugly image. And it also speaks to the hypocrisy of the American media, back then and still today, about the First Amendment. I mean, there were a group of us that sued the Pentagon. Sydney Schanberg and The Nation and Harper’s Magazine, we sued the Pentagon over this. We lost. And—over the censorship plan. But for the most part, Katharine Graham, Sulzberger, the heads of the networks, they didn’t do anything. That’s all in my book also. You can see the—you can see what they said about it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. We’ll be back with him in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Combat Rock” by Sleater-Kinney. And a shout-out to today’s class visiting Democracy Now!, Marymount Manhattan College. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look at President George H.W. Bush’s legacy when it comes to war, particularly the Iraq War. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Rick, I wanted to ask you, following up on what we were talking about, about the agreement of many of the major media companies to go along with the censorship protocols of the Pentagon in the war. Ironically, this was the first televised—live televised war. And those of us who remember the pictures of the bombers hitting different parts of Iraq and Kuwait—so, you had his irony of, on the one hand, there was censorship and control; on the other hand, it was a televised war, so that the American people got this idea of these precision-guided bombs that the United States was unleashing on the Iraqi forces.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right. Strictly speaking, it’s not the first televised war. You could say Vietnam is the first televised war. But—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Live. Live televised.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: But live televised war, yes, in the sense that you have these long press conferences, if you can call them that, run by Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the—the overall commander of the allied forces, as they were quaintly called, who turns out to be a brilliant PR man. And what he understood was, it’s better to talk over the reporters at the press conference and show pictures in real time, if possible—sometimes in real time, sometimes they were videotapes—to show what the Army was allegedly doing before anybody could check it out. So, he brilliantly—I mean, it looks very old-fashioned. He’s got a television set, set up on the stage in Dhahran, showing allegedly precision-guided—precision missiles hitting their targets every time, to make people—give people the feeling that the American Army is invincible.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to the U.S. military commander in charge of Iraq, who you’re referring to—

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —General Norman Schwarzkopf. During a news conference January 31st, 1991, he explains how the U.S. has been targeting Iraq’s Scud missiles.

GEN. NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF: Last night in western Iraq, we also attacked and destroyed three Scud TELs with F-15s, and I feel we preempted a missile attack on Israel last night. Now, I certainly can’t say there will be no more Scud launches. You can never say that. But I have a high degree of confidence that we are getting better and better at our ability to find them, and I think this tape speaks for itself in our ability to find them and destroy them.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Norman Schwarzkopf, General Norman Schwarzkopf.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right. And the day before, actually, they showed pictures of them, of the United States Air Force, allegedly blowing up Scud missile—mobile Scud missile launchers, because at that point people were very upset and frightened that the Iraqis were going to hit targets in Israel. They did get a couple of Scuds through the defenses into Israel. So they had to have results. They had to show that they were taking out the Scud missile launchers. And so they claimed to have knocked out 11 of them. After the war, Scott Ritter and Mark Crispin Miller did some good reporting and refuted this, said that no Scud missile launchers were blown up. But the—mobile Scud missile launchers.

But the point is, is that in real time, the press, the media, could not challenge anything that was said. Here’s the video. Here are the generals with their pointers. How can you argue with this? And there’s nobody on the ground, no reporters in the field, who can verify anything or contradict anything. It’s not easy even under the freest circumstances in wartime to confirm or refute what the government says. But there’s zero chance in this war. So the American public gets the impression that it’s a clean war, a sanitized war; we’re hitting every target.

One of the great statistics to know is that 93 percent of the tonnage dropped on Iraq and Kuwait in the Gulf War was conventional dumb bombs, most of them from Vietnam-era B-52s. Only 7 percent of the tonnage fired were laser-guided missiles, which is what they’re talking about here. So it’s–

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, it’s possible to say that it was under George—

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I mean, George Herbert Walker Bush that the United States government perfected the propaganda control of media coverage of the war.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Yes. And none of these things are new. In other words, if you go back to World War I, you’ve got Belgian babies were being bayoneted by the Germans. I mean, it’s an old—it’s an old propaganda trick. So, killing babies has been used before. But in terms of actual technical sophistication, using the latest media technology to subvert democracy and to manipulate people and to make them feel good about the war, ultimately, Schwarzkopf, CENTCOM, Pete Williams at the Pentagon and the Bush administration, this was the pièce de résistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final thoughts, in the last 30 seconds, on the review of President George H.W. Bush’s life that we’re seeing in the media today?

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Well, I’m horrified. There was a column in The Wall Street Journal yesterday by William McGurn headlined “George Bush’s Wonderful Life,” where he literally compares him to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, which is crazy on its face, because George Bailey is a kind of populist. He’s opposed to the power of Mr. Potter and his bank and so on and so forth.

But George Bush was not a peace-loving guy. I’ll never forget George McGovern saying to me—and George McGovern—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

JOHN R. MacARTHUR: —having been a bomber pilot in World War II—saying, “You know, most of us came back from World War II—most of us who came back from World War II had had enough. Bush didn’t get enough, didn’t get enough violence.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, author of Second Front.