The cry wolf syndrome

The cry wolf syndrome

by digby

The problem with the US government crying wolf about "WMD" and/or wartime atrocities to justify interventions in foreign wars is that people become cynical and don't know what to believe when their government once again tells them we must act because of some alleged existential threat or moral horror.

For instance, this piece was written on the eve of the Iraq war but in the wake of 9/11 too many Americans didn't want to hear it:
More than 10 years later, I can still recall my brother Sean's face. It was bright red. Furious. Not one given to fits of temper, Sean was in an uproar. He was a father, and he had just heard that Iraqi soldiers had taken scores of babies out of incubators in Kuwait City and left them to die. The Iraqis had shipped the incubators back to Baghdad. A pacifist by nature, my brother was not in a peaceful mood that day. "We've got to go and get Saddam Hussein. Now," he said passionately.

I completely understood his feelings. Although I had no family of my own then, who could countenance such brutality? The news of the slaughter had come at a key moment in the deliberations about whether the US would invade Iraq. Those who watched the non-stop debates on TV saw that many of those who had previously wavered on the issue had been turned into warriors by this shocking incident.

Too bad it never happened. The babies in the incubator story is a classic example of how easy it is for the public and legislators to be mislead during moments of high tension. It's also a vivid example of how the media can be manipulated if we do not keep our guards up.

The invented story eventually broke apart and was exposed. (I first saw it reported in December of 1992 on CBC-TV's Fifth Estate – Canada's "60 Minutes" – in a program called "Selling the War." The show later won an international Emmy.) But it's been 10 years since it happened, and we again find ourselves facing dramatic decisions about war. It is instructive to look back at what happened, in order that we do not find ourselves deceived again, by either side in the issue...
[U]nder the auspices of a group called Citizen for a Free Kuwait, which was really the Kuwait government in exile (the group received almost $12 million from the Kuwaiti government, and only $17,000 from others, according to author John R. MacArthur) the American PR firm Hill & Knowlton was hired for $10.7 million to devise a campaign to win American support for the war. Craig Fuller, the firm's president and COO, had been then-President George Bush's chief of staff when the senior Bush has served as vice president under Ronald Reagan. The move made a lot of sense – after all, access to power is everything in Washington and the Hill & Knowlton people had lots of that.

It's wasn't an easy sell. After all, Kuwait was hardly a "freedom-loving land." Only a few weeks before the invasion, Amnesty International accused the Kuwaiti government of jailing dozens of dissidents and torturing them without trial. In an effort to spruce up the Kuwait image, the company organized Kuwait Information Day on 20 college campuses, a national day of prayer for Kuwait, distributed thousands of "Free Kuwait" bumper stickers, and other similar traditional PR ventures. But none of it was working very well. American public support remained lukewarm the first two months.

According to MacArthur's book "Second Front," the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 edition of the London Daily Telegraph. The paper ran a claim by the exiled Kuwait housing minister that, "babies in the premature unit of one of the hospitals had been removed from their incubators, so that these, too, could be carried off." Two days later, the LA Times carried a Reuter's story that quoted an American (first name only) who said, among other things, that babies were being taken from incubators, although she herself had not seen it happen.
Read on, it's quite a story if you haven't heard it before.

And then came Iraq and Curveball and yellow cake, aluminum tubes etc. all of which I'm sure is still familiar. I'm not saying that the government is lying about Assad's use of chemical weapons. I have no way of knowing. But I am saying that when governments lie repeatedly to their people to justify military interventions, it's wise to be skeptical when they use the same rationales all over again.

It's especially problematic when they do something like this:
U.S. trying same trick as it successfully did in Iraq--telling UN to pull inspectors out because we may start bombing at any moment. This ended inspections--which were finding no WMD--in Iraq, but so far UN holding firm. But no specific U.S. warning of pending attack but could come any minute. 
NYT in lead story promotes attack by citing anonymous White House official and rebels both saying UN inspection worthless because evidence of chemical degraded by now--without going to any experts to judge if this is actually true. The truth is that, yes, by some degrading--but far from too late. Even McClatchy just gets quote from an expert on how long inspecting must take, not on the degrading aspect. 
Kerry gives bellicose speech. UN inspectors disagree that no good evidence left--they say they collected plenty today. 
Syria is a human tragedy of epic proportions, there is no doubt about that. It's very possible that the Assad government has become so unhinged that it is using chemical weapons on the streets of its own cities. It's also possible that the rebels have done this.  Nobody really knows.  It's horrifying on every level. But it is unclear to me how US intervention will makes things better and it's highly likely that it could make things worse. Nobody's made a persuasive argument beyond "we have to do something!" That's not good enough.

And at the very least, considering our documented manipulative and dishonest behavior in the past, trying to usurp the inspection process seems to me to be a very, very bad decision. The nation is not  in favor of another military intervention at the moment. If they are determined to do this thing with any democratic authority it behooves them to at least prove that Assad is behind this and make a decent case to the American people as to how our intervention will help the situation. Bellicose speeches about a middle east tyrant "gassing his own people" isn't going to cut it. We've seen that movie one too many times and the ending is all too predictable.