Squealer Profile: Bob Herbert
Writing in his March 20th editorial against the war in Iraq, Bob Herbert asks:
"Are Americans ready to pay the cost in lives and dollars of a long-term military occupation of Iraq? To what end?" [Emphasis added]
It seems that Mr. Herbert is not a pacient man. Today he writes in the Times:
"Why are these kids dying?
Right now there is no viable plan for securing the peace in Iraq, and no exit strategy. There is no real plan for demolishing Al Qaeda and the genuine threat it poses to the security of all Americans. (Similarly, at home, there is no plan to get the economy moving and the millions of unemployed Americans back to work.)
Iraq is not Vietnam, where more than 58,000 Americans were killed. But it is like Vietnam in that deceptive leaders have maneuvered the country into a tragic situation that I do not believe Americans will support over time.
For the youngsters condemned to the shooting gallery, it's a fearful exercise in survival in a conflict that has never been adequately explained."[Emplasis added]
Oink, oink Mr. Herbert.
I used to be baffled about how a true statement in the President’s State of the Union speech has become a political scandal. The transmutation of a truth into a “lie” seemed very Orwellian to me. Reading the source -- George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” has helped me to see through the fog of the scandal to its core.
As you may recall, the animals on this fictional farm took control from the humans to build a four-foot Utopia. The pigs (smartest of the animals) took control, with two young boars, Snowball (Trotsky) and Napoleon (Stalin), struggling for control of the new enterprise. In one crucial early sequence, Snowball led an attack against the re-invading humans. He is wounded by shotgun shot but the defense succeeds and the animals remain unmolested. He is hailed as a hero.
His popularity does not save him from the wrath of Napoleon, who during one meeting, chases Snowball off the farm with the help of his dog goons. During the subsequent reign, much of the communication between the Leader and the rest of the animals occurs through Squealer. Squealer is a pig whose talent is convincing others of the correct point of view. He was the farm’s propaganda chief. Through his words, Snowball is slowly transitioned from hero to traitor. Orwell does a great job of describing how Squealer uses selective memory and rhetorical distractions to persuade even those animals who were there to witness Snowballs heroism. With mere words, Squealer changed history.
Today’s Squealers have a similar mission – to discredit President Bush. Their techniques are likewise the same – to change history and to snatch defeat from the mouth of victory. These Squealers, the media elite, academia and some in the Democratic Party, bet heavily against an American victory in Iraq. Before the war they printed dire predictions of the war’s consequences (chemical weapons will be used, the war will cost countless lives on both sides, humanitarian disaster, the “Arab Street” will rise up in anger). None of which came true. Instead the victory was swift, with few lives lost and the Street pacified. Even, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are back on track.
For the Squealers of the world, these developments were a disaster. Their credibility was in shambles – imagine countless pages spent predicting a tragedy that never came. Worse, their arch-rival, Bush, was basking in the admiration of the people (btw, where else but this blog will you see our President compared to Trotsky?). The situation was intolerable. There was only one thing to do: the Squealers have been tasked with changing history.
The Squealers are attacking on two fronts: questioning the President’s motivations for going to war and slandering the victory we have achieved. Each task has required different tricks of propaganda and we will explore them each in turn.
The Rationale attack.
The attack on the President’s rationale for war includes the now infamous uranium “scandal.” The purported scandal is a result of a series of “sleight of hand” assumptions, false analogies and willfully hazy memories. Let’s begin:
The Big Lie technique. This is an exceedingly common and effective propaganda tool. The Squealer merely repeats a lie over and over, without justification in the hopes that the listener will assume that the proposition is true because of the conviction of the speaker and the frequency of repetition. In our case, the Big Lie is about 16 words in the Presidents SOTU speech. The accusation that the President lied or misled is batted around with some frequency, without any proof. In fact, the statement is true – PM Blair has reiterated the fact that his government stands by their intelligence. Furthermore, although no WMD has been found in Iraq yet, no proof has been offered to show that the British intelligence was false. In fact it boggles the mind to assume that Saddam never “sought” (the exact word used in the SOTU) uranium. But with the press and some politicians repeat the Big Lie over and over it seems to be having an effect on the President’s standing.
So why the scandal? Once confronted about the Big Lie, the Squealers usually offer several purported reasons why the statement deserves the attention its getting. They say that the uranium claim was justification for the war and thus central. They also claim that the uranium statement shows that Bush twisted or “sexed-up” intelligence to justify war.
False Prominence technique. This technique involves highlighting an issue that was previously seen as peripheral and giving it undue prominence. This is the case with Saddam’s nuclear program. Prior to the war, proponents had three broad justifications – humanitarian, regional (i.e. getting rid of Saddam will help to pacify the region) and, finally, WMD. The only reason that the last claim was given undue prominence in the press was because of the abortive effort to obtain a UN mandate (the UN doesn’t really care about the first two reasons). The most important components of the WMD justification were the biological and the chemical weapons and the nuclear concerns were secondary. The justification for war was the totality of these arguments not any specific one. Yet the Squealers would have us believe that were it not for this claim, the nation would not have gone to war.
