How PR Sold the War in the Persian Gulf

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops led by dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the oil-producing nation of Kuwait. Like Noriega in Panama, Hussein had been a US ally for nearly a decade. From 1980 to 1988, he had killed about 150,000 Iranians, in addition to at least 13,000 of his own citizens. Despite complaints from international human rights group, however, the Reagan and Bush administrations had treated Hussein as a valuable ally in the US confrontation with Iran. As late as July 25 – a week before the invasion of Kuwait – US Ambassador April Glaspie commiserated with Hussein over a “cheap and unjust” profile by ABC’s Diane Sawyer, and wished for an “appearance in the media, even for five minutes,” by Hussein that “would help explain Iraq to the American people.”69

Glaspie’s ill-chosen comments may have helped convince the dictator that Washington would look the other way if he “annexed” a neighboring kingdom. The invasion of Kuwait, however, crossed a line that the Bush Administration could not tolerate. This time Hussein’s crime was far more serious than simply gassing to death another brood of Kurdish refugees. This time, oil was at stake.

Viewed in strictly moral terms, Kuwait hardly looked like the sort of country that deserved defending, even from a monster like Hussein. The tiny but super-rich state had been an independent nation for just a quarter century when in 1986 the ruling al-Sabah family tightened its dictatorial grip over the “black gold” fiefdom by disbanding the token National Assembly and firmly establishing all power in the be-jeweled hands of the ruling Emir. Then, as now, Kuwait’s ruling oligarchy brutally suppressed the country’s small democracy movement, intimidated and censored journalists, and hired desperate foreigners to supply most of the nation’s physical labor under conditions of indentured servitude and near-slavery. The wealthy young men of Kuwait’s ruling class were known as spoiled party boys in university cities and national capitals from Cairo to Washington.70

Unlike Grenada and Panama, Iraq had a substantial army that could not be subdued in a mere weekend of fighting. Unlike the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Hussein was too far away from US soil, too rich with oil money, and too experienced in ruling through propaganda and terror to be dislodged through the psychological-warfare techniques of low-intensity conflict. Waging a war to push Iraq’s invading army from Kuwait would cost billions of dollars and require an unprecedented, massive US military mobilization. The American public was notoriously reluctant to send its young into foreign battles on behalf of any cause. Selling war in the Middle East to the American people would not be easy. Bush would need to convince Americans that former ally Saddam Hussein now embodied evil, and that the oil fiefdom of Kuwait was a struggling young democracy. How could the Bush Administration build US support for “liberating” a country so fundamentally opposed to democratic values? How could the war appear noble and necessary rather than a crass grab to save cheap oil?

“If and when a shooting war starts, reporters will begin to wonder why American soldiers are dying for oil-rich sheiks,” warned Hal Steward, a retired army PR official. “The US military had better get cracking to come up with a public relations plan that will supply the answers the public can accept.”71

Steward needn’t have worried. A PR plan was already in place, paid for almost entirely by the “oil-rich sheiks” themselves.

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