It is also amazing to see all the Squealers, who think of themselves as Champions of the Human Rights be completely unmoved by the mass graves found in Iraq or the children’s prisons. They shed no tear for the humanitarian or the environmental damage administered by Saddam to the Marsh Arabs, the Shiites and the Kurds. Isn’t that enough?
False Analogy technique. This tool is used to transfer the conclusion from one situation to a seeming related, but in reality different, situation. If the result of B is X, then the result of D (because it looks like B) must be X also. The Squealers claim that the President lied about the Iraqi intelligence, or at least misled us. The faulty analogy is comparing intelligence products to facts. Facts are certain, so any divergence from a fact is lying which is wrong. On the other hand, if something already contains a great dose of opinion, interjecting more opinion is not lying.
By definition, intelligence products are not facts – they are educated guesses based on sketchy evidence. It is something akin to finding a handful of pieces from a massive jigsaw puzzle and trying to determine the full picture. Given the limited information, different people can have different opinions. CIA analysts and NSA analysts, National Security Council officials and State Department officers all can take a different view on the topic based on the same evidence.
Th clear implication of the Squealers’ attacks is that either intelligence is a certainty and the President abused it or that good intelligence requires courtroom like burden of proof which the President did not meet. Neither case is true – intelligence is best seen as shades of gray and not as black and white.
Furthermore, all this has to be seen in the light of September 11th – the day that intelligence failed us. The same Squealers who now go about complaining that the Administration did not get unanimous sign off from every single employee of any intelligence agency (past and present) were just a year ago howling about the failure of the intelligence agencies to see September 11th coming. The attack was the result of “cover your ass” intelligence at its best – the same approach that the Squealers have implied that the President should have taken with Iraq. On the contrary, if the attack on the WTC taught us one lesson it was that as good as our intelligence is, relying on it exclusively can prove very costly.
The other tact taken by the Squealers is the slandering of the post-war Iraq. While the assault on the pre-war rationale is potentially damaging to President politically, this attack is dangerous to us as a nation. This attack seeks to recast our victory in Iraq and to turn it into a loss.
False perspective technique. Here the Squealer utilizes relativistic terms to describe a situation or a person, without verbalizing what it/he/she is being compared to. Variations on this theme are using different standards of comparison for identical situations or using unrealistic standards for comparison. In the case of post-War Iraq, the false perspective is used in claiming how “disastrous” the occupation has been.
Disastrous is a relative term – 6% unemployment rate can seem “disastrous” when you come from 4%, but great if you come from 8%. So, what situation would not be “disastrous” three months after a war as far as the Squealers are concerned? A Utopian world of peace and love? That seems to be the implication in the Squealers’ accusations – because the nation is not perfect (as they may define it) then we have failed.
Why not start with the Armageddon scenarios that the Squealers were using before the war. There are no humanitarian disasters – food and water are flowing freely. There are no environmental disasters, no uprising of the feared Arab Street, and no millions of dead civilians. On the other hand, only three months after the war a nation that once was ruled by dictator is now ruled by a Washington bureaucracy and is on its way to free elections. We know that newspapers, cell phones and satellite dishes are sprouting all over, that mass graves are being dug up (instead of being filled) and that people are no longer tortured for questioning the regime. Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has gotten new steam, thy Syrians and the Iranians are stymied and the Arab street is quiet. This is called “disaster”?
In pondering the post-war Iraq situation, a realistic standard is required. Considering that Iraq is three months into freedom after 30 years of brutal repression and waste, I think that things are going exceedingly well.
The Narrow Vision technique. This technique involves the Squealer to select the worst features of a person or a situation in order to prove a point. The selected features are representative of the person or situation. The Squealers’ claim that we are “losing the peace” is based on the uniformly gloomy media reports. But is the media giving us a realistic picture of the situation in Iraq? Are they selecting stories that fit with their ideological prejudice? There is evidence that they do.
Allow me to use New York, my home, as an analogy. Depending on my prejudices as a reporter, I could communicate very different views of the city. If I hated it, I could emphasize the crime, the dirt and the poverty. However, if I was partial to the city I could focus on the museums, the parks and the food. The situation is exacerbated in Iraq, since due to its isolation the gloomy views of the Squealing journalists can not be easily (i.e. by traveling) verified.
Furthermore, say you were a foreign reporter who stayed only in New York (or even just the Northeast) and your task was to describe Americans’ feelings about the Bush Administration. Would your reporting accurately describe the support for the Administration in the whole country? No, yet all of the reports I have seen recently have been from the Sunni Triangle. That is where the 20% of the population that lost the most from the American occupation lives. Rarely are there reports in the Big Media from the Shiite or the Kurd regions (I use “rarely” to hedge my statement, since I have not actually seen any). Focusing on the Sunni triangle is similar to focusing on South African whites right after the end of apartheid – their opinions are not representative of the nation as a whole.
Finally, there’s what I call the Walter Duranty syndrome. Duranty was the New York Times reporter who looked away while millions were forcibly starved in the Ukraine, and wrote glorious reports about Stalin’s Soviet Union. With respect to Iraq , how can you trust the judgement of reporters who saw little wrong with Saddam’s regime? CNN, for example, has admitted that there were things that they did not report in pre-Saddam Iraq, how do we know that they are reporting the full picture now?
False Opportunities technique. The Squealers utilizing this tool claim that their opponent missed a great opportunity, while never mentioning what the opportunity was. Like the Big Lie, this technique relies on repetition. This is the case of the missing Plan™ for Iraqi occupation. This common accusation states that the Administration did not have a Plan™ for post-war Iraq and the current situation is the result.
The false assumption is that there exists a plan that would have magically solved all the Iraqi ills if only the warmongers would have bothered to spend time creating it (you can imagine some thick five-year plan similar to those produced by the Soviet Union). We certainly don’t hear many details of the Plan™ from the Squealers – all they do is accuse. In reality, no such plans exist. If they did, then the Soviet Union would probably still be around today. It’s true that some planning is always required, but it is false to assume that they can solve all the world problems.
The threat to National Security
While the attack on the rationale for war can be exceedingly damaging to the President, it is not likely to bring harm to our nation. That is not the case with the attack on post war Iraq. These have the potential to do great damage to our national security and kill many Americans in the process.
First, if we are seen as skittish about our commitment to Iraq, then it’s not likely that we will find many friends there. The Kurds and the Shiites remember 1991 when we told them rebel, but did nothing to stop Saddam’s brutal revenge. If the Iraqis perceive that there is any risk of us leaving early, why would they risk the retribution of Saddam by helping us to secure the nation or finding his WMD? On the contrary, the attacks on our GIs will increase if the enemy believes that that will really hasten our departure. It’s a political game of chicken and we must not blink.
Second, and more importantly, if we do leave early the signal we will send to the rest of the world is perilous. Osama bin Laden saw us run from Somalia and concluded that we are a paper tiger and unwilling to tolerate pain. The path to the WTC led directly from Mogadishu. If we run from Iraq, we will reinforce a notion of American weakness in millions of hateful hearts. Then we will truly create millions of new Osamas.
For these reasons, a swift departure from Iraq must never be contemplated. We must stay the course no matter the price and must never give any sign of weakness. Ironically, even though one of the Squealers’ pre-war criticisms was our lack of long term commitment to Iraq, they are the first to call for the return of the troops. Their advice must not be heeded.
What drives these Squealers’ to jeopardize our nation’s security? I don’t think it’s a conscious attempt to weaken the nation, but drive fed by hatred of the President and the desire to be justified at all costs.
During the run-up to the war the stakes became exceedingly high. In the aftermath of September 11th, the Administration’s newly assertive foreign policy was up against the status quo foreign policy establishment and media, most of whom cut their political teeth during the Vietnam War. Each side bet every single ounce of their political capital on the outcome of the war and the stakes were winner take all.
The debate was clearly won by the proponents of the war. None of the opponents’ catastrophic scenarios came true – no mass casualties (military or civilian), no environmental disaster, no wider wars and no uprising of the Arab street. On the other hand, most of the proponent’s claims did come true – the country was happy to be liberated from a dictator and the region is being pacified. Casualties were far smaller than anyone, including the proponents, imagined. The only claim that has not been borne out, so far, is the WMD.
To the Squealers this has been a disaster. As a group they are people who pride themselves on having the right opinions, on being smarter than others and having insight about the rest of the world that the mere mortals lack. It was bad enough to be wrong about the highest stake debate in decades, but to be beaten by a man (Bush) they consider a fool and a simpleton was just too much.
So the Squealers have gone to work to reverse history and to turn victory into defeat. They want to be shown to be right and the Administration wrong. They want the neo-conservatives to get their comeuppance. They want to see our nation go groveling back to the UN and the French. They want another Vietnam.
They may feel that they are allowed to pursue this attack against the Administration because of the inquisition against Clinton. While that episode was clearly wrong and vindictive, the nation was not at war. Pursuing the same vitriolic attack today threatens our national security.
The behavior of the Squealers, in my humble opinion, is unpatriotic and un-American. In as much as they pursue the attack on the post-war Iraq, they are causing irreparable harm to our future. They are sacrificing our security for the sake of their egos and political ambitions.
There is another, more important reason that the Squealers are un-American: when given a choice they prefer the values of totalitarianism. Given their complaints it is clear that they favor procedure over morality, status quo over humanity and order over freedom. Their complaints are not the arguments of a loyal opposition, merely the tirades of those who wish us to take the road to serfdom.
UPDATE: This 9/11 Report clearly shows that decision makers cannot completely rely on our intelligence agencies. Sometimes they have to rely on their own counsel.